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Belly of The Fish

Third Sunday after the Epiphany - January 24, 2021

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 + Psalm 62: 6-14 + 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 + Mark 1:14-20

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

+ I speak to you today in the name of the Three in One and One in Three.

As I reflected on the scriptures for today, it struck me as somewhat comical that the gospel presents us with a story about the call to discipleship among fisherman whom Jesus promises he will make “fishers of people.”

And this along-side a story of the prophet Jonah, a man who himself was swallowed by a giant fish, before being spit up on the shores of Nineveh to proclaim repentance among its inhabitants.

I wonder if perhaps reading the Book of Jonah through the lens of the gospel, that giant fish is not itself an archetype of Christ – himself the Great Fisher of People; A fish fishing for Jonah, as it were, who after being thrown overboard from a shipping vessel, is caught and dragged down to the depths of the primordial ocean, literally baptized in the belly of Christ, transformed in the depths of primeval chaos and death for three mysterious days – as long as Jesus himself lay in the tomb! And then as if resurrected in Christ, Jonah emerges again on the shores of Nineveh to become a proto-disciple, a man who was himself fished by a fish so to become like Christ, a fisher of people. Indeed, the call to discipleship in Mark’s gospel today is striking. We are told:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.’ And Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Did you hear that? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled on the immediacy of their response to the call of Jesus.

  • Whether the passage is a stylized account of the call to discipleship;

  • Whether it is intended to say something about the charisma, or power or authority of Jesus;

  • Whether it is a truncated account of events that, in fact, likely transpired over the course of months or even years.

But sometimes life teaches us what books cannot. So let me tell you a little story that has given me some insight:

I was not yet 11…Ok maybe 12 when my father took me fishing for the first…and what would turn out to be the last time.

Now, this was not your average father-son fishing excursion, mind you, like you might imagine off a pier on a sleepy lake, or perhaps floating gently along a river in a small canoe.

No! We went deep sea fishing in the Atlantic—the rough, tumultuous, stomach-churning, Atlantic Ocean – directly off the coast of what we all thought of as the “Joisey showa.”

Now - to be fair, this was not my father’s idea. We were invited to go along with a next door neighbor who had befriended my dad and who enjoyed the sport of deep-sea fishing for bluefish. And bluefish, mind you, are big – the larger ones are easily over two feet long and weigh up to some 25 lbs. which is why the fishing vessel itself was rather large, probably carrying some 30-40 passengers on the top deck.

After a long journey from port we arrived at our destination (i.e., the middle of nowhere), which it turns out has the distinctive smell of cigarette smoke, diesel fuel, and chum – that is, the fish parts that were being freshly pulverized by gigantic onboard meat grinders before being thrown over the side of the ship in bucketful’s, in order to attract the nearby schools of bluefish and, as it turned out, not a few modest-size sharks.

Now, the railing along the whole perimeter of the ship, had metal rings soldered onto the vertical poles every several feet. These rings were used to anchor the fishing poles which then hung over the side of the ship, variously bending and arching as this or that hook caught hold of yet another fish.

And every time I heard the sudden whirl fishing line unfurling from its spool the struggle began and I found myself secretly rooting for the fish.

The fisherman would give some lead then reel it in again, give some lead again and reel in a bit more: the pole arching and bending to what seemed like a breaking-point as the fish struggled to free themselves from the hook. The battle could go on for the better part of an hour.

Fishing, it turns out, is hard work.

But once caught, the fish were placed tall canvas sacks that hooked onto the railing to keep them upright. Deep and narrow, once placed inside the fish would have no means of escaping back into the ocean. But they DID live for much longer than I would have otherwise imagined.

Frantically flopping and flapping, writhing around one another at the bottom of the sack, their mouths gaping open and closing again, their gills expanding and retracting. It looked like a terrible death – “like drowning in reverse,” I remember thinking. And when I couldn’t take it anymore I approached my dad in dismay.

“I want to go around the entire boat and empty the canvas sacks of all their fish – to let them go back into the ocean!”

“You can’t do that,” he said to me gently – yet unable to hide his fear that I just might be serious. “They would throw us overboard…” he said only half-jokingly. I thought of Jonah…and then of the sharks circling just off the bow of the ship…and how terrible it would be to be eaten by them, much less swallowed whole and dragged to the bottom of the ocean. “The one with the biggest fish,” my father continued, “will get a prize at the end of the day.” I had heard enough. I was dissuaded.

