We tell and retell the story of Jesus, to our children, to each other, to other people. (Sometimes I find myself telling a story of Jesus to my friends who aren’t church people, who aren’t Christian. Even I am surprised when that happens.) Each of us may have different reasons for telling the story. And our reasons for telling the Jesus story probably, hopefully, change and shift as we live into our own stories.
Today I want to explore a more contemporary, contextual reason for why we might tell Jesus stories. Jesus may have lived a really long time ago but I propose what he was trying to do in his community never gets old.
So let’s look at this magic, miracle fish story again. This time I hear a story of Jesus, the community organizer, who reaches out to people who are struggling. I hear a story of Jesus who wants to help people find their power, their dignity and a new identity. And when that is what you are calling people to, of course they will want to share that joyful message.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus starts out preaching in synagogues. The people in his hometown synagogue love hearing him read Isaiah but when he starts preaching the tough stuff, starts calling them on how they live their lives, they get angry, really angry. The people drag him out of the synagogue and try to run him off a cliff.
It is soon after this harrowing experience (from which he walks away unscathed) that Jesus starts to preach, not just in synagogues but on the journey, between synagogues. The audiences he finds on the road are quite receptive to his preaching and enthusiastic (to say the least) about his ability to heal and restore people in body, mind and spirit.
Right before our story today, Jesus gets back on the road after a stopover at Simon’s house, where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus just wants to get away for a silent retreat but the crowds follow him everywhere; they want more time with this emerging rockstar of a teacher. Jesus needs a break. He finally gets away by telling them “people in other towns need to hear this Good News too;” it’s a line that is convincing enough that he is able to escape.
The scene changes and it is a new day. Jesus is standing by Lake Gennesaret. On this beautiful, clear morning he watches the sky as it changes, he watches the birds and breathes in the peace of wild things. Jesus also watches the boats come in after a night of fishing. He watches the fishers clean their nets.
It doesn’t take long before the people are watching him. They come toward him, looking for Jesus’ brand of profound teaching. They get closer and closer and with no more land or sand left, Jesus looks at Simon’s boat. Simon owes him – after all, he did heal his mother-in-law. Jesus hops in the boat and says, “Row!”
Jesus sits in the boat, as rabbis do when they teach, and he teaches. When he is done teaching, he instructs Simon and his crew to row out even further. Another short retreat? Or is he preparing for a different kind of teaching? They get to deeper water and Jesus says, “Okay now, throw those nice clean nets back into the water. Let’s catch some fish.”
Here we have it: Jesus as community organizer. He goes with people to the place that is really familiar to them, where they have difficulty, and he asks them to see it in a new way. He doesn’t send them on their own, he goes with them and he tells them to try again. And though they are the experts in fishing and he is a rabbi, though they have just returned from hours of unproductive fishing, they do it. They throw their nets in, again.
Maybe they are willing to try one more time because they don’t want to be rude, or maybe they try because they know about the amazing things that happen around this man or maybe it’s because they won’t ever get back to their families unless they follow these bizarre instructions. In any case, they throw their nets in, one more time.
This time, inexplicably, there are fish, so many fish that they have to call for another boat to carry them all. Even two boats are hardly enough room to carry all those fish.
Now, I don’t approach the bible with a literal interpretation so I don’t quite know what to make of all these fish. But something is happening here. We might note that Luke tells this story of an overwhelming catch of (small) fish at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the gospel of John tells a similar story at the end – after Jesus’ resurrection. In John, the disciples have been fishing all night with no success and when they are instructed to try one more time on the other side of the boat, the net is filled, with 153 big fish, and the net doesn’t rip. Little fish at the beginning of ministry, big fish years later… I will let you work out the many metaphors and meaning. I am going back to the idea of Jesus as community organizer.
Why would Jesus even think to organize the fishers? We know that under the Roman empire the people were oppressed, and there was great wealth disparity. Fishing was a main stay of the economy. Some biblical historians say that the fishers were middle class, making a good living there in the middle of the social hierarchy.
Historian KC Hanson says no. The fishers may have been in the middle of the social pecking order but there was no middle class.
There were certainly layers between the Romans at the top of the heap and the majority of people at the bottom. It’s true that the fishers are in the middle of the economic system, between the rulers and the weavers, stonemasons, carpenters, farmers, potters and many others. But between the rulers and the fishers are a whole lot of tax and toll collectors. So the fishers are not really making the big bucks. By the time they pay taxes, rent boats, buy nets, anchors, salt, and all the other things they need, and then pay the day laborers, they are not wealthy. It is more like small family farms today; they are barely making it.
