(How many fellow Ohioans are here?)
Recently I came across this statement on Facebook: “24 astronauts were born in Ohio. What makes it about your state that makes people want to flee the earth?” As a former Ohioan, at first I was insulted, but then it got me thinking – and I had to agree with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who astutely points out: You might just be from Ohio if: driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow. You think of the major four food groups as beef, pork, beer, and Jell-O salad with marshmallows. You know all the 4 seasons: Winter, Still Winter, almost Winter and Construction. If you have more miles on your snow blower than your car, you may live in Ohio. If you find 10 degrees "a little chilly", you may live in Ohio. The snow storm this past week? Felt like home sweet home.
They say (in Ohio) that you can take the girl out of Ohio, but you can never take the Ohio of the girl. When I moved to New York to go to college, then seminary, I never thought I would be spending the bulk of my life and my ministry here. I slowly became a NY transplant – having left the city that launched a thousand jokes about “Mistake on the lake” “the river that caught fire” Even the mayor’s hair caught on fire, once. That’s my city. Cleveland, Ohio.
So I understand why Jesus had to leave Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” his disciple Nathaniel pondered (John 1:46). Not to mention that the hometown people rejected Jesus after his first sermon – unable to accept his new status, ready to run him out of town (in this case over a cliff) causing Jesus to sadly state: “A prophet is never accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24). What cinched it for Jesus was the news that his cousin John had been arrested. Jesus was starting a new phase in his life – a time now of public ministry. However, Jesus didn’t chose Jerusalem, the capital, the official seat of all things Jewish to spread the Gospel’s good news. Instead he chose to go eastward, to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and made his home base in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore.
The rabbis declared of the Sea of Galilee that, “Although God has created seven seas, yet He has chosen this one as His special delight.” It was truly a beautiful place – blue water against the backdrop of mountains –hot mineral springs, lowest freshwater lake on earth teeming with fish, surrounded by fertile soil. Jesus would travel along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, traveling to Jerusalem and Judea and back. He encountered all sorts of people, from Jewish zealots, conservative religious leaders, hated Samaritans and despised foreigners, loathed Romans. Jesus’ ministry along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee was significant: Here he gave more than half of his parables and it is estimated that twenty-five of thirty-three were performed in the general Galilee area -- eighteen miracles performed in the villages near Capernaum.
The significance of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ ministry is highlighted by the fact that some of the first and some of the last events in his ministry involving his disciples occur here. Our passage from Matthew depicts how Jesus called four of his disciples from among the fishermen in the area (Mt 4). In Luke’s version, Jesus tells the disciples to go out in to the deep water and let their nets out. Their catch was so great, the boat nearly sank-- (Luke 5:4) -- Peter -- falls on his knees and exclaims, “go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus replies, as he does here in Matthew, “I will make you fishers of people.” At the other end of Jesus’ life, recorded in the gospel of John, after Jesus was crucified and resurrected -- the disciples return home to the sea to fish. Jesus appears on the lakeshore, and again encourages them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. The catch was huge, almost sinking the boat, and they counted 153 fish. 153 was the number of fish species cataloged by Pliny the Elder in his "Natural History" – considered the number to symbolize the totality of humanity" (Jn 21: 1-21). Jesus feed his disciples fish on the beach that early morning – reminiscent of the times he fed the five thousand men, women and children from the miraculous multiplication of five loaves of bread and two fish from the shore of the Sea. It is down by the sea that Jesus forges a new family of faith, beginning with a handful of fishermen.
Jesus chose to be near the sea, despite the fact the Jews historically were not seafarers; they were desert nomads. Their ancestors Abraham and Sarah were nomads, and shepherded in the Negev. At one point, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before settling in the Promised Land. They rarely controlled the seacoast. Even King David spent his childhood caring for sheep in the wilderness pasture around Bethlehem and wandered in the wilderness of Judea for some time before becoming king. The Israelites were never at home on the sea.
The sea in general has a negative connotation throughout the Bible. To them, the sea appeared alien and threatening. The flooding waters of the sea were often a tool of God's judgment: as in the Great Flood in Noah’s time, which covered the earth. Later, when the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s armies were drowned (Gen. 6, 7; Ex. 14). Jonah was thrown into the depths, swallowed by a large fish, because he turned disobeyed God (Jonah 2:3-6).
