By Peter Terpenning
Community United Church of Christ, Boulder, CO
Most of us are familiar with the story: Jesus is calling the first disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. Peter, Andrew, John and James, sons of Zebedee were fishing with nets. Jesus simply approaches them and said if they followed him he would make them “fishers of men”. As feminists we might amend that to say “fishers of people”. So they left their nets and quit fishing for fish and spent their lives in very different ways, all of them eventually meeting violent or at least difficult ends. This passage catches me up each time I read it, since I am a fisherman and also a fisher of people of sorts. I wonder about it and what I can learn about Christianity from fishing. A lot, I hope, for the research would be right up my alley. One thing is clear, when we talk about fishing for people we are talking about evangelism, the E word, as they say. Not an appealing word for most progressive Christians. It dredges up thoughts of door to door visits, and preachers on the street predicting hell fire. Historically, and even today it means converting people to Christianity, getting them into the fold, saving them from hell. And if that’s what it is, then forget it, it has no relevance to my life or faith.
It would be nice to set it aside, but I’m sorry to say I can’t do that. I am left, as usual, trying to figure out what Evangelism, fishing for people, has to do with Jesus and my faith journey. What does it mean in this age of inter-faith dialogue? It’s not simple now, for we live at a time when it has become apparent that there is not going to be peace in the world until there is peace between the world’s religions! Now we don’t even have peace between the various branches of Christianity, let alone a working relationship with Islam. Are we still called to be fishers of people in this ecumenical, inter-faith age?
Let’s start with what evangelism is not. Most of you know I am a Universalist. That means I believe in universal salvation; that all people will be right with God in the end, that all people are going to heaven, if you will. So right away I eliminate the need to fish for people to get them into heaven from my theology. Secondly, I don’t think that Jesus was trying to start a new church, or build an institution. There has been too much of Churchianity in our history and not enough Christianity. If evangelism is anything for me, it is not going to be trying to win people to come to my church, or to give money to my institution, or build up the membership in the institution. Neither is evangelism going to be winning people over to a certain doctrine for belief that will somehow save them. I don’t believe that everyone has to think the same way about God or faith in order to be ok with God. Evangelism is not going to be conversion to a new doctrine.
So what did Jesus do when he was fishing? I think Jesus focused on love and compassion for others. Jesus, I believe, embodied the love of God for people to see. This led them to a new way of life. This way was the way of compassion, servanthood, healing, liberation and love. People were caught, if you will, by the person and the way of life. In turn, his early followers also lived in the way of love and liberation. People observing the early Christian communities said things like, “look at the way they love each other”. People were caught by love and joined the movement.
I immediately thought of the Buddhist model of the Bodhisatva: the enlightened person who goes back into the world to bring other people to enlightenment. In Buddhist understanding, people are in this world of pain. Many are crawling through what seems to be a desert, a dry, harsh place. They reach a wall, which is the path to enlightenment and some begin to climb. Those who reach the top see a beautiful garden, enlightenment, and jump over. But one or two look back at the desert and then climb down and begin to lead others to the wall and boost them up. These are the Bodhisatvas. These are the fishers of people in Buddhism.
Think of people who have been witnesses to you about the way of Jesus. Probably not people who preached at you, or told you what to believe, but people who, though their lives and examples, led us to a new way of compassion. I think of Don and Jean Ervin. They are an older couple who are retired teachers. After their children grew up they attended a Bible study in which people were discussing how live one’s life in harmony with the teachings of Jesus. They joined a group of people who bought an old building in the poor ghetto of Chicago and moved into the neighborhood. A community grew there that was interracial and committed to improving the neighborhood. They still live there 20 some years later, working on housing, making food for potlucks, recycling, working on church newsletters. Gentle, quiet people who love their neighbors and help form the nucleus of that community. They are fishers of people.
It is interesting to consider Mohandas Gandhi. He was not a Christian, but was deeply influenced by the way of Jesus, and by Christians. He believed the Sermon on the Mount was the most important teaching of Jesus. He lived out the compassion of Jesus though he wasn’t Christian. The movie Gandhi tells of one episode where he was walking down the sidewalk in South Africa with a Christian Priest, Rev. Fisher, I think. It was illegal for a “Coolie” to walk on the pavement, particularly with a white person and some young white toughs were approaching the other way. The Christian minister suggested that they go another way or get off the pavement. But Gandhi keeps walking and says, “Doesn’t your Jesus say that when a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek as well”. The Christian says, “Yes, but I think he meant that figuratively”. “I don’t think so”, says Gandhi and continues resolutely toward trouble. Gandhi lived out the compassion of Jesus and thereby showed that a non-Christian can live out the teachings of Jesus and even be a witness to them. Gandhi was a fisher of people, too.
Meeting the person of Jesus had an enormous impact on people. It still can today. It is possible, I believe to meet Jesus mystically and that experience can be a powerful for us as it was for those who met Jesus in the flesh. This kind of experience is not the goal of Christianity, however. The goal is the conversion, the transformation of our lives into those who are following the way of life Jesus taught. Anyone who is living this way is a fisher of people, and evangelist. Words can be witness, but our actions speak louder than words. Jesus converted people to a way of life, a way of love, forgiveness and gentleness. We are the best fishers of people when we live out this way of life and share our vision of a loving God.