People of the Water

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea,
across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

***

Last week at youth group the kids asked if I would preach a three-hour sermon on Sunday. The practically begged. After I collected my jaw from off the floor, I told them this might not be the best week for that kind of experiment, since we have a baptism scheduled for today. I hope they understand.

This baptism today has been a great gift to me. Both because it is my joy and delight to baptize folks at any time, and because I am so thrilled to welcome Dick officially at last –to be, as he put it, his caddy on this 18th hole of his life. But also because today’s baptism gives me a visual bridge to my thoughts on today’s scriptures, and indeed for the next several weeks-what the kind of work it is that our baptisms commission us to.

We don’t often talk about baptism as the prelude to our mission as Christians. Because Presbyterians affirm the baptism of all people regardless of age, we often baptize infants. Those are beautiful and holy moments, but they do lend themselves to a particular angle on baptismal theology—that of love and grace unearned. And love and grace unearned is a huge part of what baptism represents, to be sure. But it is not the whole story. We rarely talk about how in baptism we believe we are buried with Christ—that in baptism we die, as Christ died, to our sin, to our old selves, and are reborn to new life in God. We believe there is transformation in the water. But we rarely bring it up when there are babies around, because even metaphorically it is painful to speak of death on those days.

We also rarely talk about baptism as a commissioning with infants because it seems a little… silly, when they’re sill working on holding up their heads and growing teeth. It doesn’t quite seem fair to load them up with a bunch of directives. Yet we do believe that our baptisms are the springboard for our work as Christ’s followers in the world—that in our baptisms we are given the tools we need—love and grace and a community to walk with—to do the hard work Christ calls us to.

Two weeks back we looked at Jesus’ own baptism, the first step of his ministry. In that sermon I quoted a line from our Presbyterian Book of Order, and I’ll quote it again today.

“Baptism is God’s gift of grace and also God’s summons to respond to that grace. Baptism calls to repentance, to faithfulness, and to discipleship. Baptism gives the church its identity and commissions the church for ministry to the world.” (W-2.3006)

Our baptism is a commissioning. It transforms us, prepares us for the work we must do in following Christ.

The Bible doesn’t say whether Jesus’ first disciples were baptized, at least in a form we would recognize. But I do think it’s meaningful that Jesus calls them from the water—not the River Jordan where he was baptized, but the Sea of Galilee. And even when he calls them from the water, the language he uses—I will make you fish for people—is language tied to those who work on the sea. They take the lessons they’ve learned on the water with them in their ministries. They will fish for people, gathering all into God’s net, hauling them into God’s boat. It isn’t a perfect metaphor—the fish don’t end up so well post-nets. I like to think of it more as a pun, Jesus’ playful way of inviting his friends into his kingdom work, letting them know that they already have the skills and gifts to do the work of gathering all people into God’s loving arms.

Of course, the disciples didn’t know exactly what that would look like. Neither do we. Not the day-to-day, nitty gritty details. And that’s why we have to answer Jesus’ call to ‘follow me.’ That’s why we have to spend our days playing “follow the leader,” mimicking Jesus as best we can as we seek to heal and love and welcome the outsider in. We follow Jesus so we can see what Jesus is doing, and get in on the action. Bathed in the grace of our baptisms, we keep our eyes on Jesus so we can see who it is we’re called to love, who it is we’re called to gather into our nets and bring safely ashore.

It is easy to get distracted in this work. It’s easy to think we’re following Jesus, but really be following someone else, or someone else’s idea of Jesus. I remember being a child and thinking I was following my mom across the grocery store, only to discover I was following a woman in a similar coat. If you aren’t paying a lot of attention, it’s easy enough to get led off track.

That is the situation the people of Corinth found themselves in. Paul founded the church at Corinth, and then left to do the same at Ephesus. Other leaders took over, and these new Christians got distracted. They began to divide their loyalties, and their unity splintered. One of their leaders, Chloe, became concerned, and she wrote to Paul. Paul, never one for a moderate tone, sent a fairly blistering response—he gave them Christ to follow, and they turned to others. He writes,

each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Cor 1:13-15)

I have to say, I can’t imagine thanking God that I hadn’t baptized folks. But I do understand Paul’s exasperation at how quickly we humans lose focus on the work Jesus calls us to do, and how quickly we turn to other voices.

