I began a sermon series on Red-Letter Christianity last Sunday—“red-letter” being a reference to those Bibles that print the words of Jesus in red ink. There is a group of people who have taken to calling themselves “red-letter Christians” meaning that they follow these words of Jesus, particularly in regard to his concern for the poor and the marginalized. Inasmuch as Christians of every-color letter follow the words of Jesus, I thought it worthwhile to take another look at what he had to say, specifically in Mark’s gospel, if for no other reason than Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore a source for the others.
Last Sunday Jesus said “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” For Jesus’ original audience, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman oppression, to hear that “the kingdom of God is near” could only mean that the kingdom of Rome was on the ropes. The prophet Daniel predicted as much. He foresaw that “a kingdom never to be destroyed that would crush all other kingdoms and bring them to an end.” Jews in Jesus’ day presumed this never-ending Kingdom to be Israel led by a reconstituted, glorious King David who would arrive to reign on the clouds of heaven. But here instead was this humble Jesus, standing on flat ground and not looking like much of a kingdom-crusher. He had no army. No political power. His weapon of victory was Rome’s weapon of humiliation. Rome used crosses to expose the futility of political resistance and to execute a sentence of death on rebels. But Jesus used the cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and execute a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. Christ accepts rejection and injustice and responds with resurrection. He rules not through the shedding of his enemies’ blood, but by the shedding of his own. In this context, for Jesus to say repent was to call to conversion those who understood kingdom only in terms of ruling power. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus would later say, “he must take up a cross.”
However in tonight’s passage, Jesus invitation to follow is not yet about taking up a cross, but about dropping down your nets—both literally and metaphorically. Jesus invites four fishermen to drop their literal fishing nets and start dropping metaphorical nets on people. If you’ve been a Christian long, you likely dread sermons from this verse because they’re usually sermons about the E-word. Evangelism. Talking about your faith to non-Christian friends. Catching heathen for the kingdom. Granted, dropping a net on unbelieving and unsuspecting friends usually comes off more like dropping a bomb. I know that whenever I tell people I attend church, never mind that I work at one, the responses I get usually range from quizzical curiosity (you look normal) to outright hostility. Of course, Jesus did say that’s how it would be.
Though it is ironic that we would interpret this verse in terms of evangelism since to catch a fish is to kill it (taking for granted that first century fishing was not yet into fishing as sport). OK, so maybe I’m taking the metaphor too literally, but if you turn over to the red-letter verses in Matthew 13, you read Jesus saying that to catch fish means death for some of them. “The kingdom of God is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So it’s not so ironic. Fishing is tied to death. To catch people is to snatch them from death, from the grill fires of hell. Believe in Jesus and stay out of that fiery furnace. But then you turn to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, from whence Jesus likely got his fishing allusion, and there you read that the bad people getting caught aren’t heathen unbelievers, but the chosen people themselves. In Jeremiah 16, God says through the prophet regarding his own people, “I will send many enemies who will catch these people like fishermen. After that I will send others who will hunt them out like hunters from all the mountains, all the hills, and the crevices in the rocks. For I see everything they do. Their wicked ways are not hidden from me. Their sin is not hidden away where I cannot see it. Before I restore them I will punish them in full for their sins and the wrongs they have done. For they have polluted my land with the lifeless statues of their disgusting idols.”
Putting all this together, it may be that what Jesus had in mind when he made these literal fishermen into metaphorical fishers of men was to first pronounce judgment on those who thought themselves safe and call them back to a true relationship with God. Tie this to the idea that to repent in verse 15 was to repent from wrong ideas about God’s kingdom, and what you have is something that looks like the need to get your own faith in order before you go sharing it with anybody.
In a recent study entitled Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, the authors argue that younger Americans by and large perceive Christianity to be not Christ-like but unchristian. They write that the church is in danger of losing younger generations, who see modern Christianity as not only irrelevant but hostile to their identity. In the words of one respondent: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear-mongering that has lost its own heart.” Author Brian McLaren, a self-described red-letter Christian, cites a young South African healthcare worker who likewise critiques modern Christianity for its specialization in afterlife destinations to the exclusion of addressing significant social injustices in this life. Such a Christianity sequesters the gospel into the realm of the personalized and the private, distorting the good news into a product designed for maximum personal benefit with minimal obligation. All you have to do is believe it and you’re set for eternity, regardless of how you live your life here. In this vein, evangelism becomes a salvation sales pitch rather than a radical call to transform the world. But without evidence of the gospel’s world-changing power in the here and now, it’s hard to get excited about its power in the sweet by and by. As a result, those on the outside find fewer and fewer Christians enthusiastic about their faith, and thus find less and less reason to accept or even consider it for themselves—apart from the threats of hell that is, which lose their effect when those making the threats come off as defensive, deranged or embarrassed about their faith.
