A couple of times a year I follow the example of Jesus and retreat from people to engage in a couple of days of isolation, fasting, prayer and work. My dog usually travels with me on these occasions, and on this particular trip I was accompanied by my golden retriever Suzie, who had a way of looking at me so as to let me know exactly what she was thinking. It was a raw, miserable February morning, gloomy, windy and frigid, so cold that I actually wore gloves as I was trying to type on my computer. Suzie gave me a look that said, “I believe you are the craziest person on earth.” I was just about to agree with her, when I looked out across the small lake adjacent to our campsite, and there I saw a small boat go sailing by, carrying three fishermen dressed like Eskimos. And I mean sailing: the brutal wind was pushing their small craft across the water like it was in a regatta, and the gale was virtually hurling their lures into their faces. I couldn’t help but laugh. I thought to myself, somebody had to get out of bed this bitter February morning and said, ‘Boy, this would be a great day to go fishing! Frigid temperatures! Fierce breezes! And we can catch all the fish we want because nobody else will be out there.’ I looked at my golden retriever and said, “Suzie, you’re wrong. Those fishermen are even crazier than I am.”
That incident always gives me insight into our morning text where Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee as he begins his nascent spiritual movement, and he sees two fishermen, Simon and Andrew. He extends to them this summons: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ ” What an extraordinary invitation! Notice, our Lord did not say, ‘Follow me, and I will make you great scholars.’ He did not say, ‘Follow me, and I will make you servants of humanity.’ He did not say, ‘Follow me, and I will make you devotional and pious.’ Sure, scholarship and service to humanity and devotional piety are vitally important and have their rightful place in the Kingdom of God. But our Lord asks these men to be first and foremost fishers of people! Our Lord says to his first followers, ‘I need you to be recruiters for my Kingdom.’
I find it neither accidental nor inconsequential that our Lord enlisted fishermen as his first recruiters. For these fishermen brought a particular job skill that would be essential for the task ahead of them. They knew how to be undeterred by failure. My father, a lifelong fisherman and a long-time steel salesman, observed to me years ago that fishing and sales operate on the same principle: you fail far more often than you succeed. Yet I’ve never known a fisherman who declared, ‘I’m not going fishing today because 90% of my casts are going to be fruitless. Because most of my endeavors are going to be unsuccessful, I’m not even going to try.’ Fishermen know they are going to fail most of the time, but they accept the challenge of fishing anyway. They are undeterred by failure. I think that is a job skill and an attitude of resilience that most of us need to recover. For I think it is true that many Christians are reticent about talking of those things that matter most to them. We readily speak to friends and acquaintances about a good restaurant or a great movie or an excellent band. Yet we hesitate to speak of what really matters to us, our relationship with our God and our community of faith. We are afraid of speaking about what really matters because we are afraid of being rebuffed. We shy away from our primary role as Christians, that of sowing the seed of Good News, because we are afraid our invitations will fall upon hard hearts. Christ doesn’t need such timid champions! Christ needs people who are willing to look him in the eye and say, “Lord, we have fished all night and caught nothing. But at your command we will throw our nets into the sea again.” Being a champion of Christ’s Gospel, being a recruiter for Christ, entails more failure than success, but that doesn’t mean we can shy away from the summons from our Lord to be fishers of people.
Growing up, my daughter Clara had a strange passion for the TV show Deadliest Catch. I suppose you know what Deadliest Catch is about. It’s about fishermen in Alaska who fish for Alaskan king crab. The weather is horrendous. The hours are extreme and intense. The pace of work is frenetic. And all of these factors combine to make fishing for Alaskan king crab the most dangerous vocation in America. So why do these people do it? Don’t tell me that they do it for the money. There are a thousand easier ways to make a reasonable living. Yet these people endure horrific conditions, life-threatening circumstances, incredibly stressful hours because they are seized by a great notion. They are enthralled by the idea of pursuing Alaskan king crab! They are so enchanted by their pursuit that they are willing to endure perilous adversity in the chase of Alaskan king crab, even at the risk of their lives.
If you understand the motivation of those crab fishermen, you are close to understanding why, when Jesus says to these fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” the Scriptures then record, “Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him.” That verse ought to send a shiver up our spines. Why were these men willing to drop everything they knew and follow our Lord? Because they were seized by a great notion! They were driven by a strange, internal compulsion. They were enchanted by the notion of becoming recruiters for the cause of Christ! They were seized by the idea that they could live their lives drawing others into God’s Kingdom. They were enthralled by the prospect of being divine instruments for bringing people in touch with the power of redemption and even changing the course of history. This notion so energized them that they threw down everything they had known and followed Jesus into the unknown. In truth, anyone who is called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is called to be seized by this great notion. This week I heard a really bad country singer, formerly an alcoholic, croon these words: “Jesus took away my cravings and made me a son of the King!” That’s what happened to these fishermen: they were seized by the notion that Christ had recruited them to become children of the King of the universe! Christ issues that same high summons to every one of us to attain that same great destiny.
