I suspect that many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief this past week as the most powerful office on the planet changed hands. I know that I am feeling lighter and breathing easier. I know full well that we are headed into the darkest winter of our lives. COVID is not over. Millions are suffering. Fears and anxieties continue to disturb us, and we have a long way to go. But at least we no longer have to worry about the orange madness which stirred up the worst of who we are, in ways we never imagined possible. Huddled in the isolation of our homes, many of us watched the transfer of power feeling a new sense of hope.
There was a moment during Joe Biden’s inaugural address which filled this preacher with such joy. After all, it isn’t every day you hear the most powerful person of the 21st century, quote a 4th century Doctor of the Church. St. Augustine of Hippo was a bishop and theologian who has and continues to a tremendous impact on Christianity both Catholics and Protestants. Martin Luther himself was an Augustinian. So, when the newly sworn in President Biden quoted Saint Augustine as having said, “a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love, defined by the common objects of their love,” not only did I breathe a huge sigh of relief, I took a long deep breath as I resolved to explore the various ways in which those of us who strive to follow Jesus are defined by our LOVE.
According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call “Mark,” upon hearing that John the Baptist had been arrested by the forces of Empire, Jesus of Nazareth “appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God. Jesus said, “This is the time of fulfillment. The Reign of God is at Hand. Change your hearts and minds and believe this Good News.” What follows, (pardon the pun), is the familiar story of Jesus calling the brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John, four hardworking fishers, to abandon their nets in order that they might become fishers of humankind. No sooner than Jesus implored these fishers to follow him, than they followed him. Just like that. What could have possessed them to drop everything and follow Jesus, this itinerant preacher?
For as long as I can remember, this story has been interpreted in ways which exhort the faithful to “follow Jesus and Jesus will make us, in the words of that old Sunday School chestnut: “fishers of men, fishers of men, if we follow him.” I’m sure many of you remember being encouraged to get out there and fish for people and bring them to Jesus. Now, within the context of mainline denominations, these fishing expeditions were designed to bring in new members to save struggling congregations. Within the context of the more conservative denominations, there was to be no doubt that there were fish just waiting to be saved and once saved they would be brought to Jesus to confess that he alone was their Lord and saviour. As for those of us who seek to follow Jesus as progressive christians, well, fishing for people makes tends to make us a little squeamish. So, we do our best to remove any barbs from our fishhooks, and rather than reel them in, we choose to cajole and persuade them, perhaps over a pint of beer, to perhaps chat with us as we save them from the tired old ways of understanding christianity. Whether it’s mainline traditional fishers, bible thumping evangelical fishers, or radical freedom-loving fishers, no matter how you bait the hooks, fishing is all about saving fish from drowning in the very waters upon which they are relying so that they can be washed into the waters by which the fishers themselves have found new life. As I consider the haste with which Simon, Andrew, James and John abandoned everything they knew and “went off in the company of Jesus,” I can’t help but wonder if there is more to this story than fishing for new members, new converts, or new conversation partners.
I don’t know much about fishing. What I do know about fishing, I learned from my Dad, who never ever invited me to go fishing with him without also telling me what kind of fish we would be fishing for. According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller, Jesus makes it clear that they are going fishing not for fish but for “men”. And yes, I do mean men because Jesus was a product of a patriarchal culture speaking to men of a patriarchal culture. Clearly, I need to know more about these fishers of men, if I am to see below the surface of these murky waters.
I know, I know these fishers, fishing and fish metaphors are losing their power to carry us beyond the surface of meaning. But stick with me here. Because when we discover what lies beyond Jesus’ call to become fishers of men, we can begin to see that Jesus was not about to lead these fishers on a quest to save souls, or to convert, or even to make believers of any of the people they or we might be fishing for. You see the phrase “fishing for men” already had a long history for the Jewish people. Biblical historian, Ched Myers suggests that we look back into the Hebrew Scriptures to see how this phrase was used by the Jewish prophets, like Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel. Jesus didn’t just happen upon any fishers. Jesus upon hearing of the arrest by the forces of Empire of John the Baptist, went down to the Sea of Galilee precisely because the Sea of Galilee was in the throes of Roman oppression. Simon, Andrew, James and John were part of a family fishing enterprise which was being squeezed by the taxman. Rome had placed an exorbitant tax upon every fish that was caught in the Sea of Galilee. This once prosperous fishing spot was the target of the Empire’s quest for treasure. The injustice of oppression was felt acutely among the people who made their homes on the shores of Galilee. The forces of Rome exacted a high price from those who did not or could not pay their tribute. Fishers were being forced into servitude or worse yet into slavery.
It is not surprising that Jesus harkened back to the prophets of old who used the metaphor “to catch a fish” as a euphemism for exacting judgement upon the rich. By inviting these oppressed fishers to “fish for men,” Jesus was inviting the persecuted to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege. Jesus went on to insist that “the Reign of God is at hand.”
While Roman oppressors used the power of Empire to persecute the various tribes who fell to Roman military might, Jesus had the audacity to proclaim a new reign, a new empire, was at hand.
In Greek, the “basileia ton theon” the Empire of the DIVINE – the DIVINE MYSTERY who Jesus insists is LOVE – the Reign of LOVE is at hand. Jesus did not invite the persecuted to follow him to fish for souls, or converts, or believers, Jesus invited the persecuted to follow him and learn how to usher in the Reign of LOVE, a kin-dom, in the words of Jon Dominic Cross, a place where “everyone has enough.”
Following Jesus is about learning Jesus Way of overturning the existing order of wealth, power, and privilege. Jesus’ call to follow is as radical as dropping everything for the sake of ushering in the Reign of LOVE, creating the kind of empire where everyone has enough, and doing it all Jesus’ way, not the Roman way of victory through might, but Jesus way of non-violent resistance. To follow Jesus is to join a revolutionary movement to create peace through justice.
I know that right now, it is tempting to simply breathe a sigh of relief and fall back into familiar waters and go with the flow. I for one was tempted by President Biden’s words designed to calm us all down. Sadly, as much as I’d like to be quieted, I am compelled by Jesus’ invitation to catch a fish. So, I must point out that as beautiful as it was, and as much as this preacher enjoyed hearing St. Augustine being quoted by the most powerful person on the planet, the sad reality is that Biden took Augustine’s words out of context. It is true St. Augustine did write: “a people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love, defined by the common objects of their love,” and it would be so very soothing to focus our attention on all that we hold in common. For there are so very many wonderful things which all of us love which bring us together. However, Augustine went farther than the President was willing to say. Augustine was writing about the failures of the Roman Empire when he wrote: “If one should say, ‘a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a people we must examine the objects of its love.” Unlike Biden, Augustine is not pointing to love as a feeling, but rather to the objects of a peoples love.
Dear ones, as weary as we have become of the challenges of these strange times and as tempting as it is for us to breathe a sigh of relief and sing a few bars of “Happy days are here again,” we too must examine the objects of our love, in order to see the nature of who and what we have become.
Are we the fishers or are we the fish? Are we the ones who are willing to sit back and enjoy the benefits of unjust systems of oppression, or are we the fishers, the ones who follow Jesus in the hope that we might learn to usher in the Reign of LOVE?
Let us breathe deeply and take our rest, for lord knows, we need it. Let us be restored so that we can find the courage to abandon the familiar objects we love, as we respond to Jesus’ call to follow a Way of being in the world, which ushers in the Reign of LOVE. “The Reign of LOVE is at hand.” It is right here. Let us abandon our small boats, to follow wherever LOVE may lead us. Let us go in the company of the ONE who IS in the words of St. Augustine our “LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself.” Amen.
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