What does it mean to “fish for people?”…or as older translations put it, to be a “fisher of men?” Saint Peter is told in our gospel today that is his new task now he has encountered Christ.
It’s a tricky image for how we make new disciples of Jesus, because, it’s not an entirely positive one. After all, a fisherman catches a fish on a hook, which is a pretty grizzly death, or he entraps fish in a net, which is no less pretty an end.
There is much in that image that fuels a certain sort of critique made by atheist commentators against religion. Frequently, we are told, those who embrace faith have somehow been entrapped, or ensnared in a web of fanciful stories which might give a bit solace in the immediate term, but which don’t ultimately account for how the universe works.
In its worst form, religion is accused of being mercenary and emotionally manipulative. Once weak-willed people are hooked, they are held in the thrall of the communities they have become part of like creatures in a net, and have their minds filled with dangerous ideas.
It’s important, therefore, to explore this image and to get clear what exactly Jesus means when he tells Peter that his job will be like fishing for people.
The most useful thing we can do is put this image in the context of what we read in the rest of the New Testament about how people become disciples of Jesus. Although there is often a decisive moment when people encounter Christ, and a definite decision to repent and follow him, the processes of discipleship don’t finish there. Yes, there’s a moment of being hooked by Jesus, but that’s just the beginning.
That moment of repentance and decision is often followed by a journey, a journey with Christ. This is particularly the case in Luke’s Gospel, and in Acts, where the Christian Church is referred to as the People of “the Way” – a group of people travelling together through life, in each other’s company, following Jesus on the Way that leads to eternal life.
One of the most useful images for the Christian life, I think, is that of a journey or pilgrimage. A pilgrimage through life, to God. A pilgrimage we make with others in the company of our fellow members of the Body of Christ.
It is those who travel with us who will pick us up in Jesus’ name when we fall; it is with them that we will be nourished and feed on the way by Christ; it is our fellow Christians who will rejoice and mourn with us in life’s ups and down.
So yes, there are moments when like a fish in a lake of despair and confusion, or doubt, people are plucked out by the gospel – moments when they are given a sudden and thrilling new vision of what real life with Christ could be like. Yes, some people need those moments when they are dragged out of their secular assumptions about life, or their need of God, like a fish being dragged ashore in a net. But that is always the beginning of a journey in which we learn to live again in a different way: a way of life which involves putting ourselves last, and others first, with Christ at its centre.
One of the most important ways in which Jesus helps us learn that is through each other. That’s why it’s so important that we meet here week by week. The liturgy we take part in is only one of the ways in which Jesus speaks to us and moulds us into the people he wants us to be.
So the reason it’s good to come to church on a Sunday may be much less about what God wants to give you, and more about what God wants to give someone else through you. It’s through you that he might want to touch someone with his love; through your words that he needs to encourage someone one the verge of despair; through your actions that he wants someone else to feel a little less alone than they did before they met you.
So yes, being fished out of the water by the gospel does mean being plucked out of our old ways and given a new vision of life; but it also means we are dragged into a net with other fish, being hauled ashore in a shoal, to show that salvation is something we experience with others and never on our own.
Fr Peter Anthony