Fishermen in the Sea of Galilee

Epiphany 3 – January 22, 2023

Life in Colorado

Newport foggy seaJanuary marks the start of my second year in Colorado.  From time to time, new friends ask: “What do you miss most leaving the East coast?” Top of the list are my oldest children, the two who remain in the East.  I miss old friends and all the familiar turns along the road of a lifetime.  Colorado has its own beauty. But I lived on or near the sea since childhood.  I shall never shake the yearning for the ocean. You Rhode Islanders know what I mean. Water and the livelihood of the sea surrounds us in Newport.  It is always beautiful.  Some days, the face of Narragansett Bay turns dark, threatening with wind and angry whitecaps.  The sea is the energy of life itself.  It is a life force that is never far from Jesus on his mission through Galilee.

Jesus in Galilee

Today, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, the heart of Israel.[i]  His coming is foretold by the Baptist who bursts upon us as a force out of the wilderness.  Jesus is baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. In that moment the Spirit descends like a dove and proclaims Jesus as the Son of God.  Now, filled with the Holy Spirit, the divine mission can begin.

There are good reasons for Jesus to withdraw from his home in Nazareth to Galilee.  It is no longer safe to remain in Nazareth. Herod Antipas jealously interprets the prophesy of a messiah as a political threat. The Baptist is arrested for sedition by Antipas.  So Matthew’s narrative relocates Jesus to relative safety in Galilee, fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah who declares:

…in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…on them light has shined. (Isa 9:1-4)

Fishermen in the Sea of GalileeAnd so it is from his own town, Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee that the dawning of the new light shall go forth. (9:1) Capernaum sits astride the main shoreline road, the “Way of the Sea” that leads from Damascus south to Egypt.  Like Interstate 95 from Maine to Miami, it is an important travel artery along which news travels fast.

Capernaum is the center of a productive fishing economy.[ii] It is the perfect place to launch a ministry of fishing.  As Jesus walks alongside the Sea of Galilee, we can almost smell the sea breeze, the salty aroma of sea creatures and dried seaweed. He calls out to the brothers, Simon and Andrew as they cast their nets into the sea.  He calls to the brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee. “Follow me…come and fish for people.” Turn from the dead, your fish, to the living.[iii] In their supreme demonstration of faith the four immediately relinquish their former lives, their families and livelihood.

Path of Discipleship

The four brothers will travel the path of discipleship, towards a destination they know not where.  You and I have read ahead. These four will travel the road that leads to Jerusalem and the cross.  James will become the first apostolic martyr, beheaded by Herod Agrippa. (Acts 12:2) Simon Peter and Andrew follow soon after, to their own crucifixion. Of the twelve, only John is thought to have lived to a natural death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes their act of faith: “Discipleship is not an offer one makes to Christ. It is the call which creates the situation. It is costly because it costs a person their life. It is grace because it gives one the only true life.”[1]  God calls us when we least expect.  Perhaps you have felt it as a gentle tug and only years later realize…’yes, yes, that was the special moment.’  Or God’s call may be dramatic, as St. Paul experiences on the road to Damascus.  The Benedictine Monk Jean Leclercq describes the call to faith in these words: “the love of the world lulls us; but, as if by a thunderclap, the attention of the soul is recalled to God.”[2]

Jesus will go forward drawing the faithful to him, casting his own net. On returning to Capernaum he is approached by a centurion, a Gentile.  Instinctively acknowledging Jesus’ authority, the centurion addresses Jesus as Lord and implores him to heal his paralyzed servant.  With only a word, Jesus immediately restores the servant to health. He announces to his followers: “I have not found anyone in Israel with faith like this”[iv] (Matt 8:5-13)

On their journey from Capernaum across a stormy Sea of Galilee Jesus reveals the power of faith to his terrified disciples. The disciples, all experienced boatmen, fear for their lives during a tempest at sea. Waking from a sound sleep, Jesus immediately calms the raging wind and sea, to the amazement of his companions.  As they disembark on the far shore, Jesus then expels the demons from the soul of a tortured man. (Mat 8:23-33) Drawn to Jesus as though a fish in his net, the man discovers his faith and goes forward as a disciple proclaiming the good news of Jesus. (Mk 5:20)

Miracles, yes.  But Jesus is truly the Big Fisherman. Through such miracles he casts his own net towards the faithful.  In Matthew’s gospel, the sea is the source from which faithful are netted.

FishermanJere Wells and I share a mutual love of fishing.  One day, Jere presented me with a book on the fishing life, entitled The Optimist.[3] These pages reveal that fishing requires skill and experience. But fishing is an act of faith. True, casting on a beautiful stream out in God’s creation is its own reward.  But the fish must complete the loop.  This means that success requires something beyond our control.  That’s why the angler must, at some level, be an optimist.  Every angler has their faith tested.  Again and again, cast after cast. Yet the true angler returns to the stream because they believe. That belief, that faith in completing the loop, lives in the heart of all disciples.  That faith carries them to their destiny as they cast their nets on the journey of discipleship.  Always, in the shadows just behind us stands Jesus, the ultimate optimist.



Works Referenced:

This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on January 22, 2023.

I am indebted to the following for their insights into the passage from Matthew:  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, (2007); Donald Senior, The Gospel of Matthew, Abington Press (1997); Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence, Westminster John Knox (2010; John T. Carroll, Jesus and the Gospels, Westminster john Knox (2016). I am grateful for their work that enriched my understanding of the lectionary for today.


Roger C. Bullard, MDiv



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. SCM Press

[2] Jean Leclercq, OSB, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, (Fordham University Press (1961), p. 30

[3] David Coggins, The Optimist, A Case for the Fly Fishing Life, Scribner (2021), p.10,11

[i] Senior, p 99

[ii] France, p 144

[iii] Carroll, p 94

[iv] Saunders, p 62-63