I have a confession: I’ve never particularly cared for this verse: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.”
No, it’s not the male chauvinism that bothers me. There’s not a politically correct way to translate the word, anthropon. What hooks me – if you’ll pardon the pun – is the idea that making disciples is, somehow, like fishing.
I suppose that’s because I’ve never been a fisherman – or a hunter, for that matter. So, when I hear the words, “fishers of men,” I think of gory stuff. For example, have you ever seen the little lapel pins men sometimes wear to denote that they’re followers of Jesus Christ? They’re made of 14-karet gold in the shape of a small fishing hook with barbs. I don’t know about you, but when I see someone with a hook on his lapel, I keep my distance.
Of course, Peter and Andrew were fishing with a cast nets when Jesus walked by, not rods and reels. I’m still put off by the image. The idea of trapping fish seems coercive and contrary to the nature of God in Christ.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,
for I am gentle and lowly in heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This sounds more like the Jesus I know – One who invites us into his fellowship, but gives us the option to say no. Once fish are caught in the net, they don’t have much choice.
So, I find this verse unsettling, at least the latter part of it. Perhaps you do, too. So, I’m going to narrow the focus of the sermon today to the first two words: “Come after me.” For in these two words we find the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; and, so as not to leave you hanging, what I’m talking about is letting go of the claims others have on you in order to give your full allegiance to Jesus Christ. That’s the sermon in a nutshell.
Or, to put it this way: Jesus calls us from casting to casting aside – putting whatever occupation, or vocation, or role in life we’ve chosen in a subordinate position, so that our first priority is to fulfill the destiny God has planned for us before the beginning of time.
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Let’s take it from the top. The text begins with the arrest of John the Baptist:
“Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up,
he withdrew into Galilee.” (Matthew 4:12)
Was there a connection here? Of course there was! We were told up front that John was the herald chosen to announce the coming of the Messiah:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
make ready the way of the Lord.” (Matthew 3:3)
According to 4th Gospel, when John saw Jesus coming he announced for all to hear:
“Behold, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
John’s arrest signaled the start of Jesus’ ministry. The old order was coming to an end; a New Creation was beginning to dawn. So, Jesus went back to his stomping grounds in Galilee to proclaim the kingdom of God and invite all who would to turn from their old way of life and be a part of it. Matthew says,
“From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, ‘Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'” (Matthew 4:17)
He went back to Galilee, but he settled in Capernaum, and that’s significant because it sets the stage for what’s to come.
The way Luke tells the story, Jesus first went back to Nazareth, his home town. He preached his first sermon in the synagogue there. But the elders rejected him. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” they grumbled. They were so offended by what he had to say that they took him out to a high cliff with every intention of throwing him to his death. Somehow, he escaped. He walked away and went to Capernaum, about twenty miles away on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Luke 4:14-31) This squares with what Jesus said in Mark’s gospel:
“A prophet is not without honor,
except in his own country,
and among his own relatives,
and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4)
Some of you may remember this was a concern I had in moving back to Hope. Is it possible to go back home? Will people respect you for who you are, or for who they remember you being as a kid? I shared this with some of you, and I’ll never forget what one of you said: “Not to burst your bubble, but I didn’t know you back then!” Ouch! My fame wasn’t as widespread as I thought! It was a humbling word to hear, but I needed to hear it because it cleared the way for me to put this concern to rest and make the move.
Jesus didn’t get the same reception. The elders wanted to keep him in his place. So he went to Capernaum. He left his family and friends and former occupation in order to embrace God’s claim on his life. Never again would he work as a carpenter. Never again would his world be limited to the little enclave of Jews living in Nazareth. In the opening words of his first sermon,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Here’s another pun for you: He went to Capernaum because he had bigger fish to fry!
Capernaum was a good choice. It was strategically located on a crossroad connecting the two major trade routes between Egypt and Syria. Then, as now, news travels fast along the super highways. Whatever Jesus said and did in Capernaum was quick to be heard far and near.
It was also on the border of the Decapolis, a large Roman area just east of Palestine. While Nazareth was secluded and remote and insulated from the outside world, Capernaum was cosmopolitan and bustling and in the thick of things. People from other lands and from every walk of life poured through Capernaum every day on their way north and south.
