At this time of the year, some Missouri fisherfolk exchange a greeting that reveals a frustration known only to fishing addicts who are overdue for a fix: “Let’s go fishing!” We live in an area that doesn’t lend itself readily to ice fishing, so the invitation is only a way of offering comfort and consolation. In January, TV networks start telecasting the fishing fortunes and adventures of several professionals. While this offers a good way to spend a few hours indoors and “hole-up” from the weather, it only tickles an itch that eventually must be scratched.
Someone has said that the difference between genuine fisherfolk and folks who just fish is that the former catch something. Don’t kid yourself! That is the difference between those who are good at it and those who aren’t. Genuine fisherfolk keep at it even when they aren’t catching and they will endure the most unbelievable hardships in the process. I have been ice fishing in Colorado and trout fishing in Missouri when I had to keep dipping my rod into the water to remove ice from the eyelets so the line would pass through. I have fished for hours in the rain and been blistered by the sun. As I write this I wonder why, but when I’m fishing it somehow makes sense.
One spring, I saw a young man standing in a trout stream, without benefit of waders. The water came only to his knees, but the numbness had to go clear to his neck. He was wearing a heavy jacket, but shivering violently. He persevered until he finally filled his limit. That is dedication bordering on insanity.
I am not surprised that Jesus chose fishermen for His first four disciples. According to Matthew, Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee and saw Peter and Andrew fishing. He said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” A little farther down the line, He saw two more, James and John, and He called them also. All four dropped everything and went with Him. Of these, three became His closest and apparently most committed associates.
Herbert Hoover, perhaps the most avid angler of all our presidents, said that the surest way to get to know a person was to take him fishing. If a person has any rascally traits, they are sure to surface on a fishing trip. Conversely, a person’s qualities also come forth while fishing. Jesus evidently observed something basically solid in these four fishermen, something He knew could be molded into good, and He netted them for the Kingdom of God.
He made it clear at the outset that He was reeling in disciples who would be reeling in others. Making disciples who make disciples is what His Church has always been about. Sometimes the fishing has been good. Sometimes it has been terrible. Like the original disciples, the Church has sometimes labored all through the night and caught nothing. Then, following the Lord’s command, the nets have been filled to the breaking point.
My father once told a fascinating tale about a fishing trip on the Gulf of Mexico. I first heard it on a Christmas Eve when our windchill factor was 50-something-below. A Florida story was a way to think warm thoughts! My Dad and a friend went to a favorite spot and anchored their boat near an old pier. They usually caught fish there by casting under the pier. This time, that method was not fruitful.
After fishing unsuccessfully a long time, Pappy’s friend dropped a baited line directly off the back of the boat. Almost immediately, he had a bite, but was so surprised he missed the catch. A second try proved successful. They both continued this unusual technique for the next couple of hours and landed a fine mess of fish. The pictures can make the average fisher-person “green around the gills” with envy. His story had the ring of a similar tale about Jesus telling His disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.
Fishing for people has similarities to any fishing. If you present the right bait (food), in the right way, at the right time and in the right place, you get results. The food to fill humanity’s need is the Gospel. Offering a false bait to lure the target is unproductive or results in false disciples. Those who promise that God will shower health and wealth on all who join His team only net soon-to-be disappointed hypocrites – – not disciples. Consequently, if we are to follow the Lord’s command to be fishers of folks, we must concentrate on the best manner, time and place to present the Gospel.
It is fascinating that the number one priority and goal of the Church is contained in Matthew’s Gospel in both these first words to His disciples and His last words to them. I wonder if the fellow who first coined the words, “Fish, cut bait or jump overboard!,” was an ordinary fisherman or a dedicated churchman. I think every Christian should try to see his or her task, role or responsibility in the Church in the light of the number one priority of making disciples. When Jesus approached Peter and Andrew, they were casting their net. James and John were mending theirs. Whether we are baiting, casting, reeling in or tending to the tackle, we are all in the same boat for the same purpose.
The disciples’ experience the day that Jesus told them to drop their nets on the other side of the boat gave them an insight into Jesus’ divinity. It could have also given them an insight into His surprising way of filling the nets of the kingdom. The Gospel intrudes on the religious thinking of human beings. No human religion could imagine a God who would allow His own creatures to mistreat Him and even execute Him like a common criminal. Everybody knows that fish are food for the fisherman, not vice-versa. God’s grace always amazes and surprises. I have heard more than one sermon that marveled at how the disciples left everything to follow Jesus. The mind-blower as far as I’m concerned is what Jesus left to come to us and what happened when He did!
When we contemplate God’s omnipotence, we tend to say that God needs nothing and no one — He can do anything. In one sense that isn’t true. To accomplish His goal of making all people His disciples, He has chosen to use (needs) us! The scholastics would love the question, “Can God make a Stradivarius?” Depending on what is meant by the question, the answer is a simple “Yes” or a simple “No.” God did make a Stradivarius — He made Antonio Stradivari, the craftsman whose name became one with his craft. But if God created one of those violins on His own, His honesty would require that He sign it “God,” not “Antonio Stradivari.”
In a wonderful poem by George Eliot, a painter belittles the work of Stradivari because the violin-maker could not play at all. He could only perform the dull and humble job of a mere artisan. Stradivari answers:
When any master holds
‘Twixt hand and chin a violin of mine,
He will be glad that Stradivari lived,
Made violins, and made them best of all. . . .
While God gives them skill,
I give them violins to play upon,
God choosing me to help Him. . . .
If my hand slacked,
I should rob God, since He is fullest good
Leaving a blank instead of violins. . . .
‘Tis God gives skill,
But not without men’s hands.
He could not make Antonio Stradivari violins
In God’s most important work, His mission, we are His mouth and hands, responsible for His bait and tackle — hook, line and sinker!