Fishers of People

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

Church of the Holy City

Washington, DC

January 14, 2001

Jermiah 16:14-16

Mark 1:16-20

Jesus walked along the shores the sea of Galilee and called fishermen to be his first disciples, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” [NRSV]. The scene is one that is particularly easy to visualize: the shore, the boats, the men casting and repairing nets. It is equally rich in correspondences. Upon consulting Swedenborg, I found that Galilee, fish, fishing, and fishers all correspond primarily to what Swedenborg calls “the natural,” that is, our lives in the outer, workaday world.

The fishers in particular correspond to “natural goodness.” And on reflection, it seems, well, “natural” that Jesus would start his ministry by drawing upon natural goodness as his foundation and working from there. You know, even today fishing is a dangerous profession and we readily associate certain virtues with fishermen. Hard work is required of them, as well as loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice. If this is true in the days of and radio communication Coast Guard rescue, how much more so in biblical times.

Swedenborg associated a particular virtue with each of the four fishermen called in this story. First, we note that they come in two pairs of brothers. Peter here, as throughout the Gospels, stands for faith. His brother Andrew, stands for faith in action, namely obedience. John stands for love, and his brother James for love in action, or charity.

We can detect as well a correspondence in the two clauses of the call. First Jesus says, “Follow me,” and then “I will make you fish for people.” First comes a call to follow, but then a call to lead. The two halves of the call are reflected in the two words we use for the principle followers of Jesus: “disciple” and “apostle.” “Disciple” comes from a Latin verb meaning learn. “Apostle” comes a Greek verb meaning to send out. Those who have learned from Jesus are later sent out. And let us note that when the apostles were sent out, they carried on Jesus’ ministry of preaching, casting out demons, and healing.

Of course, the point of examining these correspondences is to make the bridge between biblical imagery and our own spiritual lives. I believe that the sayings of Jesus don’t take on their full impact and meaning until we understand them as addressed to us personally. In this instance, that means knowing that Jesus is walking along the shores of your “Galilee” as you prepare and cast your “nets,” and says to you, "Come, follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Galilee is your natural life. The disciples are your natural virtues. Jesus is calling forth those parts of you that can be taught and then sent out to teach and to heal.

But then consider, why is Jesus asking you to fish for people? What are we being asked to do? Last week we considered the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and the call to repent and believe the good news. This, we said, is the keynote of Jesus’ preaching. Within this context, “fishing for people” means bringing others into the kingdom as well. For while the kingdom is “within you,” Jesus also clearly defined the kingdom in terms of how we live together. Our call is always to realize the kingdom of heaven and to bring others in. The call is both to learn and to reach out.

We can understand “fishing for people” more deeply, if we ask what “people” correspond to. People, we recall from the Genesis creation story, are created in the image and likeness of God. Thus in the innermost sense a “person” is an image of God. To be sure, the images of God at this day have been tarnished, covered over, obscured from view. Still, Swedenborg and Swedenborgian theology insist that the image of God lies deep within every human being and retains there all its original purity and beauty. When we fish for people we cast our “nets” (our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and good from bad) into the depths in order to catch the image of God. And having caught it, we bring it into full view.

What is this process? I can best understand it in my own life by reflecting upon my best teachers. I include here actual teachers and professors I have had, but also all those who loved me and in their love for me taught me something I needed to know. The best teachers are supportive but also strict, are they not? The “teachers” I have learned the most from believed me; they believed in the goodness and talent they saw within. By helping me see it, they supported me. Those who get you to believe in your own gifts, give one of the greatest gifts of all. But good teachers not only the best in a person, they insist on it. The best teachers do not let you get away with anything less than your best. This the teacher’s second great gift.

How better to enter the kingdom of heaven together than to be such loving teachers of each other? Let us recognize the image of God in each other. Let us honor and name the gifts we find in all those with whom we live, work and worship. And let us gently but firmly hold each other to the highest standards. In this we have Jesus as our model, one of the great teachers of all time.

As Jesus comes to us in the place where we live, let us respond to the call to become “fishers of people.”