And something else: The synagogue in Capernaum followed the teachings of Rabbi Hillel. In Nazareth, they followed the teachings of Rabbi Shammai. The difference was like night and day. Rabbi Shammai was ultra-orthodox and conservative. Rabbi Hillel was progressive and liberal, by comparison. So that, when Jesus spoke to the elders in Nazareth, it almost got him killed. When he spoke in Capernaum, Mark says,
“They (the elders) were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as having authority,
and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)
Capernaum was where Jesus needed to be in order to fulfill God’s plan for his life. And so, he left Nazareth and headed north, and when he got there he called his disciples – not only Simon and Andrew, but James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas; James, the son of Alphaeus; Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and, of course, Judas Iscariot. (Mark 3:17-19)
He called each in much the same way: “Come after me.” That is, leave the old behind. Come, be a part of God’s New Creation.
For Simon and Andrew, it meant leaving the boats and nets and the only livelihood they’d ever known. For James and John, it also meant leaving their father. For Matthew, it meant leaving a lucrative trade as a tax collector.
You get the picture: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is not to add another bullet to your résumé; it’s to throw your old résumé away and claim, as your only credential, your relationship to Jesus Christ.
• To the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus said, “Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor…(then) Come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
• To another, who first wanted to bury his father, Jesus said, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:22)
• To all who would listen, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Now, I don’t necessarily believe that Jesus intends for you to up and quit your job or turn your back on your family. But I do believe he wants you to get your priorities straight and limit the influence others have on your life.
For example, there was a time in Jesus’ ministry when the people thought he’d gone over the edge. “He is insane,” they said. (Mark 3:21) So, those closest to him sent for his mother and brothers to come to Capernaum and take him home.
He was teaching in a house when they got there. The room was packed and they couldn’t get in. So, they sent word, “Behold, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside looking for you.” When Jesus got word, he said for all to hear,
“‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’
Looking around at those who sat around him,
he said, ‘Behold, my mother and my brothers!
For whoever does the will of God,
the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.'” (Mark 3:33-35)
Now, he didn’t say his mother and brothers were no longer family; what he said was that they were no longer the dominant force of his life. He would continue to love them and honor them, but when it came to the major decisions of his life, he would give his ultimate allegiance to God alone.
This is what James and John did when they left their father, Zebedee, to run the business on his own. And it makes me wonder how he felt about their walking away. I mean, do you think he screamed and shouted in protest? Or sat down in the boat and cried? Or do you think he did cartwheels and told his friends, “Well, it’s about time they grew up and got a life of their own!”?
I know this: Letting go is a healthy thing to do, even if it means shedding a few tears in the process. Unless parents are willing to let go, they’ll never experience the satisfaction of seeing their children reach their potential; and unless the children are willing to cut the apron strings and let go of their parents, they’ll never grow up to become the unique individuals God created them to be. Letting go is part of the plan.
So is limiting the scope of your vocation. How did we ever get suckered into thinking that our identity is synonymous with what we do for a living? Vocation is a means to an end. It’s about far more than making money, or making a name for yourself. Vocation is about listening for God’s call and fulfilling God’s will for your life.
Repeat after me: I am a child of God. God loves me and calls me his own. What I do, however important it may seem at the moment, is secondary to the God I serve. I will not let my vocation stand in the way of my relationship to God and God’s prior claim on my life.
Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, what we’re talking about is going from casting to casting aside, letting go of whatever – or whomever – has first priority on your time, your talent and your treasures and letting God lead you in the way he would have you to go.
No one knew this better than Martin Luther. He was a parish priest and theologian living in 16th Century Germany. The church had lost its moorings and he knew it. He summarized his complaints in a list of ninety-five theses and posted them on the door of the church for public debate. It sparked a firestorm among church leaders going all the way up to the Pope himself.
He was brought before a high counsel – the Diet of Worms – where he was told to retract his criticism and recant his position, or else. Luther stood before the bishops and cardinals in all their regalia and said humbly, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Christ and Christ alone was the Lord of his life.
To this day, we sing one of the greatest hymns ever written. It’s a living legacy of his faithful witness:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing …
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.” (Martin Luther)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.