But, “The end of the day” couldn’t come fast enough for me. And, as I would only find out much later, so too for my dad. Turns out, our father and son fishing days had come and gone in the course of 8 hours and neither of us much cared to look back.

The smell of diesel fuel, cigarettes, and fish chum…The sea sickness…The squirming fish gasping for a last breath…The blazing hot sun with nowhere to hide. It is absolutely unfathomable that anyone would find this enjoyable.

So, it is not at all difficult for me to imagine that if Jesus had walked up to me that day and said, “Hey!” Would you rather do THIS for the rest of your life or come follow me so I can make you fishers of people? Frankly, I’m not even sure if I would have known what he meant by that, and I don’t think I would have cared. I can assure you my response would have been as swift and unblinking as the disciples in the gospel today:

“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Thanks to my dad’s little “father-and-son fishing excursion,” now I know why! Fishing sucks! And unlike me, James and his brother John Immediately left their father Zebedee in the boat when Jesus called. Not sure I would have gone that far, but it would have been tempting.

So we have this strange, indeed somewhat comical juxtaposition of two scriptural texts in which men who are fishing for fish are called to fish for people; and a giant fish who fishes for a man precisely to transform him into a fisher of people as well.

As I consider these narratives through the lens of my own fishing excursion, it seems to me that the vessel we were on is like a microcosm of the worst aspects of modern society: tossed around by the waves of social and political tensions; polluting the air with our fossil fuels; everyone competing to win the prize at the end of the day, to come out ahead of the rest, all the while never being quite sure which direction is safe harbor.

I think it is precisely from this kind of world that Jesus called his first disciples and indeed still calls us today. The world without Christ is hard, and perhaps the immediacy of the disciple’s response has as much to do with what they were running away from as it did with where Jesus promised to take them. Perhaps, they thought, anything is better than this hard life of endless toil as a fisherman.

With Jonah, it was quite the opposite. He was running away too! But in his case, he was running from the very call to discipleship he had received not long before. Hoping to escape to the proverbial ends of the earth where he might avoid this divine summons, he set sail for Tarshish, only to be tossed into the sea by the other sailors once they realized the storms that threatened to swamp their boat would be quelled in doing so.

I wonder if perhaps it is ever really possible to become fishers of people unless and until we ourselves are caught by that great archetypal Fish (who is Christ) and baptized like Jonah in the depths of primordial chaos.

It is the fish, let us not forget, that becomes one of the most ancient symbols for Christ owing to the Greek word for fish: ἸΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), which is an acronym for "Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ"[Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr] which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Indeed in the catacombs outside Rome one can find many a fresco depicting the Last Supper with wine and fish on the table, rather than wine and bread. The implication is that the bread has been transformed into the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Indeed when Christ calls the disciples to become fishers of people, they could not then have known the extent to which they themselves, indeed their entire lives, would be consumed by that Great Fish, the ἸΧΘΥΣ, Christ, who demands nothing less.

I wonder too, then, if the life the disciples thought they were escaping was in the end, any less difficult than their life lived in the company of Christ. Like Jonah, and James and John, many of us may well come to Christ because we are running from something or perhaps because we think we are running to something. But it is not until we are swallowed up whole that we will ever realize the meaning, indeed the terror and the beauty of Christian discipleship.

It was the same disciples, after all, whose very call we learned of today who not long after will come to display their gross misunderstanding of what it means to be swallowed whole in the belly of the ἸΧΘΥΣ. Mark 10 tells us:

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39They replied, “We are.”

But of course they had no idea what they were consenting to – a life of persecution that would end in martyrdom. But not before they would over and over again die to themselves that Christ might live in them for the sake of others.

It would take them many long years to live into that promise, that commitment. Many long years to drink that cup held out before them by Christ; to undergo a baptism, like Jonah, that would transform them into mature disciples seeking not seeking their own glory but to become the embodiment of God’s love and mercy. Indeed, it would take many long years before they would stop and embrace in one moment both their fate and their destiny.

In the end, it matters little how each of us comes to Christ: Whether we are running to something or from something; whether we really understand from the start or only gradually the cost and the gift of discipleship. None of us can become fishers of people until realize that, we ourselves have been caught.

May the catching be good. +


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