The Nets of Mission

By Sarah Coakley

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:20).

As the rhythm of the season of Epiphany continues, and the narrative of Jesus’ earthly ministry as Son of God starts to unfold, we come to the story of the calling of the first four disciples in Matthew, a story perhaps so familiar as to fail any longer to shock or arrest us. It thus requires some new and prayerful attention in order to rivet us afresh into the radical, indeed discomforting, demands of Christian discipleship and mission outlined here, which Matthew certainly intends for all his readers, perceived precisely as disciples; and to this we must apply ourselves first. For indeed, we too are Jesus’ disciples, and we too are called to his mission field, to fish with the very nets we now have in our hands.

Even more discomforting, however, is what the lection has placed side by side with this gospel story this morning, in the form of a disturbing opening section from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. From this we learn that one of the most celebrated Christian communities of the church was — seemingly from the earliest moment of its own conversion and discipleship — rent with dissension, disunity, and bad feeling.

Was that also just then, and not now? I think not; for it comes, alas, with the Christian territory, a territory still invaded by the ravages of sin. And thus I want to effect a sort of pincer movement this morning in drawing these two texts together, in reflecting on the cost of discipleship, the cost of mission and evangelism, the cost of those knotty demands of spreading our new nets and “fishing for people,” as Jesus enjoins on us; and how it is that things can go wrong, when this costliness is either discounted or misconstrued.

Let’s turn first to Matthew’s account of the call of the first disciples. Note that it has some unique features and is not precisely the same as that found in the other gospels. What is distinctive here (as also in Mark) is the extraordinary leanness of the narrative: Jesus simply moves along the shore of the lake, and two sets of brothers in turn drop everything and follow him. We might perhaps call this response of theirs “ecstatic”; to call it merely “obedient” (as some of the early Fathers did) does not do justice to the spontaneity and immediacy of these fishermen’s response: something is at stake of such exquisite importance that it demands, at one instant, the sacrifice of their whole lives (although they do not yet know what that will mean); but the call also involves, clearly, an experience both of recognition and of promise that is unique.

Moreover, note that here in Matthew the parallelism, but also the difference, of the two calls, is instructive: Simon and Andrew unconscionably abandon their nets (their sole source of income and sustenance) and leave them, quite irresponsibly, out in the deep. James and John rather differently just leave the task of untangling and mending their nets, but, more importantly, they then also abandon both their boat and their father. And this last is to be a theme repeatedly enunciated in the Gospel of Matthew: for the call of discipleship — we are already warned here — will split families, will split us from our worldly sense of place and worth, will split us also from our most precious belongings. Such is discipleship, then. It involves a choice, indeed a repeated choice, an “ecstasy” of choice for the sake of the kingdom.

And then, there is the other intriguing side to this story, that — out of this account of ecstatic discipleship — goes straight to the heart of the nature of mission. Jesus both demands that these men leave their nets to “follow” him as disciples, yet at the same time he drags the metaphor of the fisherman’s “net” into his new demand for them as missioners. From now on, he says, they will be doing another sort of “netting” — the fishing of mission, the fishing of men and women into the nets of Christian life.

We see it now, a strange paradox: the only things that these men had in their hands when Jesus met them — their fishing nets — are in one sense relinquished but at the same time turned metaphorically to a new end. It is as if Jesus is saying: whatever it is that is in your hands, whatever your gift, your profession, your skill, or even your sense of lack of skill (for these first disciples were completely “unlearned,” as the Book of Acts later tells us), this it is that has uniquely prepared you for mission; it is out of this, whatever we have, that Jesus now stretches us ecstatically into his new world, making us “fishers” for his kingdom.

So why is it, then — we come now to the tragic other side of the pincer — that in this matter of discipleship and mission we fail, and indeed we fail most spectacularly when, instead of being “netted” together ecstatically into the mystical bonds of unity and love, we turn mission into competition, or dissension, or strife, as in the early Christian community at Corinth? “For it has been reported to me,” writes Paul, “that there are quarrels amongst you”; some declare themselves for “Paul,” others for “Apollos.” It seems it was ever thus.

The authentic costliness of discipleship has here been mistaken for the dark costly destructiveness of enmity and division, the logic of the zero-sum game exercised between different visions of leadership, different senses of entitlement. To this crisis of division Paul instantly applies his theology of the cross: what has gone fundamentally wrong here, he says, is the failure to recognize the divine power revealed in the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross of Christ, a power that upends human competition and ambition, that humbles human assertiveness and the desire for control, and turns apparent failure into love and triumph. This is the ecstasy of discipleship to which Christ called us, and it is his own ecstasy of abandonment to the Father that represents the triumph of the cross.

We must return, then, to today’s gospel story of the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John, chastened and instructed by the manifest failure in discipleship and mission that Paul had to confront so early on in Corinth. And we know too that those very first disciples (Simon, Andrew, James and John), even after their ecstatic response to Jesus’s call and their seemingly infectious capacity for the “fishing of mission,” also had to confront and struggle with their own demons of competition, jealousy, and division. We know too that it was only after the death and resurrection of Jesus that the power was fully given to them to step into his shoes and to take the nets of mission to the wider world through the gift of his Spirit.

We stand then, in the church now as then, confronted by more than one false possibility. The first is to discount the costliness and demand of discipleship, to resist the ecstasy of the call, to discount or underrate the very preparedness and responsibility we already have, whoever we are, to spread the nets of mission. The second is to mistake the costliness of discipleship for its lurking dark twin: the agonistics of competition and strife, the refusal of the “foolishness” of the cross, and the resistance to the divine power of Christ’s human weakness.

“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Let us pray then today for this our own community and congregation, our own little slice here of the kingdom of God, to resist the temptation of denying the ecstatic costliness of discipleship, and even more to resist the temptation of succumbing to division and fear. For in the nets of mission that we are called to spread, neither of these temptations can be allowed to undermine what God is asking us to do; and so we too must catch afresh the ecstasy of those first disciples in following him, and draw others to him.

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley is a visiting professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne and Rome).

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