The fishers, like the weavers, carpenters, farmers, potters and other trades, do not work alone. There are no “one man operations.” Fishers, and the rest, work together, in family businesses; brothers Simon and Andrew are in partnership with James and John, sons of Zebedee. Though they work together in this cooperative, there is a hardness to life in the Roman Empire. And Jesus sees it.
He encourages the fishers to not only work together but to find their own dignity. I have to believe there must be something in the teaching there in the boat, (which does not get included in this story) that so captivates these fishers that they start to see things in a new way. They see the possibilities of being part of something bigger. Simon is not sure he is worthy to be part of it. But Jesus reassures him that there is nothing to fear.
So after a night of fishing with nothing to show for it, they now have more than they know what to do with. And they all, Simon and Andrew, James and John, just walk away, leaving all those the fish and the boats (and presumably their families) behind. They follow this rabbi into risks and uncertainty with the hope that they will encounter healing and abundance and the reign of God. (And for the rest of this liturgical year, through November, we will read Luke’s descriptions of their adventures.)
I am certainly not the first person to wonder about Jesus as a community organizer – and that title for Jesus is not without controversy. So what is a community organizer? Why would it be controversial?
We might define a community organizer as someone who calls people together to name the oppression they experience and work to overcome it. And calls people to work together to find abundance where it seems like all is deprivation. And calls people together so they experience the wonder of healing and transformation in a community. And calls people together to find empowerment when they might not otherwise know dignity and liberation. If this is how we define community organizer then, in my book, Jesus fits. (see https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/was-jesus-community-organizer and http://blackyouthproject.com/jesus-christ-the-greatest-community-organizer-of-all-time/ as examples)
Or as the Black Youth Project website puts it: (Jesus) He gave people the gravitas to stand up against a system that relegated them to a second class position. His message was the simple fact that power lay in people’s unity, in their willingness to forgive each other and fight the struggle together.
On the other hand, some people find it a slight to even call someone a community organizer; there is no way they are going to put that label on Jesus. These are often Christians whose faith focuses on personal salvation. The community is not part of it; salvation is something spiritual, for the individual soul. And Jesus does this saving work alone, by dying on the cross. As Brother Mark Oaks says at his website – He (Jesus) came to provide forgiveness of sin to the world. To do so, He laid down His life for others and died on the cross for all. He was raised to life on the third day and is alive at this very moment. He is the Savior of the world, but He was never a community organizer. (see https://www.bibleword.org/wp/was-jesus-a-community-organizer/1429 and
So why would I step into this controversy at all?
Because it seems like right now there is some discrepancy in this country about what it means to be Christian. Try as I might, I get caught up in it. Maybe you do too?
So it is helpful to remember that as Anabaptists we say being a Christian has a lot to do with the Jesus story, not just his death but his life as a Jewish rabbi in occupied territory. And if we say the Jesus story is important then we need to understand a bit more about what life was like for Jesus, and what was happening with the fishers. And if we know a bit about the fishers of Jesus’ day, we might have a bit more understanding or empathy toward the “fishers” where we live today.
If we want to follow Jesus the community organizer, weP do well to look around and see who the community organizers are today. The community organizer I know best is Omar Angel Perez of the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network. He relates to the people most affected by unjust immigration policies and he relates to people who live in safety and have easier access to the powers that be. He pulls us all together to find ways to work for dignity and liberation for our neighbors who live in very real fear for themselves and their families. Sounds like Jesus work. (I am not saying that Omar is Jesus.)
Seeing Jesus as a community organizer helps me remember that Jesus is not a lone wolf rabbi, not a lone voice calling in the wilderness – that was John the Baptist. Jesus gathers his disciples around him – this fish story is the beginning of that. Jesus teaches – and demonstrates, healing and wholeness, new ways to understand the Law and what it means to live in fullness of life. He shares the message with them and then empowers them to spread the message even further.
Jesus does not consolidate power like Caesar or Herod. Jesus multiplies power, just as the loaves and fishes are multiplied. He empowers those who are most oppressed but he also welcomes wealthy people willing to reorder their priorities. He preaches peace, and spreads it, as he heals centurions (Roman soldiers) and their family members.
Jesus, the community organizer, challenges us to look beyond ourselves, to understand that dignity and respect and liberation are for everyone. We are called to leave our boats, full of fish, and spread the news that each person is worthy and beloved and needed. We can’t do this work alone, we have to do it in community, with each other, across the social strata – fishers and tax collectors and zealots and rabbis and business people, and centurions – all together. It ain’t easy that’s for sure. The work is never done. And yet, this is a project worthy of our support, especially when there is a strong organizer like Jesus.