Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Lesson: Luke 5:1-11
Author Brian McLaren tells a story about a man named Jeff who began attending McLaren’s church. After about six months, Jeff told McLaren, “For the first time in my life, I look forward to coming to church. It’s really having a good effect on me and my whole family. My wife says I’m a much better husband, and I know I’m improving as a father, too. I really get a lot out of your sermons. In fact, I agree with everything you say.”
This statement shocked McLaren. He was pretty sure even his own wife couldn’t say that. In fact McLaren wasn’t sure he could even say that, given the way he winced when he listened to his old sermon tapes. But Jeff continued. “There’s one thing, though. I don’t believe in God.”
McLaren wondered how Jeff could agree with everything he’d heard him preach, and not believe in God. He also, internally, was shaking his head: “Man, I must be some preacher if you still don’t believe in God.” But instead of saying this, he asked Jeff, “Why don’t you believe in God?” Jeff answered, “It’s my brother. He became a Christian and now nobody can stand him.” McLaren asked, “So you’re afraid if you start believing in God, you’ll become an arrogant hypocrite, or something like that? “Exactly,” said Jeff.
This morning’s passage in Luke’s gospel has Jesus telling Simon Peter, the one who will eventually be known as the apostle Peter, that from now on, his job as a follower of Jesus will be “catching people.” Followers of Jesus are to catch people. Too often, the way Christians have attempted to follow this very instruction has created opinions like Jeff’s, or worse. A lot people stay away from Christianity for many good reasons. To be sure, some stay away because they love their selfishness, arrogance, racism, and resentments; their self-righteousness, and their materialism so much that they want to stay away from anything that might challenge them to change. But, sadly, much of the revulsion to Christianity is telling us something the Church needs to hear. Many people have been deeply hurt by the Church’s intolerance and exclusion. Others are just not attracted to what looks to many like another rigid belief system, rather than a joyful way of living, loving and serving. The obsession with getting people’s souls into heaven after they die has seduced many Christians into neglecting the call to seek justice and mercy here and now on this earth. And fewer and fewer people are willing to trust a faith that has too often become an easy set of answers and cardboard explanations, instead of a window into unfathomable mystery and a pathway into an awesome adventure.
And yet, Jesus sends his disciples to “catch people.” What could this possibly mean for us, in 2019, at a time when we see growing multiculturalism and interfaith appreciation as good things?
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not use the phrase, “fishers of men” or “fishers of people.” Luke chose a Greek verb rarely used in the New Testament that means, “to catch alive.” Of course, fishing with nets is always a matter of catching fish alive, but those live fish will soon be dead. By using this different verb, this “catch alive” verb, Jesus is calling Simon Peter and his partners to something different, to a new vocation of catching people so that they might live, a life-giving vocation of being caught up in God’s mission.
So there must be something life-giving about the “people catching” that Jesus has in mind.
The word the church traditionally associates with Christian people catching, or with being fishers of men, is evangelism. Evangelism as we know it usually means converting non-believers into believers, and “saving souls” from eternal damnation. Christian evangelism has focused on what Christians believe rather than with how Christians live. This doesn’t sound life giving to most of us. And in fact, this approach to evangelism has been the tool of patriarchy, domination, white supremacy and imperialism. Not. Life-giving. And so, so far from what Jesus had in mind.
You might have heard the term, “apologetics.” It’s the word used to describe a reasoned defense of the Christian faith – although “defense” sounds pretty military, when you think about it. In any event, maybe in the 21st century, apologetics should be an old-fashioned apology: “I’m sorry we Christians forced our religion and culture on people; I’m sorry we so often put up roadblocks to genuine spiritual encounters through our narrow mindedness, our failure to bridge racial, cultural and class barriers, and our lack of acceptance. I’m sincerely sorry. Don’t blame Jesus for our failure to live up to his teaching or example. Be assured that we’ll try to do better, with God’s help. Please pray for us, okay?”
Doing better means figuring out what might be life-giving about people-catching. To do that, we need to start with the “why.” Do you remember a few years ago, after our officers’ retreat, when David Conant introduced the congregation to Simon Sinek and his TEDTalk about “Why We Start with the Why”? Sinek used what he called the “Golden Circle.” Most organizations start from the outside when making their pitch. We’ve got great computers and here’s how they’re different and better than our competitors. But inspiring leaders and organizations start from the middle and move out. Here’s what we believe. Here’s what we’re passionate about. Here’s a way of life, a cause, a movement. And here’s a product or a service or an activity that will let you be a part of it.