In the New Testament, the sea continued to symbolize chaos, evil, and evil beings. The depths of the sea are seen as the home of demons, a place called the Abyss, the home of evil spirits, according to Jewish tradition. The sea was the home of the terrible dragon, Leviathan (Isa. 27:1, 51:9-10). It was believed that someday the devil himself will rise from the sea (Rev. 13:1). Only God could control the sea and the evil it contained (Ps. 65:5-7, 77:19, 89:9, 93:3-4; Ex. 14-15; Isa. 51:10). This is where Jesus chose to make his new home. Down by the sea.
In his ministry, Jesus demonstrated his authority over the sea and its destructive power. He walked on the stormy water (Mark 6:47-50; Matt. 14:22-33; John 6:16-20). He calmed the storms on the sea (Mark 4:35-41; Matt. 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25) . He even empowered Peter, his disciple, to walk on the water (Matt. 14:28-32). These acts showed that Jesus had authority over the sea and all it contained. Jesus’ teaching and training of his disciples proved that Jesus has authority over the leviathans dwelling in the dark depths of our hearts. Jesus knows how to bring calm and peace to us, as he did to the Sea of Galilee.
Having grown up by the Lake Erie (can you imagine a spookier name for a body of water)—I understand the why Jesus would carry out a powerful ministry by the sea. I think of all those precious summer days that weren’t overcast, hanging out on the beach, just ten minutes from my house. Looking out on the horizon, wondering where Canada was out there. Feeling the pull of imagination and mystery -- open to potential. At the same time I was always reminded, even fearful, of the awesome, deadly powers of such great bodies of water – of boats capsized and people who drowned. The sea spoke to Jesus –for the sea reflected the human condition – and the sea was the perfect training grounds for Jesus’ disciples.
The thing was: people were afraid of the sea – they didn’t know how to swim -- but yet took their main sustenance from the sea. In the gospels, it is never recorded that people ate meat. Meat was a rarity. Fish was the common meal. When Jesus feeds the multitude, it is bread and fish (probably dried fish, since fresh fish was beyond the reach of the poor.) Even the rich grumbled at the cost of fish: The Greek biographer Plutarch reports a complaint that "a fish sells for more at Rome than a cow...)
So Jesus confronted all these ancient, deep-seated fears. He allowed himself to be baptized by his cousin, John, to set a new course. He embraced and reclaimed the water. In his adopted seaside hometown, he made his claim over the sea. He was not afraid of what the abyss contained. He took fishing practices and made them into outreach practices for people: Jesus encouraged his disciples to: “toss the net from the other side,” “go to the other side,” “go out into the deep.” He taught them how to go through the storm, to be still, to have peace in turmoil; to feed people, to teach people from the shore – the marker between the known world and unknown world. The disciples are called to give witness to how God is with us in the storms. God sees us through the life storms. With Jesus, we can find peace, in the storms. The waves fomented by our fears can be stilled, in the boat, in the deep, with Jesus.
Jesus chose ministry by the sea, because we are like the sea – full of potential for new life, possibilities, nourishment, spirituality: as well as the presence of danger, demons and destruction. Energies of both dark and light. Jesus calls us into relationship with God, on the shore/boundary place. Jesus teaches us to fish for our very lives; just as he fishes us out of the deep. He teaches us to fish for the lives of others – others who live in that deep, who can’t escape the abyss on their own. They need help. We need to fish.
It is not surprising that the fish was a symbol for Christianity in the early years. The Greek word for fish (ICHTUS), is an acrostic, as each Greek letter stands for the words "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior" the earliest confession of the disciples. Second-century theologian Tertullian put it this way: "we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water."
Our lives are a sea. Jesus has made us fishers of the deep. Beach combers. Fishers in the storm, in the abyss, in the fear, in the stillness, in the promise. We are all called on a journey to new homes, places and situations. We are called to the shore, where Jesus is. In the light dawning down by the sea. We are called: follow me – he says -- it is time to fish – and from the depths will come a new humanity – forged in water and spirit- of dreams that ebb and flow with the waves, where the shore, carrying the voice of Jesus, beckons the sea. Amen.