Think about Peter and John. Think of them after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, when Peter and John were the leaders of the early church and were hauled into court for preaching the Gospel. If there had been Jerusalem court TV in those days, the scene would have been dramatic. None of us can harbor any illusions about Peter and John. They were exactly what Luke said they were, “ignorant and unlearned.” They stood on one side of the dock, while their accusers represented the best and brightest legal minds of Judea, people of talent, education, wealth and social upbringing. Only a fool would have suggested that the future belonged to those uncouth fishermen instead of the aristocratic elites. Yet it did! Why? Because Peter and John were seized by a great idea! The others were not. Peter and John were willing to give their lives in the pursuit of being recruiters for God’s Kingdom.
You don’t have to be a great person to be seized by a great idea. The truth is, Simon Peter was not a great person. John was not a great person. The Gospels consistently depict both men as unable to grasp some of the Master’s simplest ideas. But Peter became St. Peter. John became St. John. The power of God’s Good News came to shine through them in a powerful way. They grew. They matured in faith. Why? They were not great men, but they became great serving a great, divine Cause. These two rude, ignorant men were willing to be seized and used by God’s great idea in such a way that they helped ignite the most cataclysmic social change the world has ever known. Likewise, we are called to be seized by the great notion of giving testimony to the glory of our Lord.
In 1957 a young Black woman named Dorothy Counts was the first African-American student to attend an all-white public school in Charlotte. A Charlotte Observer journalist named Kays Gary was there to record the scene. This is what he wrote: “A head needs no face for expression. The way it is carried upon the neck tells all. If it is too high it shows defiance. If it is too low and twists from side to side with a forward thrust of the neck it is full of shame. Between these two extremes is a posture of dignity and confidence and a certain blend of humility and pride. And that is the way Dorothy Counts carried her head. They spat, and she was covered with it. Spittle dripped from the hem of her dress. It clung to her neck and her arms and she wore it. They spat and they jeered and they screamed. A boy tumbled out of the crowd and hit her in the back with his fist. Debris fell on her shoulders and around her feet. And the posture of her head was unchanged. That was the remarkable thing. And if her skin was brown, you had to admit that her courage was royal purple. For how many of us could have taken that walk to and from that school?”
I suggest to you that Dorothy Counts was an ordinary young high school student. She was as ordinary as Peter or John. But she was an ordinary person seized by a great idea. She had been captured by a great notion: ‘I am going to live my life in such a way that it makes a statement. I am going to live in such a way that I change the way people think about me. I am going to live my life in such a way that I change the way people think about my color and my people.’ Dorothy Counts intended to live in such a way that her life had “conversion power.” That is what we are all called to do, to live in such a way that our lives have “conversion power.” We are called to be seized by a great notion that we live in such a way that we change and convert people’s lives in the way they think about Christ’s redemptive power and fellowship.
In truth, we are called by Christ to live as “evangelists.” Now the word, “evangelist” has fallen into disrepute, and with good reason. But the word “evangelist” roots in a great Greek word, “evangelion,” which means, “good angel.” You and I are called to live as “good angels,” positive messengers of joy, of great tidings, of redemptive power, of a welcoming fellowship. We are to live as “good angels” who by word and deed convey the warmth and liberation of Christ. We are to live in such a way that we change the way people think about Christians and change the way people think about God and change the way people think about God’s community. We are to live with conversion power! Do we really do so?
Years ago, I came across the conversation between a famous preacher and a long-time professor at a prestigious college, one who had watched generation after generation of young people transition from adolescence into adulthood. One day the preacher asked his friend to identify the distinguishing mark of that transition, and the professor offered this extraordinary answer: “When freshmen come onto campus, they come saying, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’ Such is the voice of a child. But when a person matures and moves into adulthood, over time he or she begins to say, ‘I belong to this. I belong to that. I belong to this fraternity or that sorority, or that student movement or this institution.’ ” The professor remarked that the mark of true adulthood is to feel seized by a great enterprise, a movement that calls us out of ourselves to testify, ‘I belong to that.’ The mark of true maturity is defined by commitment to a transcendent power that calls us to testify, ‘I belong to something greater and grander than myself.’ So, too, we are called to testify, ‘I belong to Christ. I belong to Christ’s Kingdom. I belong to Vineville Baptist Church.’
This past weekend I met Melissa and Frieda Underwood in the quaint little town of McCaysville, Georgia, to take them out to lunch for Melissa’s birthday. Driving through McCaysville I noticed a man in a cowboy hat and a string tie and megaphone yelling at passersby on the narrow streets: “Hey, do you know Jesus as Savior? Hey, are you immersed in God’s Word? Hey, have you been born again?” People scurried by him as quickly as they could. I thought, ‘Mister, you think you are fishing for Jesus, but you are fishing without a hook – and doing more harm than good.’ We are called to live with a faith characterized by warmth and a spiritual magnetism that draws people to God’s Good News. We are called to live with a love and a joy that beckons people to God’s banquet table of grace and redemption. We are called to be seized by the great idea that we belong to Christ, we belong to the Kingdom of God, we belong to Vineville Baptist Church – and we are recruiters for the Kingdom. And when we live with this statement as the defining allegiance of our lives, when this is our life’s testimony, that is when we claim our destiny of truly being children of the King.