“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.
Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” – Matthew 4:18-22.
The easiest job I ever had was collecting parking money at a youth baseball complex in the suburbs of Kansas City. I’d sit around, argue with people who had a lifetime parking pass that they still had to pay to park for a tournament, and then take all the cash to the head groundskeeper who’d give me my cut. Every day was a payday. My hardest job was boxing hundreds of pounds of beef per minute at the end of a long line. That line began far out of my sight with a live cow at one end and ended with me and a few others frantically throwing sealed cuts of meat into labeled boxes at the other end. I left that job in a sort of unplanned way.
It was election night in the year 2000. I had attended a college event all evening and came home to see who won the presidency. I finally went to bed at 2AM not knowing the answer. Instead of trudging into work four hours later I called in, making up some story. I called in again the next day too. On the third day, I didn’t even call. I never went back. This stretch probably wasn’t the worst moment of my early twenties, but clearly not among the best.
Some jobs are easy to let go, and ancient fishing was one of those jobs, at least for Simon, Andrew, James, and John. The Gospels never let us know what Zebedee thought of the whole thing. But for someone with the nickname “Thunder,” he probably wasn’t too pleased when both his sons left him in the boat with all the nets and equipment so they could follow some wandering teacher on the shore.
Jesus doesn’t promise an easy life for his followers. Throughout the Gospels he speaks of crosses, baptisms by fire, and bitter cups to drink. And right here in the text above he even calls these weary fishermen to a life of more fishing, but for people. What does that mean?
As a kid I ignored all the talk about nets when the Bible mentioned fishing. All I could think of is what I knew in the Midwest: ponds, rods, reels, bait, tackle, smells, slime, and fun. Fishing was a game. You’d try to find the sneaky fish and then make them think you had some food for them. Sometimes you’d win, and other times they’d win. It was all in good fun.
Ancient fishing—the kind Jesus called four of his disciples from and all of his disciples to—was about muscle, sweat, and endurance. It wasn’t fun. It was hard work. The rhythms of the workday involved preparing nets, casting nets, dragging nets, unloading nets, and doing it all over again. There was no correlation at all between the amount of sweat put into preparing and casting each net and the amount of fish that would come up in the haul. Hard work did not guarantee success each time, but consistency would often even things out. The best fishers may not have been the smartest or even the strongest. They were simply the ones who were the most reliable, never shaken by the booms and busts that came out of the water and into their boats one net at a time.
Fishing for People
I never thought much about Jesus' claim to send us out to fish for people until I began fundraising to go on the mission field. But with each day that passes I think more and more about fishing for support. Here are three things I’ve learned:
You can’t cast a wide net alone.
There were no solo fishermen in the Bible. And fishing for people is no solo pursuit either. The prep work, expertise, and strategic planning are all made possible and better by working with a team. Too often in America we view evangelism as an individualistic enterprise, but God has called his people to proclaim the good news of his kingdom together. Prep work to sharing the gospel might include intentional hospitality, acts of service, and care for neighbors.
And of course there is no greater preparation of our nets than soaking them in prayer. Not only praying individually, as we American Christians are so comfortable doing, but actually praying together.
As God has called our family to go to Brazil I’ve been amazed at the team he has used to help us prepare our nets and give us direction on where to cast them. We’ve prayed. We’ve called. We’ve written. We’ve discussed. Were I alone in all this I would’ve likely given up long ago, frustrated at the first snag I couldn’t untie in my net.
You can’t tie your effort to your results
The last chapter of John’s Gospel starts with a fishing story. Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and some other disciples are by the Sea of Galilee when Peter decides he wants to fish. The others join him. They do not catch a single fish all night long. As they are heading back to shore the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore and asks if they caught any fish. They tell him no, not recognizing him just yet. He then tells them to throw the net on the right side of the boat and they will find some fish. Instead of arguing with him or telling him how tired they are and how annoying his suggestion is after a long, futile night of fishing, they actually do what he says and haul in hundreds of fish.
Since I’ve started fundraising I’ve contacted hundreds of people as well as hundreds of churches. I’ve called. I’ve emailed. I’ve texted. I’ve even sent paper letters through the postal service. Some days my net comes back empty. Who am I kidding, some weeks my net comes back empty. But I can’t let results affect my efforts. I’ve even found that contacting people a second time or even a third time will yield a result I hadn’t heard before. A no-answer turns into a maybe. A maybe turns into a yes. I think of Jesus saying to cast one more time. You never know how God is at work behind the scenes. Out of the blue we have some people contact us months after we’ve first contacted them because God has laid our mission on their heart even after they’ve already told us no.
The key is consistency. The oldest person I baptized was a man who was in his nineties. He was dying of brain cancer and had heard the gospel presented to him countless times. He rejected them all. But when facing certain death he reached out, and I had the privilege of hearing him pray to God for salvation and later confirm his faith through baptism. It was beautiful. Tears fill my eyes now just thinking of the relief on his face when the guilt and pain of sin was lifted from him by grace through faith in Christ. I wasn’t the first person to tell him about the gospel, and I’m so glad others told him about it consistently before I did, never giving up on him. Otherwise he wouldn’t have known who to turn to when he was ready to say yes.
I’ve also been on the other side. I once spent a good hour talking with a neighbor whose life was spiraling. I told him about the love, grace, and mercy of the gospel, and he listened. But he just couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He moved away not long after that night, and I helped him load his truck. I still think and pray for him, hoping that one day he’ll get caught up in someone else’s net. You never know how God is at work in someone's heart.
The key is consistency. It’s easy to give up when a net comes back empty after a whole night of toil. But throw it in again. Something might come up this next time!
You won’t get any fish by accident
My generation and those younger are prone to think that people will just magically find us and help us. I once set up a GoFundMe page to see if others might help me fulfill I dream I have for our family that we can visit Kenya just once before my in-laws retire from there. A few people did, but most didn’t. I imagine many people who saw the page thought to themselves, “I wish someone else would give me money to go on vacation.” Since then I've been saving up toward that goal. It's taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work to do so.
As unrealistic as it sounds it’s easy to imagine scenarios where fish just jump into our boats for no reason. We dream of bypassing all the prep work, planning, mending, and casting of nets altogether, only to still reap the benefits without any of the work. But that’s not fishing. It’s not discipleship either. Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The Christian life is one of holiness, discipline, and hard work. To be sure, God and God alone gives the increase, but the seed must still get planted one way or another.
If you haven’t made a disciple in a year, a decade, or a lifetime, look back on your work ethic. Who have you prayed for? Who have you invited into your home and into your life? Who have you helped and served? Who have you told about the gospel? Disciples are not made by accident or by GoFollowMe pages.
People didn’t magically follow Jesus, either. He sought them and called them. He didn’t call the best of the best of the best, according to the world’s standards. He called fishermen, tax collectors, dreamers, and even one scoundrel.
And he sought you and called you too. He’s made you a fisher of people. Better yet, he’s made you a child of God. Fishing was never glamorous. It still isn’t. But it’s the life God has called us to. Are you ready?