Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year A):
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on January 22, 2017.
In last Sunday’s Gospel from John, we read about Peter being introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew, who tells him, “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew arrives at this conclusion very quickly after hearing his former teacher John the Baptist refer to Jesus twice as the “Lamb of God.” In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we have a very different version of this calling of Peter. In Matthew’s version, both Peter and his brother Andrew are busy fishing when Jesus approaches them and says, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Each Gospel has its own agenda and seeks to communicate its own particular message and perspective on the calling of Peter to its own particular audience. And just as John played with the loaded and multivalent metaphor of the Lamb in the calling of the disciples so too does Matthew play with the metaphor of fishing when it comes to the calling of Peter. Now usually when I think of fishing, I picture Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer sitting on a rock, chewing on some straw, holding a fish pole with a line out in the water, just like I used to sometimes do back in the halcyon summers of my youth in upstate New York. But that’s not quite what fishing was like for these men of Galilee. Their work was more like the physically strenuous and demanding labor of the shrimp-fishermen who used to work up the road at China Camp, who would cast their nets into the water and then gather in several hundred pounds of shrimp. The Gospel makes clear that Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the sea in order to catch their fish. Jesus sees them doing this and says, “Join me and cast a net over the world and we will gather in all kinds of different people.”
The Gospel of John uses the same metaphor of casting a net in its final chapter, in which the Risen Christ inspires the disciples to miraculously catch and gather in 153 fish. And the author highlights the fact that although there were so many fish (153), the net was not torn. Commentators have puzzled over the meaning of the specific number given in the Gospel (153) and although no meaning has gained any widespread support, many have pointed out that according to ancient authors, there were 153 different species of fish. So the net that held 153 fish without breaking could function as a symbol of the Jesus Movement which can hold a vast variety of different peoples without breaking. In fact, the Jesus Movement could hold and include every variety, without breaking. That is what Jesus called Peter and Andrew to become a part of, a movement that would cast a net over the whole world and gather in all different kinds of people, without breaking. That is what Jesus calls us into, as the church.
Yesterday, I marched peaceably with about 60,000 people in Oakland, all of whom seemed to want our country to be guided by respect, equality and the inclusion of all. I felt like I was “praying with my feet” (as Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say) and fulfilling our baptismal covenant by striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. I was representing the Episcopal Church in general and specifically this community (the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael) as I wore my clerical collar as well as a t-shirt designed by a fellow priest which displayed an image of Mary, along with the words “I am with her.” In many ways, the March was about reminding our nation’s leaders that we can indeed cast a wide net and include all peoples and we will not break as a result. The challenge is to remain unified in the midst of our many differences. Although there were many creative signs and shirts and hats at the march, I was most moved by the creative calls to unity. One of my fellow marchers carried a sign on which she wrote the wise words of Albus Dumbledore, who said, “While we may come from different places and speak in different tongues, our hearts beat as one.” Or as MLK said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Many of these women at the March who called us to both wider inclusion and deeper unity remind me not only of Jesus and the movement that he launched with his disciples, but they also remind me of a woman in the Bible who is often overlooked. Her name is Chloe and she appears only once in all of Scripture. She is mentioned briefly in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, from which we read this morning. Paul writes, “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.” Now although this is the only reference to Chloe in Scripture, we can still gather some important information about her. First of all, we can deduce that she was a friend of Paul’s, who refers to her by name. Second, she cared about unity and was concerned about the divisions that were jeopardizing the Jesus Movement. Third, she had her people seek Paul’s wisdom and guidance by informing him of the divisions. And fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we can deduce that she was likely a leader in the early church. She is referred to in the context of her people: “Chloe’s people.” They probably wouldn’t be called “Chloe’s people” if she wasn’t in some kind of position of leadership among them. This is significant, especially since the Bible has some very challenging things to say about women in general and specifically about women in positions of church leadership. Some biblical verses prohibit women from teaching or even speaking at all in church. However, at the same time, there is much evidence in Scripture of women in positions of church leadership, women such as Tabitha (Acts 9:36), Lydia (considered the first European convert to Christianity), Junia, Phoebe (who was a deacon), Priscilla, and of course, Chloe. Many historians would also point out the fact that prohibitions of an act are often evidence of an act. In other words, prohibitions against women speaking and teaching in church would likely not have been written and repeated (as they are) unless there were indeed women speaking and teaching in church. If there were no feisty women speaking out, then there would be no need for prohibitions. But because there are prohibitions, there probably were lots of feisty Christian women, some of whom became leaders, like Chloe.
And what were these feisty women of the early church speaking out about? We don’t know, but we do know that Chloe was concerned with unity, just like many of the women at the March yesterday. Chloe wanted her fellow Christians to lay aside the differences that divided them. She wanted them to remember that the Jesus Movement was a net strong and wide enough to hold all of their differences just like the net that held the 153 fish without breaking. She was likely heartbroken by the hostility and competition between different camps of Christians who claimed different leaders: Some said, “I belong to Paul.” Others, “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Obama,” “I belong to Trump.” When it comes to the church, Paul asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided?” When it comes to our country, we are compelled to ask, “Are we not the United States of America?”
Chloe and Christ invite us to cast our nets wide and to gather all peoples (no matter how different) into the loving and forgiving embrace of God. This is how we become fishers of men and women in the world today. In the words of our Collect, I pray that we have the grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ (the call to be one “unified” community and country) and to proclaim to all peoples the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works. Amen.