The “why” of the people-catching that Jesus had in mind was not to convert people to believing in particular religious doctrines. It was not. Jesus did not tell these fisherman, “Believe in me.” He said, “Follow me.” And today, the “why” is not to attract more people to our worship services and youth programs. It’s not to increase our membership. It’s not to keep struggling churches alive. It’s not to save declining institutions. It’s not to justify our jobs. It’s not to save souls from hell. It’s not even about serving others and working for social justice, as important as that is. Service and justice are still a “what” and a “how,” not a why. The why of evangelism is something much deeper. The why of evangelism – the why of everything we do – is the gospel itself. “Gospel” means “good news.” Jesus proclaimed “the good news of the kingdom of God.” The word “kingdom” worked for Jesus and his audience because they were familiar with kingdoms. If it doesn’t work for you, if “commonwealth” or “kin-dom” or “reign” work better for you, use those words. The point is that it’s the kingdom, the commonwealth that God designed, that God desires, to which God calls us, and helps us co-create. It’s God’s reconciling community, God’s new way of living, God’s dream for creation, God’s mission in this world, God’s healing of all creation, God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, or as someone has put it, “Creation 2.0.” Jesus said this kingdom is “at hand” – within reach, available to everyone, truly here and at work, present, inviting our participation, calling us to rethink everything and reorient our lives. This kingdom, said Jesus, is completely unlike any kingdom you’ve ever experienced, because God is the ruler and God is all about love. It all comes back to what Scott Clark said in his sermon last Sunday. It comes back to love; to love as our plumb line, our polestar. Love. And if love is God’s way, then life-giving people-catching has to be centered in reconciling, healing love. It can’t be about drawing lines, deciding who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who is “saved” and who isn’t, who believes the right beliefs and who doesn’t.
The famous preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin said, “Too many religious people make faith their aim. They think “the greatest of these” is faith, and faith defined as infallible doctrine. These,” wrote Coffin, “are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, more concerned with freezing doctrine than warming the heart. If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.”
If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive. Jesus didn’t present the disciples with a new set of doctrines to believe in. He didn’t say, “Here is the Apostle’s Creed. Can you sign your name to it?” He issued them an invitation to join a movement that is about demonstrating God’s love and goodness to the world. So in order for people-catching to be life-giving, it has to be about teaching love, spreading love, doing love. The good news is a call to love God with our all and to love our neighbor as ourselves, extending that love of neighbor (as Jesus taught and modeled) to stranger, outsider, outcast, enemy, and others (whatever their religion) – including our nonhuman neighbors in God’s creation.
If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive. A church member told me about her son who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. He’s a progressive liberal who was raised in the church but calls himself an agnostic, and he finds it hard to “believe” as a Christian. The son has developed a relationship with his uncle, who now lives in North Carolina. The uncle was raised in the Deep South and holds on to the traditional beliefs of the Religious Right. He votes conservatively and is still influenced by the racism that surrounded the whole family in their church and community – which, of course, is not limited to the South.
But something is happening, because this week the nephew is traveling from Maryland, and then he and his uncle are taking several days to drive to Montgomery, Alabama. They’re going to Montgomery to visit the national memorial commemorating the 4,400 African American people who were slain in lynching and other racial killings between 1877 and 1950.
The uncle and the nephew have spent time together in the past listening to each other, building their relationship, and now the uncle questions some of the things he always believed. Because of his relationship with his nephew. So he wants to see this memorial, and find out what it's about. Undoubtedly it means exposing himself to a painful past he once ignored. Undoubtedly, it means making room in his heart to the suffering of others. Because of his relationship with his nephew, he is on a path of reconciling, healing love.
This is evangelism. This is “people-catching” just as Jesus imagined it. And here’s the clincher. The nephew is not a Christian. Nevertheless, his relationship with his uncle is the life-giving “people catching” to which Jesus calls all his disciples. Because if faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.
This means that our people-catching can – must – reach out in love to agnostics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Christians, Jews, and our spiritual-but-not-religious Marin neighbors. Not to convert them to any beliefs, but to show them, learn with them and probably learn from them, the good news of Jesus’ way of saving, reconciling, regenerating love. It is Jesus’ way, whether Jesus’ name is mentioned or not. This is not a question of doctrine or religion. It’s a question of human survival.
Back to that story about Jeff, the young man who didn’t want to turn into an arrogant hypocrite. McLaren thought he should give Jeff something to think about rather than argue with him. So he said, “Well, maybe someday you’ll see a way to believe in God and become a better person instead of a worse one.”
Jeff said, “Wow, I never really thought of it that way. I guess that is an option.”
So do not be afraid, my friends. From now on, you will be catching people in the net of life-giving, healing and reconciling love. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Brian D. McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Post-Modern Matrix (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 37.
 McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize, 41
 Ζωγρέω (zogron), “to catch alive.”
 Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Luke 5:1-11,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1560.
 McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize, 48.
 John Vest, “Evangelism that Doesn’t Suck,” March 31, 2016, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressiveyouthministry/2016/03/evangelism-that-doesnt-suck/.
 William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 25.
 McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize, 37.