Now it came to pass that a group existed who called themselves fishers. And lo, there were many fish in the waters all around. In fact, the whole area was surrounded by streams and lakes and seas filled with fish. And the fish were hungry.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, those who called themselves fishers met in meetings and talked about their call to go fishing. Continually they searched for new and better definitions of fishing. They sponsored costly nationwide and worldwide congresses to discuss fishing and learn about new fishing equipment, fish calls and new bait and lures.
These fishers built large and beautiful buildings called “fishing headquarters.” The plea was that everyone should be a fisher and every fisher should fish. One thing they did not do, however: they did not fish. All fishers seemed to agree that what was needed was a board to challenge fishers to be faithful to fishing. The board was formed of those who had the greatest vision and courage to speak about fishing, to define fishing and to promote the idea of fishing in faraway streams and lakes where many fish of different colors lived.
Large, elaborate and expensive training centers were built whose purpose it was to teach fishers how to fish. Those who taught had doctorates in fishology. They did not fish; they only taught fishing. Some spend much study and travel to learn the history of fishing and to see faraway places where the founders did great fishing in centuries past. They lauded the faithful fishers of years before who handed down the idea of fishing. Many who felt the call to be fishers responded. They were commissioned and sent off to fish. They even went off to foreign lands to teach fishing.
Now it is true that many of the fishers sacrificed and put up with all kinds of difficulties. Some lived near the water and bore the smell of dead fish every day. Some received ridicule by those who made fun of their fishing clubs. Many anguished over those who were not committed to attend weekly meetings to talk about fishing. Imagine how hurt many were when it was suggested that those who don’t catch fish are not really fishers no matter how much they claimed to be. Yet is a person a fisher who never catches fish?
I apologize for this overlong story. Of course it is an allegory about the state of the Christian Church, about being faithful fishers of people not of fish. Today’s Gospel is the Great Commission, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 WEB). The context is Jesus’ farewell to his followers. The eleven disciples were directed to Galilee, to a mountain where they saw Jesus and worshipped him. There is a little theology here. There are only eleven disciples and they represent the church. It is not a perfect church; twelve is the number of completion, perfection—the church on this earth is never perfect.
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Galilee is the setting of Jesus’ ministry and these disciples are being called to their ministry. They go to the mountaintop—God always seems to pick mountains, Mt. Moriah, My Sinai, Mt Nebo, the Mount of the Transfiguration, the setting for the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Olives, and now here where Jesus gives his final charge to his followers. The eleven disciples see Jesus on this mountaintop. What do they do? They fall down and worship him.
Only after the resurrection is Jesus worshipped not as a God beside the God of Israel, but because the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has drawn near in Jesus. To worship Jesus is to worship the one, true God. The earliest Christian prayer was to Jesus, “Maranatha,” Our Lord come. “Come, Lord Jesus.” Those who see Jesus, worship Jesus, yet this is not a perfect church and these disciples are not perfect people. The text says, “But some doubted.” Welcome to our church! We worship the Lord and want to follow Jesus’ commands, but we have our doubts too. Why should we be any different from Peter, James and John and all the rest! From the very beginning, the Christian Church is made up of imperfect people full of faith and doubt.
In our Gospel text, the “who” of Jesus is clearly revealed: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Authority is one of Matthew’s favorite words. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God. Jesus of Nazareth who taught and healed, who suffered and died and rose again, this same Jesus has heavenly authority, all authority. There are no powers or principalities, nothing beyond this world that has power over him. Who is Jesus? Jesus has all authority on earth—no earthly powers, economic or political, social or intellectual, can overcome Jesus. And this Jesus loves us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Some have looked at our text and said the key word is “all.” All authority. All nations. All things I have commanded. This is an exclusive Jesus who does not share authority with anyone else. We are reminded of a God who says, “You shall have no other gods before me, …for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3, 5 WEB). The text us who the commander is before the commands are given—Jesus, the Son of God, the power of God, who died and rose again for us, who reveals clearly that the Almighty is a God of love.
We have a hard time with Jesus’ truth claim. It is easier for us to want to replace “all” who “some” or to privatize the message and say, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life ” for me rather than for all. A good friend of mine, a professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, was recently asked to officiate at the wedding of his nephew in Madison, Wisconsin. The whole family is Lutheran, many clergy, men and women faithful to Christ and the Church, but the nephew married a Muslim woman from Turkey. She is non-practicing, I believe. The wedding was held in the Wisconsin state capitol rotunda not in a Lutheran Church. There was no mention of Christ, no Christian symbols, a purely secular ceremony. It was difficult for the uncle and aunt, parents and friends. No mention of Jesus. No Jesus.
Garrison Keillor told a story on “Prairie Home Companion” how Olive Olson moved to the West Coast, changed her last name from Olson to Medora and left the Lutheran Church to become Unitarian. When she died, she was to be buried back in Minnesota, so the church people opened a grave at the cemetery. They were expecting a coffin but got a ceramic urn. They did not know what to do with it. They hired a Unitarian minister who did not say anything about the resurrection or eternal life but the gist of the message was “Live in the Moment.” We can laugh about Unitarians going back to Minnesota from the West Coast but it is really not so funny. Popular psychology or spirituality or eclectic experience seems to trump Jesus Christ and the Gospel every time. I remember when my mother-in-law, a pastor’s wife, would not allow “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere,” to be sung at a funeral. Now that is all people seem to hope for—maybe a pretty something or other—no resurrection to everlasting life, no Jesus, no Gospel, no discipling community.
Jesus gives the command, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 WEB). Because Jesus has power and authority, Jesus sends us out. Jesus does not use the second person singular but plural. The great commission is not to individuals but to the community of the faithful who are commanded to make new members of the community. Do you notice that Jesus does not send us out to “preach” or “convert” or “call to repentance?” To make disciples is something similar in meaning to educate or to tutor. It pictures students sitting at the feet of the teacher. We bring people into a community by baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We are not a society of like-minded individuals, spiritual vagabonds or seekers or hopers or a heritage group of those with the same blood-lines. We have our doubts always but we also have our faith. We worship. We do not have all the answers but we have Jesus. It is enough to have Jesus.
And then we are given a promise: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 WEB). All Jesus’ power in heaven and earth will bless and keep you. Nothing will come between God’s love and you. We are encouraged to go therefore, baptizing, teaching, adding to the community that sits at Jesus’ feet. We do not just talk about fish, but fish. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.