Mt. 4:12-23, Is 9:1-4; 1 Cor 1:10-18
By Fr. David Brinton OGS.
How many of you remember singing this in Sunday School?
“I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me! If you follow me, if you follow me, I will make you fishers of men if you follow me!”
It is charming in its old fashioned way, but let’s face it, that gospel imagery raises some questions. Jesus is using their own life experience to describe to the first disciples what their apostleship will look like. But fish are caught in a rather brutal way, en masse, in a net. This could suggest that calling others to faith is about the mass conversion of the unsuspecting, the helpless, the stupid. That is not what the gospel is saying, of course, but often in the history of the church we have tended to treat people that way, as if to say “what we’ve got here is what you need, whether you know it or like it or not”. And sometimes we have had the power to enforce that strategy, sometimes violently.
That is certainly not our situation now, thankfully. But it also feels like no one knows that we even exist. And if they do, the response is often a shrug – “So what?” or “Are you kidding? After what you people have done?” As we struggle to figure out how to cast our nets now, (as the diocese is doing in its new visioning process and as you have done here in your own context of fishing for monastic vocations), can we find help by listening again to how it was for the founders?
The gospel of the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John suggests that as we consider how to catch others we should always remember first how we were caught, or perhaps more accurately how we are still being caught. It is striking that in the first letter to the Corinthians today St. Paul uses the present tense to describe salvation: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Not saved, but being saved. Even those of us who can testify to a specific, radical moment of conversion in the past, are always being asked to enter more deeply into what we have embraced, or, to be consistent, what has embraced us, caught us.
One of the ways to be open to this ongoing conversion and formation might be to find ways of returning to the original simplicity of our response to God’s call, whatever chronological age we were at the time we were first aware of it, to somehow become once again those children marching around that Sunday School hall.
The Pasolini film of the gospel of Matthew captures beautifully the child-like character of the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John, the beauty and the joy and the simplicity of it; the sense that these men have encountered out of nowhere something and someone so irresistible that they can do nothing but drop everything and follow, running along the beach like children on holiday. They have not met him before or heard him preach; they have not reasoned it out yet; analyzed the costs and benefits; they have not been impressed by a moral or political program for the betterment of their own lot and that of the human race. They have been gripped by the sheer beauty of the call and the Caller. It is not something they conjure up from within themselves by some effort of will or imagination: it is an astonishing gift from beyond.
But their response does not come out of thin air, the fishermen were responding to Christ out of a longing, a hope, embedded in the Jewish tradition they were part of, as much a part of their everyday reality as the sand of the beach upon which they ran to join him. As the church spread beyond the Jewish world to the gentiles, it was the conviction of St. Paul and others that the darkness articulated by Isaiah in today’s first reading, and hope for its enlightenment, was characteristic of all people and that from within that universal human longing would come the spark of recognition that Christ is the fulfillment of all human desire. In the militantly secular society we live in our challenge is to find ways of once again helping those with no religious tradition to find ears to hear what we have heard.
Another aspect of the story is its future orientation: the fishermen abandon their boats and leave their nets behind in hope, but they do not know what form this call will take. Jesus in his preaching called the destination the kingdom of heaven. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. He will teach them to pray to the Father “Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the future: the melting away of all that separates us from the love of God. The future, the goal of the call, is God himself.
As we consider today’s gospel as a model for call and conversion, we need to be cautious, though. Margaret Visser in her wonderful book the Geometry of Love reminds us that not every call involves radical change physically or emotionally. We may move into the future, to our destiny in Christ, as the baker or butcher or lawyer or plumber or Religious Sister we have always been; we may travel there much of the time unconsciously, listless or even depressed, certainly not euphoric, or at least not most of the time. The surface may seem the same as it did before our encounter with the love that will not rest until we follow. But underneath there is a deepening, a sense of direction, and of movement which belies the ordinary appearance of our outward lives and transforms us. This work of God deep within us gives meaning and purpose to our daily lives and makes it possible for us to live not only for ourselves but for others. That is the real drama of vocation, not just leaping out of boats.
Today’s gospel ends with Jesus teaching the first disciples how to live hopefully in the present as they await the future fullness of God’s kingdom: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
So the fishermen find out pretty quickly that the journey will be characterized by helping others to encounter the irresistible beauty of the call and Caller. It will involve teaching, giving a rational account of our hope, and it will involve service to others, without discrimination, for all are called to this destiny we share.
As we move towards the kingdom, towards God, there will be failures, personal and institutional, and these are hard to bear. But it is especially in those moments that we must remind ourselves that the Christian faith and the life of the church originates in failure, the failure that took place on Calvary, the foolishness of the cross. And so, even in the midst of our present failures, we are assured that the catch will nevertheless be unimaginably abundant, and that it will be so because of the breadth and strength of the net, which is not our own effort, but the unimaginable mercy of God, the divine Fisher of us all.