“Come and Follow” Colchester Federated Church, January 22, 2023, (Matthew 4:12-23) Third Sunday after Epiphany

As we continue on in the Sundays following Epiphany, we are once again contemplating Jesus calling his disciples to come and follow him.  Last Sunday we saw Jesus call the first disciples in the Gospel according to John with the simple phrase “come and see.”[1]  Jesus asked those disciples, “What are you looking for?” and offered them an invitation to experience the new life of compassion that Jesus himself embodied.[2]  Jesus reminded his first followers that we are not meant to go through our lives alone and that life is born out of a sharing of life.

Today we see Jesus call the first disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew.  It’s probably a more familiar story with that famous verse about fishing for people.  Jesus announces throughout Galilee, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”[3]  In Matthew’s version of the calling of the disciples, Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and sees two brothers—Peter and Andrew—throwing fishing nets into the sea.  Peter and Andrew are fishermen by trade, and Matthew shows these brothers at work.  It’s just that their “office” happens to be the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus calls out to them, “Come follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”[4]  Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew leave their nets right away and follow Jesus.  The same goes with another set of brothers—James and John—the sons of Zebedee.  Though they are in a boat with their father repairing some fishing nets on that fateful day when Jesus is walking alongside the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus calls out to them and right away they leave their boat and their dad and come follow Jesus.

We can keep in mind that in the ancient world, fisherfolk were peasants.  Though Matthew’s account of the call stories of Peter, Andrew, James, and John shows that even among those who made their living by fishing in the Sea of Galilee there were distinctions.  Peter and Andrew appear to have only nets.  They stand on the shore and throw their nets into the sea to catch fish.  Whereas James and John (alongside their father Zebedee) appear to be part of a family business with a boat.[5]  It may be that generationally they were able to make a more profitable family business out of fishing these waters. 

James and John seemed to have had more to leave behind (monetarily) to follow Jesus.  Though make no mistake, everybody is leaving something behind in order to answer Jesus’ insistent call to follow because he will show them how to fish for people.  Whether you had a lot of possessions to leave behind (a boat and fishing nets) or a little to leave behind (just some fishing nets)—there’s a call to leave their way of life, even their families and their hometowns behind.  The positive response from the disciples appears to be immediate in our story of Jesus calling the first disciples.

What do we make of this story?  These ordinary people leave their nets and their boat and their families and their homes and follow Jesus.  Jesus travels throughout Galilee and Matthew tells us that he gets to work right away—teaching in the synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  Jesus gets to work teaching, preaching, and healing.  That one verse (Matthew 4:23) just about sums up Jesus’ entire ministry.  Though it’s fascinating that Jesus doesn’t begin teaching, preaching, and healing until he has Peter, Andrew, James, and John beside him on the journey.  This is the way that Matthew tells the story.  First comes building the team and then comes Jesus going about the work with his newly called disciples.  Because maybe Jesus knew that he couldn’t go about this work alone.  Remember that human beings need love and belonging, it’s part of what makes us human.

It should not be lost on us this morning that Jesus began his ministry by calling ordinary people to follow him and do something extraordinary.  To put aside their fishing nets and fishing boats for a time to come and follow Jesus, to fish for people.  We are not meant to look at these stories and find them impossible to relate to because Peter, Andrew, James, and John were total superheroes.  No, they were ordinary people called to come and follow.  What makes them extraordinary is their choice to say “yes” to that calling, to say yes to Jesus.  We can keep in mind that these original disciples were fishermen.  And as the CEB Study Bible helpfully points out, “In the ancient world, fisherfolk were peasants.”[6]

As some of you know, my husband Neill loves fishing.  Neill has taught me a great deal about fishing in our years together, whether I actually wanted to know this information or not.  I now know things like what species of trout are native to Connecticut (only the brook trout) and to be careful when unhooking sea robins because they have sharp spines that can cut up your hand if you’re not careful.  I know that most of the Salmon River is fly fishing only.  But if you get up river where the Jeremy River and the Salmon River meet, you are allowed to use a spinning rod to fish.  Or maybe you scar your wife for life on one of your fishing adventures because you both mostly do “catch and release” fishing and she accidentally gut hooks a fish and you try to perform “surgery” and use pliers to get the hook out of the fish all while she watches in horror and wants to cry because she accidentally killed a fish.  And as you try to lovingly reassure her that the fish will probably be okay and that this happens sometimes, she sees the fish go back into the water to flail and sink and die.  Fishing is not for the faint-hearted. 

Nor is fishing easy.  I can understand how fishing can be boring to some people.  Because there’s not always a lot of action.  Sometimes the fish just don’t bite.  The bait that you have on your hook is not the bait that those particular fish are interested in sampling that day.  Fish are more active during certain times of the day anyway.  We’ve even had drought conditions in Connecticut of late, and that has made fishing more challenging.  Because Neill and I don’t have a fishing boat and fish from shore (like poor Peter and Andrew casting their nets) we sometimes can’t get to the ideal fishing spots.  Well Neill casts a whole lot further than I do, but I can’t usually get to ideal fishing spots just casting from shore.  All of this to say that perhaps it takes a certain personality to love fishing. 

After the years I have spent observing a particular fisherman, it strikes me that patience is one of the keys to fishing.  If you get easily bored or frustrated by failure, fishing may not be the hobby for you.  To be a good fisherfolk one also must be observant and determined.  Think about those who are out fishing in the ocean and the battles that sometimes happen to reel in fish.  Even trout can sometimes put up a good fight.  Perhaps fishing takes a sense of adventure as one can never know how any fishing outing will go in the beginning.

The fact that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishing when Jesus called them did not resonate with me years ago as much as this story does now that I know more about fishing (again, whether I wanted to know more about fishing or not . . . I do!)  It matters that Jesus’ first disciples were humble fisherfolk who made their living fishing the waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Those waters that sometimes yielded plenty of fish and other times their nets were cast out or let down from their boat and they came up empty-handed.  There are Gospel stories about that too.  In the end, we never know on any given day if we will contend with failures or celebrate successes.  That’s where faith comes in and knowing that Jesus is there beside us as we walk along our own shores in life.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 1:39, CEB.
[2] John 1:38.
[3] Matthew 4:17.
[4] Matthew 4:19.
[5] Footnote for Matthew 4:18-22, in CEB Study Bible, pg. 11 NT.
[6] Footnote for Matthew 4:18-22, in CEB Study Bible, pg. 11 NT.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout.