Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epiphany 3, Series B

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 22, 2012 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany, Series B)

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells Andrew and Peter that He will make them fishers of men.  This text is one that is often referred to when speaking about missions and evangelism, that is, deliberate outreach into the community around us or around the world.  What Jesus is saying is that the Church is to “catch” people into His Kingdom who do not already know Him, and so bring them to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that is ours through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of mission speakers and evangelism experts who use the imagery of fishing to explain how it is we are to go about catching men.  What I’ve often heard is that we are to choose the right “bait,” that is, find a felt need that will draw people’s attention to our church, and use the right marketing techniques (that is, make the bait move in a lifelike way using various techniques with the rod and the fishing line) to draw people in.  There has been a whole movement in American Christianity (including among Missouri Synod Lutherans) that encourages and teaches churches how to do evangelism in this way.  The idea seems to be that if we can meet the needs people already know (or think they know) that they have, they will come to our church and have a chance of hearing about their true need for forgiveness, and how that need is met in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In actual practice, however, it is often the Sunday morning church service itself that ends up being the venue for meeting these various felt needs, and often it’s done in such a way that the true need, forgiveness of sins, and the true solution to that need, Jesus Christ and Him crucified, ends up being crowded out.  Often He ends up being mentioned only as an example of how to follow this or that Biblical principle for the improvement of one’s marriage, one’s finances, one’s relationships in general, or whatever other topic ends up being the focus.

Now, to be sure, there is an element of truth in the “felt needs” approach, too.  The fact that human beings have unmet needs at all is a symptom of the problem of original sin, and where the Gospel is preached there God’s people will try to alleviate, as best they can, the needs and the problems that are created by sin in the world, as a way of illustrating eternal life, where sin and its effects won’t bother us at all.  This is why churches have historically been the place of charity.  Many schools, hospitals, nursing homes, soup kitchens, shelters, and other charitable organizations have been founded by churches for precisely this reason.  The problem is not with the idea of meeting people’s needs as such.  The problem is when meeting people’s needs in this life crowds out the true need that lies at the root of all the other problems, namely sin, and thus Jesus becomes not a savior from sin but an example to follow in social ministry.

But when it comes to using today’s Gospel lesson as a proof-text for the “felt needs” approach to evangelism and church growth, I do think many interpreters are missing the point.  Most of the analogy I’ve described up to this point of how fishing is done comes from modern recreational fishing, in which you either go out in a boat or stand on a dock or a pier, and cast bait out using a fishing rod and line, and try to trick the fish into biting by your selection of bait and how you move it through the water.  However, that wasn’t the kind of fishing that Andrew and Peter would have been familiar with.  You see, these men weren’t recreational fishermen.  They didn’t use bait, or fishing lines, or poles.  They didn’t go after their fish one at a time, trying to trick the fish into grabbing the bait and becoming hooked on the line.  Commercial fishermen don’t do that.  What commercial fishermen do (and here the basic technique hasn’t changed in the thousands of years since Jesus spoke these words) is simply run a big net through an area of the water where there is a large school of fish, and draw in all the fish that have unwillingly been caught in the net.  Trying to appeal to the fish in order to draw them into the boat isn’t even a consideration here.  The net simply catches a bunch of fish.  Some escape, some don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because the net is what does the work, and often it’s completely random which fish are caught and which aren’t.

And so, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew that they were going to catch men, He wasn’t telling them they’d be using bait and a hook to draw men into the Church one by one.  He was telling them that they were simply going to put the Word of Law and Gospel out there, and let the Word itself do all the work.  Who is brought to repentance by the preaching of the Law and then brought to faith by the preaching of the Gospel, is something of a random chance as far as we can tell.  God only knows why this one repents and that one escapes the net.  It’s not a matter of technique.  It’s a matter of simply letting down the net and dragging it through the water.  God’s Word does what it says.  It will bear fruit, when, where and as He chooses, and often does in the unlikeliest of places.

And that’s a good thing.  The most unlikeliest of places for God’s Word to bear fruit is the human heart, including yours and mine.  We were born enemies of God, and have no natural ability to believe in Him or come to him.  The Word catches us unwillingly, many of us before we were even aware of it, by means of the Word in and with the Baptismal water.  The Word transforms us, makes us into those who believe in Jesus Christ.  We are drawn into the Church by the power of the Word alone.  It’s not the technique or the skills or the personality of the pastor, or what services and activities are offered by the particular congregation.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.

And work it does.  What the Word says about us is that we are perfect and holy, because Christ was perfect and holy in our place, and when the Father looks at us, He sees us through Christ.  And the Word does what it says.  We are declared forgiven, and a clean heart and right spirit that are without sin really are created in us by that Word.  We are declared to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and that’s what we are.  And that’s what we have to declare to those around us.  The Word itself will do the work.  The Word itself will draw those who repent and believe the Gospel into the Church, just as it does for us, Sunday after Sunday.  The Word itself makes them, along with us, citizens of eternity.  The Word Himself feeds us with the food of heaven, and will bring us at last to dwell with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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