Some of you may remember a few months ago, I was sharing with you the symbols of all of the world's major faith traditions. And if you remember, they all had to do something with either light, or oneness. So there is the Star of David of Judaism. There is the Islamic symbol of the star and the crescent moon. There is the Buddhist wheel, the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol, and the Hindu Om, symbolizing the Light and Sound of the cosmos. All such beautiful symbols. Then there is our symbol of the Christian cross, which truth be told, is an ancient torture device.
What a strange symbol for faith! But as I shared, I have come to really love the symbol of the cross, because Jesus transformed that symbol of death, into a symbol of resurrection and new life. For me, I've come to understand the cross as the place where our human-ness, our humanity, the horizontal line, our earthly self, meets our divinity, our spiritual self, the vertical line, and where they meet, we are transformed and become one.
Now, as much as I love the symbol of the cross, I think it's important for us to understand this was not the symbol of the early Christians, the cross didn't become the symbol of Christianity until centuries after Jesus died. The symbol for those early Christians, the first followers of Jesus, was the fish.
Now, why the fish? Well, to be a Christian, in the years after Jesus's death was very dangerous. Because those first followers of Jesus, they were doing as he did, they continued to lead this CounterCultural Movement of inclusive love and justice. And that made them a threat to the powerful people of their day. Just as they silenced Jesus, those powers wanted to silence his followers.
And as we know, many of those early Christians were arrested and persecuted, and many of them were killed, just as Jesus was.
And so the early Christians needed to come up with some coded way of communicating with one another, to know who was safe and who wasn't safe. And so they used that symbol of the fish, it would be above the doorways of safe meeting places. And sometimes when you would encounter someone on the road, someone would draw the first arch of the fish in the sand and wait for someone else to draw the second arch. So they knew who was safe – kind of like a secret handshake, if you will, it helps to identify Friend or foe.
Now why did they use the fish? Well, as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, Jesus spoke often of fish. We know that in one of his most famous stories, He multiplied the fish. And if you remember, after Jesus died, he appeared to two of his disciples on the road, and he shared a meal of fish with them. And then of course, there's today's Gospel reading, one of the most famous in which Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and says, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men.”
Although this is one of Jesus's most famous lines, I also believe it is one of the most misunderstood. And that misunderstanding has caused so much harm in our world. Many people understand that line to mean, ‘Go out and catch people for me, and convert them to Christianity.’
That's not what it means.
First of all, think about what fishermen do. They take a hook, and they put bait on it, bait to entice the fish. Then they drop it into the fish's natural environment and they pull it out of its natural environment.
Many Christian missionaries, over the years have practiced that form of fishing. They've gone into foreign lands where people already have beautiful faith traditions. And on the hook, they've enticed them, with building schools and hospitals for them. But there's a catch – they must accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.
I don't believe Jesus wanted us to convert people to Christianity. And you know why? Jesus wasn't a Christian. Jesus was Jewish. He loved being Jewish. He was a devout Jew. He practiced all of the Jewish traditions. If you want to convert people, to the religion of Jesus, then convert them to Judaism.
Jesus did not want us to start a new religion in his name. And he certainly did not want our worship and praise. Jesus wanted us to follow him. Which means “Go and do as I did. Follow my way of life. Follow my way of living, and loving and forgiving and being. Go out and serve people unconditionally love people unconditionally, without any expectation of return.’
That my friends is how we evangelize. The word evangelize means – it's comes from a Greek word – to spread the good news. And that is what we're being called to do, to spread the good news. But this is how we do it.
Madeline L'Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, has what I think is the most perfect quote about evangelism that I've ever heard. She said, “We draw people to Christ, not by telling them how wrong they are, and how right we are. But rather, we show them a light that is so lovely, that they want with all of their hearts, to know the source of it.”
Perfect. That's what we're called to do. To go out in the world and show people a light that's so lovely, they want they want to know the source of it.
Now, why “fisher of men”? Why did Jesus use that term, then? Well, one of our UCC pastors, the Reverend Carrie Nicewander, she said, “Maybe the reason Jesus said that to Simon and Andrew, is because they were fishermen. Maybe, she says, if they were carpenters, he would have said, ‘Come follow me. And I will make you builders of the kingdom.’ Or if they were physicians, he would have said ‘Come follow me, and I will make you healers of the world.’ In other words, God is calling us where we are, to use the gifts we've been given to serve the world in a way that fits who we are.
When Jesus called the first apostles, when he was getting his team together, he didn't go to rabbinical schools. He didn't say ‘I'm going to pick the brightest people, the scholars. I want the rabbinical scholars, I want the greatest orators.’ He called regular, ordinary people, people who weren't educated. He called them.
So, all of us are being called. All of you are called to be lights for the world, prophets to the nations, to use your gifts in service of the kingdom, of building this just world for all people.
Notice what happens with Simon and Andrew. When Jesus calls them they leave everything behind, and they follow Jesus, they just drop everything and follow Him. And the same is true for us. When you truly begin to follow in the way of Jesus, meaning loving as he loved people forgiving as he forgave. Serving as he served unconditionally. You begin to leave behind old ways of thinking, old ways of being. It's not that you're becoming someone else. It's that you're becoming more and more of who God created you to be.
And so that's what I want to invite you to do this week. I want you to go fishing. I want you to find time to just be still out in the boat, if you will with God, just you and God. And I want you to cast your net deep within you. That's where Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is, God's dwelling place. Cast your net deep within you and take in all of God's abundance, the peace, love and joy of God that is within you. And then go forth, out into the world, far and wide. Use your gifts to shine your light in service of God. For all of us have been called to be lights of the world. May you shine your light for all of the world to see.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Ed Townley
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’” (Matthew 4:18-19).
What exactly did Jesus mean when he said, “I will make you fishers of men”? I have this picture in my mind of a net full of kicking and wriggling people who quite clearly have been caught. Was Jesus suggesting we grab people against their will, render them powerless, remove them from their natural environment, and do with them what we will? Clearly not. (Not that some well-meaning missionaries haven’t tried similar tactics in the history of Christianity). Fish were a spiritually important symbol in the ministry of Jesus. Metaphysically, they represent divine ideas—expressions of creative possibility—existing within the vast ‘waters’ of Divine Mind. Among the many times Jesus uses fish to communicate a spiritual idea is this brief parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad” (Matthew 13:47-48). Jesus is describing, I think, a process of spiritual discernment. We must find within ourselves the ideas that are worthy of being a part of the new consciousness that is ‘the kingdom of heaven’ and toss other ideas back into the realm of Divine Mind so they can continue to grow in size and strength. They, too, will eventually become kingdom-worthy ideas, since everything is of God and nothing is ever wasted. So I hear Jesus calling the fishermen—and, by extension, you and me—to become agents of discernment, helping to sort out in collective consciousness those people, thoughts, and choices that are ready to hear and express the kingdom, so that the spiritual process that is our human purpose can continue more efficiently.
What did you think?