Fr. Bill Carroll – The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2024

Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A little more than thirty years ago, I was in the basement of my college church. I was a relatively new Christian.   Although I had given my life to Jesus, I had not yet been baptized.

I was there with my friends to hear a visiting preacher.   At the time, Will Willimon was the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.   He had just co-authored a famous book called “Resident Aliens,” which we had been reading together.  

The book begins with a story from Will’s childhood in Greenville, South Carolina, where both of our children were also born.   He remembers a day when they played hooky from church and snuck out to see a movie.   It was the first time the theaters were open on Sunday.  The “blue laws” had begun to unravel, and that marked a fundamental change in our culture.   

But, rather than complaining about the growing secularism of American society, Will argues that we should embrace the opportunity for Christian discipleship and witness to Jesus.   Most of our best material (the entire New Testament, in fact) was written during the Roman Empire.   In the apostolic age, we were definitely not in charge.

Will, in many ways, is a student of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.   Barth was a fierce critic of the nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism that informed many of his own teachers.  For Barth, their identification of the Christian Gospel with European culture is an idolatrous abdication of the calling of the Church.  Instead, we are to preach the Good News freely, in joyful obedience to Jesus.   Barth broke with his teachers during the First World War, when he saw most of them line up behind the German war effort.   Later, on the basis of the same Christ-centered convictions, he became a leader in the resistance to Hitler.  

In “Resident Aliens,” Willimon has some harsh things to say about Paul Tillich, a theologian whose writings played a role in my own conversion to the Christian Faith.   And so, I asked him about it, while we were together.   He replied, “I don’t think that that’s how anybody becomes a Christian (by reading a book).    We become Christians because the Body of Christ lives out the love of Jesus in a distinctive way.  And then somebody comes up to us and says, ‘God loves you.   God wants to adopt you and make you a member of his family.’”  

Now, I’m not sure I agree with Will a hundred percent.   I think that intellectual arguments can play a role in our conversion to the Christian Faith–and I know they did for me.  But Will’s answer has stuck with me.  (It’s now been more than thirty years, and I still remember what he said.)  And I think he is mostly right.   We hear God’s word of graceful invitation, usually spoken by a human witness, maybe several such witnesses. And then we turn back to God, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.  

That was the experience of Nineveh when they heard the preaching of Jonah.  The Word came to them.  The Holy Spirit moved their hearts.  They changed their lives.  They turned back to God.  They got right with God, and right with each other.  

It was also Paul’s experience, when he met Jesus alive on the Road to Damascus   That’s why he urges the church at Corinth to embrace a deeper conversion to Jesus.

Today, we hear what Jesus said to his apostles, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”   It would take more than a word to get most of us to drop everything.  But still, Jesus has called us, and we have answered.  At the cost of his own life, he has brought us into the boat.  The Church grows by personal invitation.   There has never been any other way.   

And Jesus calls each and every one of us to go out and fish for people.   He wants us to befriend the people who are struggling or drowning beneath the waves.  He wants us to help him bring them into God’s family.

Some of us have known Jesus since we were little children.  Others aren’t so lucky.  (Increasingly, that’s true for more and more of us.)  We have to meet Jesus somewhere along the way.  Still others grew up knowing Jesus, and then we fell away for a season.  Often, we were scandalized by our fellow Christians and their many, many failures to love.  

But whatever our story, however it is that we got here, we are among those who have heard the call of Jesus.   And he calls us, if need be, to leave what’s familiar behind.  Usually, his call comes at a cost.  (Remember that Jesus dies on a Cross.)  Here, he calls us to leave our nets behind.   For the apostles, that meant leaving their jobs, their homes, their working capital behind.  James and John leave their father behind with the hired men in the boat.

Jesus is always calling us to go fishing, out among the people who need to hear Good News.   That’s how the world turns from the ways of sin and death:  by the grace and love of Jesus, by someone’s personal invitation to accept that love.

Today, he is calling us to be renewed in his love.   And then, he’s calling us to go out and fish for people.  Jesus is calling us to fish for people in our neighborhoods.  He is calling us to fish for people among our families and friends.  He is calling us to fish for people in the places where we live and work and play, and also in the streets.  He is calling us into solidarity with those who have God alone for their helper–with prisoners and refugees, with anyone who might fall through the cracks, with all who are forgotten, wounded, oppressed, or bereaved.

In this divided and often loveless world, Jesus calls us to fish for people who don’t look like us, come from the same places, or think the ways we do.  He wants us to see each other (to really see each other) in new and different ways.  He calls us to be converted.  That means that we will act differently–that we will turn our lives around.

He is calling us, in the end, to love each other like he does.  He is calling us to share the Good News–that God loves each and every one us enough to send his own Son–that God wants to adopt us, to make us members of God’s family. 

“Follow me (says Jesus), and I will make you fish for people.”