July 4, 2010

1 Pet. 3.8; Luke 5 1- 11 (BCP lectionary Trinity 5 HC)

One of the great writers of the early church, called Tertullian, referred to the newly baptised as ‘little fishes’ who follow the Fish (with a capital F) our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel reading today tells how Simon and Andrew and their neighbours, James and John,  were called by Christ to help him ‘fish for people’. So, I thought we might spend a few moments thinking about fishing, and what that might tell us about the different ways Jesus might be calling us to fish with him, that is, to draw people into believing and trusting in him.

Now, I’m not a person whose ever done a lot of fishing. I do come from a long line of fishermen. My ancestors worked on fishing smacks in the waters around the Isle of Thanet in Kent, and my great-grandfather was lost at sea in October 1914 – the victim of the a German mine, or the Goodwin Sands, or just a freak storm. We will never know. The most I’ve ever done is to fish around in the rock pools at the seaside, or to catch sticklebacks in jam jars in the local streams. And I almost always tip whatever I catch back into the water. And I suspect that is the level of expertise at ‘fishing for people’ that most ordinary Christians would claim for themselves.

Most commercial fishing nowadays is carried out by vast trawlers, with nets many miles wide, and backed up by factory ships which process the fish before it ever gets to port. The Christian equivalent of fishing in that way might be the nationwide campaigns, like Billy Graham’s in the 50’s which brought many people into the church, or Alpha, backed up by lots of money and media expertise; or evangelism through television, radio or the internet. Not many of us here are likely to be involved in that sort of ‘fishing for people’, but it may be that some people here have skills and talents which could be used in ‘catching people for Christ’ using these methods.

In former times, fishing with nets involved smaller groups of people, working in a co-operative way. We know about this sort of fishing from the Bible, from the stories in the gospels of Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, letting down their nets and bringing their catch to shore. Often, it seems to have been most successful when there was someone on the shore who could spot the shoal of fish, and direct the fishermen where to drop the net for best effect.

Local churches engage in this sort of ‘fishing for people’ when they put on events or services for particular groups of people, for children or teenagers, for the bereaved, for those who are attracted by a different sort of spirituality, like Taize services. Such services require thought and careful planning, and co-operation between many people, to target groups of people in the right way. All of us, as part of the fishing team in our own congregation, have our part to play in contributing to the success of this kind of ‘fishing for people’.

But most of the fishing that we see around here – along the banks of the canal, or in the local reservoirs for instance, is done by people working alone- one person, catching one fish at a time. There are various levels of expertise at this, from the fly fishers, where the design of the fly, the design of the equipment and cast of the line is all important – to the weekend fisherman, who goes off to sit by the canal with a box of maggots.

But we can all engage in this sort of one to one ‘fishing for people’ in the ponds and rivers we know best – the places where we live and work and spend our leisure time.

It is important that everyone is prepared to do this,  because this is the sort of ‘fishing for people’ that all the research shows is the most effective nowadays – the personal contact, the loving patient concern for people at significant times in their lives, the gentle drawing in of  ‘little fishes’ after the first contact has been made; living the pattern of life that our epistle reading urges us to follow.  I hope that all of us are prepared to engage in this sort of fishing for Christ whenever the opportunity arises. Some ‘fish’ will need more expert and skilled fishing, where there are particular problems or intellectual doubts to be addressed; but some will be like my sticklebacks, and even the smallest and least expert Christian fisherfolk will be able to draw those into Christ’s net.

But most a lot of the fish we eat nowadays is not caught at sea, or by individual fishermen, but is raised in comfortable conditions on a fish farm. And that is the way that Christ the fisherman raises his ‘little fish’, keeping them safe within the pens of his fishery, and feeding them with his own self in this meal of Holy Communion, until they are large and strong enough to cope with the rough conditions of the open sea. And as ‘fishers for people’, many of us will be involved in this process of caring for the ‘little fish’ too, as we participate in programmes of Christian nurture, like Alpha or Emmaus, or assist in Sunday School.

And what about bait? Real life fisherfolk use many different kinds – but Christians have just one kind.

Many of you will know that the early Christians used the sign of the fish as a secret sign, to identify believers to each other. It is thought this was because the word for a fish in the Greek language they spoke  – ICTHYUS – spelt out the beliefs they had about Jesus.

I or J – Jesus
C – Christ
Th = Theou = God’s
U= ‘Uios = son
S = Soter = Saviour.

So ‘Icthyus’ said to them
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour – the Gospel in a nutshell. That is our bait.

Whenever we say the Creed, we  proclaim our belief in this Gospel, and affirm that we believe and trust in Jesus Christ who took our human nature, died for us and rose again for our salvation.  For all of us who are called to ‘fish for people’, Christ is both the chief Fisherman, the bait we use to attract other ‘little fish’, and the Fish who feeds us with himself.