Follow me, and I will make you Fishers of people

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, January 26, 2014 - 9:30am

 

 

A family friend once went to live among fishermen on the North East coast for a year, and wrote about his experiences in a book called The Last of the Hunters. It’s a wonderfully evocative title, because it reminds us that, whilst on land human beings have for the most part domesticated the livestock we need to eat, at sea we are still forced to pursue and catch our prey if we want fish to put on our table.

 

Growing up on the North East coast meant that the folklore of the North Sea fisher-folk was always in the background. Whether that meant learning the heroic story of Grace Darling at School, or being taken for tours around the old 19th century Lifeboat watchouse, or hearing the fishing songs that are so much a part of the folk-music in that region, one was left in no doubt that it was a dangerous and precarious life in which generations of men put themselves at sometimes severe risk from wind and waves to bring home a catch which may or may not have been there to be caught.

 

Perhaps as a consequence of this, I had never really stopped to give much consideration to the fish themselves- they were, to my mind, food, a commodity like barley or beef. It therefore came as a shock when later in life, I took up fly fishing and caught my first trout. My instructor handed me a small lead-weighted truncheon.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

He smiled ‘It’s a priest,’ he said ‘for killing the fish.’

 

I don’t know why it had never occurred to me that I would have to issue the coup-de-grace, or rather why I had never really thought about it beyond the pure mechanics of it, but as I battered in the brains of what must have been the most gullible trout in the river, I admit that I felt a small pang, which was soon obliterated by capers and a white-wine sauce.

 

Nevertheless, I did feel somewhat affronted that the lead bludgeon should be called a ‘priest’. The gillie suggested it was connected to administering Last Rites, but, as I pointed out, this is typically an altogether gentler process. However, it set me to thinking…

 

Through the season of Epiphany we have touched more than once on the subject of Baptism, and our watery theme this week calls it once again to mind. We frequently talk about the waters of baptism as representing a cleansing of sin, or symbolising the Israelites passage through the Red Sea, or marking a new birth, but rarely do we dwell on the fact that it also symbolises a death: The death of what St Paul called the ‘old man’, as opposed to the ‘new man’, which is to say the life which we leave behind when we are baptised into the new life of Christ. In a way, baptism is a kind of ritual drowning- as we die with Christ, we are united with him in his resurrection.

 

If we consider this, we can see how profoundly our baptism marked a new beginning, because we left behind everything that was mortal and subject to the change and decay of this present world. And yet…

 

And yet for a time we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. To dwell in this uncomfortable space where we no longer, or have never belonged. To be a disciple of Christ is to be counter-cultural; swimming against the tide- is to be a fish out of water.

 

So it is that Jesus calls these fishermen away from their nets. In the midst of their work he invites them to follow a new life not unrelated to the old. They were fishermen, now they are to fish for something new, they are to fish for people. Implicit here is the idea that Christian discipleship has something in common with the fishing they leave behind. And on reflection, perhaps it does.

 

Just as the parable of the sower describes how the Word of God is sown like seed into a field, and only some of it will escape the birds and briars, likewise, the fisher of souls will spend his or her life casting nets and lines from the ship of the church in the faithful hope that somewhere there is something to be caught.

 

This is not a straightforward occupation. It is full of risk and fraught with frustration and disappointment, but nevertheless it is the vocation that we all share. Like the fishing families of the North East coast, the Church is a family concern. Somewhere, at some time in our lives we heard the Word God. Someone, by word or action, inspired us enough to bring us to this place Sunday by Sunday. Somebody spoke compellingly enough about the love of Christ to capture our imagination and make us want to know Jesus better. Somebody took the risk of standing out from the rest and invited us to step out of the world, and into the kingdom of God.

Now it is our turn. We must ask ourselves, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, what we are prepared to sacrifice, what we are prepared to leave behind for the sake of following Jesus Christ.

 

It is not easy, and it is not safe, but it is the existence that we were made for. Fish belong in the sea. When they are caught and dragged to the surface it marks a very definite end to their contented existence. But human beings, we do not belong amid the deadly chaotic waters of this life. When we are dragged up from the darkness into the light and the air, it is a rescue. It is our salvation. Jesus is calling us to lead authentic lives of self-empting love, and humble service. Lives rich in the grace and mercy of God, reflecting and sharing the Joy God takes in his creation, and to share that love and that Joy with others.

 

Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you Fishers of people.