Jesus and his disciples spent a good bit of time in fishing boats. It makes sense. Jesus had a home in Capernaum by the sea, and many of his disciples were fishermen. On one occasion, Jesus was standing by the sea and said, “Hey guys, let’s go fishing. Let’s take the boat out into the deep water.” It’s one of the Bible’s great fishing stories, complete with a soul-searching, life-changing, boat-sinking catch of fish. At the end of it, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” [Luke 5]
Several years ago, my brother-in-law invited me to go dolphin fishing. “We’ll take the boat into deep water.” I had never been deep-sea fishing. As I climbed into the boat, my father-in-law said, “There’s a good chance you’re going to get sick. Brace yourself for a miserable day. You’re likely to end up hanging over the side of the boat chumming the water with your lunch.” That was encouraging. I think he felt obligated to say this because that’s what happened to him, and he wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t going with us. On the way out to sea, the waves were really big, and Bart’s boat seemed really small. Adding to my anxiety was the fact that Bart is an accountant, not a ship’s captain. We were going fast, slamming head on into these giant waves. The boat had no seat belts and no air bags. I felt certain this fishing trip was the end of days for me. So I prayed ‘Help me Jesus!’ prayers. And I’m pretty sure I spoke in tongues. We made it safely out to sea and started fishing. Bart followed the sea birds. He said, “When you find the sea birds, you’ll find the fish.” Sure enough, we found the birds and the fish came. They swam close to the boat and right up to the sardines we were using for bait. Then, with the appearance of turning up their little dolphin noses, they all left without taking a single bite. Bart said, “Our bait is old. I think the sardines are rotten.” So we just watched the fish swim around the boat. They were stunningly beautiful—blue and green and yellow.
On the way back, I was no longer praying for my life. I was praying a prayer of gratitude—the kind you pray when the salt air is blowing through your hair and the sun has painted the evening sky. I could see Miami growing closer in the distance. Over the sounds of the boat moving through the waves, it seemed God whispered to my soul, “There are lots of fish to catch once you’re back on the shore.” I’ve often heard the fishing experience used as a paradigm for evangelism. Maybe you’ve heard some version of it. “You’ve got to know where to find them. You’ve got to have the right bait to ‘hook’ them, and then you’ve got to clean them up real good before you bring them into the boat.” The ‘fishing for people’ paradigm sometimes feels like a salesperson’s canned attempts to convince or convert. One is left feeling like a project or a membership statistic—someone’s prize mounted on the wall. But it’s clear that’s not what Jesus had in mind. When he says, “Go fish,” he’s reflecting God’s desire for the net to cast wide and deep. Jesus knew where the fish were. He would tell his disciples to cast their nets in unlikely places, and they were always amazed at the catch. He knew how to find people who had lost their way. And people were drawn to him—lured by a love and grace that was impossible to ignore. God’s love lured me when I had lost my way. An unlikely catch, I was amazed that God wanted someone like me. Even more amazed when I heard God whisper, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”