You’d think that a gospel that is supposed to be the best news ever would be doing better than this. Why is it that the good news seems so unattractive to so many? Here you have a gospel that offers a relationship with a God who loves you enough to die for your sins and give you a brand new start at life. A gospel that instills joy and hope amidst adversity. A gospel that redeems suffering and pain. A gospel that promotes compassion and care for individuals, societies and the planet itself. A gospel that makes peace between people, their world and their Creator. The problem is that to get to that gospel, you have to get through all the gunk with which the gospel has become encrusted. Ask most who sit outside Christian faith to describe it, and what you hear are words such as culturally intolerant, scientifically ignorant and politically divisive. Shoot, many who sit on the inside use the same adjectives. Is it any wonder we’re ashamed to share it? Maybe Jesus was right that before we can catch people for the kingdom we need to first fish out the trash that’s ruining our nets.
Some of you may recall a story I told in the morning last fall from Donald Miller’s popular book from a few years back, Blue Like Jazz (which I read is actually being made into a movie). In it he recounts a time as a zealous college student during an annual drunken festival when he and his fellow Christians decided to do some evangelism. Donald Miller proposed they set up a confession booth so that the partying students could repent of the many sins they would clearly be committing. Since faith begins by first admitting you’re a sinner, what better way to get the faith process rolling than by setting up a big confession booth smack in the middle of the campus drunk-fest? Donald Miller admitted he made his proposal tongue in cheek. He was just kidding. If they were going to share their faith, there was no need to be jerks about it. But Tony, the leader of the campus Christian group, thought a confession booth was brilliant—which Donald said scared the crap out of him because suddenly he sensed that Tony was really going to go through with it.
“Only here’s the catch,” Tony said. “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to make confessions. We are going to confess that as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades and Columbus, we will apologize for the televangelists and the politicians, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely. We will apologize for being judgmental. We will ask people to forgive us and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus and that we are sorry.”
So Donald Miller and his friends built their confession booth and Donald took his turn inside first and waited and waited as the raucous partying went on outside. Nobody came in. “What a stupid idea,” Donald thought. “Obviously this was not God’s idea. There is nothing relevant about Christianity. Is it even true?” Just then the door swung open. A guy named Jake stepped in and laughed, “So what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all the juicy gossip from the partying that’s been going on? Want me to confess my sins?” “Not exactly,” Donald replied. “You see, we’re a group of Christians on campus who’ve come to realize that we haven’t been very good at following Jesus. In fact, a lot of Christians haven’t. Anyway, we wanted to confess that and our other sins and shortcomings as Christians to you.” “You’re serious,” Jake said, his amusement replaced by shock. “I’ll keep it short,” Donald said. “Jesus said to feed the poor and heal the sick. I’ve never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out. I know that a lot of people can’t listen to me when I talk about my faith because I’m judgmental and I tend to carry an agenda into the conversation instead of letting the message of Jesus speak for itself. I am sorry for all of that and a whole lot more.”
Donald Miller goes on to describe how Jake forgave him and how bowled over Jake was by the gesture and how even though he wasn’t really interested in becoming a Christian, he was curious what it was that Christians were supposed to believe. So Miller went on to explain about sin and God and the cross and faith. Jake left to think about it and another person was waiting. Donald wrote how he ended up confessing to over thirty people that night. It went on for several hours. He wrote, “All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. And I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him.”
To authentically share the gospel you first have to authentically experience the gospel. Authentic witnesses are not authentic because they are flawless, but because they are honest. Their lives match their speech even when they fail miserably to love God and their neighbors as themselves, because it’s then that they exhibit repentance and redemption. Christians are called to be people of compassion and love but also people of firsthand grace—screw ups who fall down and get up due to God’s mercy and are therefore eager to show God’s mercy. Grace, compassion and love are not lofty theological ideals but earthy, ethical practicalities. The gospel is shared in the concrete things people do to, with and for other people. Salvation’s goal is not merely a ticket to heaven, but a life lived on earth that looks like it will in heaven. Such a life can prove catchy to outsiders (in keeping with the fishing metaphor), because it looks like Jesus.
“Come, follow me, I will make you fishers of people,” Jesus said. Mark informs us that the fishermen dropped their nets at once. There was something about this humble carpenter that proved too compelling to resist. Reading their story is to read of spectacular failure, and of spectacular redemption, of spectacular love and faith, of sacrifice, bravery and world changing power both here and for eternity. Their story is the story of every disciple who has ever dropped their net to take up a cross. May it be your story too. May the Jesus who lives in you and through you likewise prove too compelling to resist.