Epiphany 3A (January 22, 2017)

Ah, the fishing gospel! We read this and we usually think of sport fishing, and the luring of fish, and this becomes How to Win New Members, which is really stupid, because fishing involves dragging an animal to death by suffocation. In Jesus’ day, fishing was a metaphor for two things. Fishing could mean bringing someone to justice—you drag someone before a judge who reads their sentence. Fishing could also mean teaching—you bring someone from ignorance to wisdom. Justice and education are not linked in our culture the way they were in Jesus’ world by way of the fishing idiom. Bearing in mind this seems to be an education example, what is the similarity? Both acts involve radical, permanent change of environment. You leave a hiding place or a place of darkness and enter a new world where all is exposed to the light, and where you must change. You become a fish out of water. When you become a fish out of water, you enter something new. If you survive, you change radically.

Radical change is the name of the game at Paul’s Church in Corinth. Lots of problems going on in Corinth. Paul appeals to the Corinthians to be united. We hear “united” and maybe hear pleas for national unity. (Did you ever notice that when you win, unity is good, and when you lose, unity is bad? How ‘bout that!) Or maybe we think of unity as uniformity, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. Paul is after neither sort of unity. Apparently, the people in the Corinthian church are dividing themselves based on who baptized them. Whoever baptized you is your patron, or power broker, in the church, and you are their client. I’ve mentioned these patron-client relations in sermons ad nauseam because we have to keep them in mind when reading the New Testament. Patron-client relations are normal, normative. To stick with the metaphor in Matthew, being in patron-client relations is like being a fish in water. It is your natural habitat. You don’t consider leaving. So, the Church winds up with patron-client relations just like the rest of the world.

Paul attacks this, first. He has a lot of things to talk about in 1 Corinthians, but the problems in Corinth stem from this. At Corinth there are members of the church who possess a high standing in society outside of the Church, and who drag the civic courts into Church disputes. There are powerful families that arrange to allow stepsons to marry stepmothers in order to protect family power. (That’s not even legal outside the Church! But the Church was going along with it.) There are powerful people who have turned the Eucharist into a private drinking contest and make the poorer members go hungry. Paul sees this all as stemming from the patron-client world. They’ve divided themselves based on who baptized them, and those people are the powerful ones. Paul does not appeal to the people to stop in the name of human decency—he knows there is no such thing; human decency is what led to this. Paul does not appeal to the people to stop in the name of his being the patron, though he could. He is the big fish in their pond. No. He wants them out of the water. He appeals to them in the name of Christ, and not Christ’s power and glory, but Christ crucified.

Paul turns to a man tortured and humiliated hung up for the world to mock, dead in the most horrific fashion. It is not, as I said, an appeal to human decency. It is not, “How can you act this way when Christ is suffering?” It is an appeal to recognize this suffering man as the source of life. Paul says, “We’re all dead. We are crucified. Anything you had prior to your crucifixion is useless to you. What are you gonna do with it? You’re nailed to a cross!” The cross obliterates you. It’s like…being a fish out of water. Your fish days are over.

What would that mean for us? What would it mean to be fish out of water? What is “normal” for us that the cross obliterates? Normal is: we read the report from American and British climatologists that 2016 was the warmest year on record, the 16 years of this century are 16 of the 17 warmest on record, and that the Earth hasn’t been this hot in 115,000 years, and that our activity is causing it, and we know this. AND we don’t want to change anything about our lifestyles and resent anyone telling us we should. We have a lifestyle that destroys our ability to live. Normal is the little factoid released last week that the world’s eight richest people have as much wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest people. And that’s not because the game is “rigged,” but because it is a game and they’re winning. We’re just fish, playing a fish game. The point of the game is to keep playing, and if we want to keep playing we have to consume.

The thing with games is we don’t have to play them. We can stop. Paul wants the Corinthians to stop, and calls upon us to stop. Not because we see it is an unsustainable system—we all see it and we all don’t care. Not because we have a progressive liberal political agenda—Paul’s never heard of such a thing. To stop because Christ is our God and Christ has obliterated our old life. In the Cross, Christ has fished us. Christ has pulled us out of the old life in the sea and set us on dry land. The old way—the game—is dead to us and that is how we are alive. The cross is the end of the old and the beginning of the new. That’s how Paul can write to the Corinthians, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” When you’re in the water the cross (getting “fished”) looks awful (and it is); once Christ has dragged you out, you see the cross as a new start. We don’t have to chase the things that never satisfy. We don’t have to divide ourselves into eight rich and 3.6 billion poor. We don’t have to stay in the water, because of Christ.

The water is strong and tempts us to go back. Every day the other fish go about their business as though the Cross isn’t there, and they don’t understand why we celebrate our getting caught and pulled out of the water. So every day the cross looks foolish and powerful. Every day Christ reminds us that we were caught. We have been shown that the fish games are fish games. When we were baptized, God fished us out of the baptismal pool.

We keep that baptismal pool right in the middle of the room, because Jesus doesn’t say to Simon, Andrew, James, and John, “Hey, work sucks. Let’s go party!” No, he tells them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” All those fish who cannot understand why we celebrate getting caught? We get to go fish for them! We go fishing with the message of the cross. It is not an escape from reality. No, if anything the Cross sounds worse than reality. It’s the truth that, just as our brothers and sisters of 2,000 years ago in Corinth were playing a game Christ had not asked them to play, so we today find ourselves too often serving everything but Christ and each other. It is the truth that so much of life as the world tells us to live it is not necessary, and misses the point. It is the truth that all those temporary and transient things go to the Cross with Christ, and we are born anew.

So, if that nasty water beckons us, fine. We’ll swim in it. We’ll swim in it, bearing the message of the Cross and proclaiming it to every fish we meet. The message of the Cross can obliterate the game that impoverishes 3.6 billion. The message of the Cross can obliterate a system that leaves forty percent of Valparaiso residents unable to afford to live in Valparaiso. The message of the Cross can obliterate a “Normal” that says we have no choice but to destroy the world we live in. Human decency won’t do it. Appeals to authority won’t do it. Reason? Pff. We don’t have time for rational solutions! The message of the cross? Foolishness, but power. Power to tear down what kills us, and power to give life to something new, and the power to show that life to others.