It takes effort to follow Jesus, to even know what “following Jesus” means. We read carefully the words of scripture, seeking to hear Jesus speaking out of these ancient pages, knowing that there are other voices here too. We pray, listening for Jesus to speak to us directly. We strain for the still, small voice of the spirit to tell us what to do and where to go. We look for other people, other Christians, who seem to be on the right path, and follow them.

And it’s that last that can get us into trouble. There is much to learn from our fellow saints in the faith, but it can be dangerous to hang our spiritual hats too much on any one person. And there are “Christian” voices out there who are begging for followers, begging to be the One Authoritative Voice on what it means to be a Christian in the world. They are often so loud it is hard to hear anything else, much less that still small voice of the spirit. And they will promise you they hot on Jesus’ trail—and they may very well be—but they are not Jesus himself.

It is so much easier to follow people whose books we can buy or tweets we can read or radio shows we can listen to. So easy to give our allegiance to our favorite theologians and look down on anyone who doesn’t do the same. So easy to fall into the trap of saying “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” as a way of proving who we are and what we value, and forgetting altogether that first and foremost we belong to God. So easy to turn what we read and watch and listen to into an echo chamber, where the only voices we hear are the ones that make us feel good, the ones that make us feel right and righteous. If all the things you hear Jesus saying to you make you feel warm and gooey inside, than chances are you are following someone who may wear a similar coat, but who isn’t Jesus. Jesus challenges his disciples as often as he comforts them. We will spend the next few weeks in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount seeing the truth of that.

Jesus says, follow me, and I will make you fish for people. He does not say, follow me, and I will keep you safe. Or follow me, and I will make your life easy. He does not say, follow me, and I will separate you from the world. He does not say, follow me, and I will give you the life you always wanted.

Follow me, he says, and I will make you fish for people. And fishing—and I mean commercial fishing here, not the kind of recreational hobby we in this room might enjoy—is messy business. It is dangerous. It means going out into the waves, into the storms, if need be. It means aching shoulders and sunburns. The fact that Jesus calls this work of discipleship “fishing for people” means that it will be struggle and hardship, not comfort and safety. It means heading into deep waters, so that those who are most vulnerable—the poor, the lonely, the sick, the addicted, the broken-hearted, the outcast and outsiders, those rejected by their society, their families, or their countries—that those people are caught in our nets, and made safe. This is the call of our baptism: to go where it is not safe, so that others may be made safe. Just as Jesus came to this world where he was not safe, this world that took only three years to have him executed, so that we might be made safe forever. Because our safety is not in any human policy or plan but in God’s grace alone—God’s grace that is wrapped tight around us and carries us through our days.

The water we use at baptism does not look dangerous. Water in a shallow bowl, sprinkled a few drops at a time on your forehead so that you hardly get wet. But this water marks us as people of the water. To be fishers of people. To be those who go out into storms and into waves and into contested waters, to cast our nets wide and deep, to gather everyone home.

In our baptism we are given what we need to do this hard work: grace. Grace that forgives our sins when we mess up, out of pride or fear or forgetfulness. Grace that helps us forgive others, when they do not live up to our expectations or what we imagine doing Kingdom work will be like. Grace that frees us to move freely in a world so often trapped in chains of fear and hate. Grace that makes a space for us on the boat, for our particular gifts and dreams and passions, to work alongside each other, and alongside Christ, as we fish for those not yet in the boat with us.

We do not have time to argue about whom we belong to. We do not have time to claim that Apollos is right and Cephas is wrong. Like Paul said, no one but Christ was crucified for us. He alone knows the path that leads through danger to new life. He alone has the strength to carry us through the work ahead.

And so it is imperative that we follow Jesus, and not those we would set up in his place. Because when we are out in the water, and the winds kick up and the waves are high, when we have followed the call into places of danger and seasickness, it is only Jesus who will be able to calm the storm.

“Follow me,” Jesus said.

It is an invitation.

It is a challenge.

But we are people of the water. We are marked for this work.

So time to get in the boat, and spread your nets.

In the name of Christ, our Savior, teacher, and Beloved. Amen.

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