Draw the Other Arc
Today’s scriptures are nothing but a bunch of fish stories.
You know what I mean, “I went out today and I caught a disciple this big!”
Or in Jonah’s case, “I got thrown off a ship in the middle of a hurricane and got eaten by a fish this big!”
What is it about fish stories?
Why does the fish always have to be this big?
We do that about a lot of things in our lives, though, don’t we?
We may not talk about it in terms exactly that blunt and unsubtle, but we’re happy to tell our friends about our big car or our big job or our super successful children or our ministry that is growing by the day.
There’s one thing we don’t often brag about, maybe because many of us can’t, myself included.
The size and depth of our commitment to our discipleship.
How far we’re willing to go for Jesus.
What we’re really willing to give up for the sake of the gospel.
Because that’s the other thing these stories are about: the cost of discipleship.
If discipleship is easy, it’s not true discipleship.
That doesn’t mean that we should be moaning, miserable martyrs—there is and should be a great deal of freedom and joy in following Jesus.
But there are also some major things we may be called upon to give up, and we don’t like to talk about that, at least not for any longer than a pious and virtuous six weeks of self-sacrifice during Lent.
What did the characters in our stories today give up?
Jonah went through a lot in his journey toward doing the will of God. And what he gave up, he did not give up willingly!
He was dragged kicking and screaming into answering God’s call to him.
The minute he heard what God was commanding him to do, he literally tried to run away from God, fleeing to Tarshish.
Surely God wouldn’t be able to find him in Tarshish, Jonah thought.
Surely God won’t be able to find me in Terre Haute or Columbus or South Bend, we might think.
But God caught up to him, and Jonah was thrown off a ship in a raging storm and eaten by a whale.
Having gone through this terrible physical and spiritual trial, Jonah was truly convicted by the time he was coughed up on land. He went immediately to Nineveh to share God’s message.
But his eight-word message, the shortest sermon ever preached in the Bible, worked, and he didn’t like that.
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah said.
And the people of Nineveh responded, repenting in sackcloth and ashes.
Jonah was furious.
After he went to all the trouble of surviving a hurricane and whale ingestion, he felt he at least deserved to see a city get blown up by God. But no such luck.
As he pouted outside the city, God caused a plant to grow up to shade him from the hot sun. But then a worm came and ate the plant, and Jonah said it would be better for him to die.
His attitude reminds me of what we might have heard as children when we were pouty: “Pull in that lower lip or you might trip over it.”
Jonah’s following of God has a cost, both physical and emotional.
The physical cost is obvious—fighting through storms and fish and sun.
The emotional cost is that his obedience to God brings him no satisfaction.
That is a painful reality to name in our own lives.
Many times doing the right thing is immensely satisfying.
We are so happy to see someone else’s live improved by our service or giving, and we have the joy of knowing we are growing in our own discipleship.
But there are times when there is no reward for doing the right thing.
There are times when no one will see or notice our efforts, there are times when doing the right thing will have a great personal cost to us, and there are times when we try to act according to God’s will and things end up in an even bigger mess than they started.
But we are not promised an earthly reward for our service to God.
We may work and work and work and feel like we have nothing to show for it.
Can we stay faithful in those situations?
The people in our gospel story faced a great cost to their discipleship as well.
A woman once said in a Bible study I was leading, “I just can’t help but think Peter and Andrew and James and John were being horribly irresponsible! They ran off and left their jobs and families to chase after a stranger!”
She’s right. They were irresponsible.
Although we don’t think of it that way because at least it’s supposed to be the norm in our society, discipleship is neither responsible nor practical.
In order to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to give up everything else.
We are blessed to live in a society in which we don’t usually have to give up nearly as much as the first disciples did—but we have to be willing to give everything up if we are called upon to do so.
And it’s so easy to live a half-baked, surface Christian life, where our faith commitments never really impinge on our comfortable, day-to-day lives.
We get to follow Jesus but keep our cable TV and our big homes and our good names and reputations and our snug place in our society.
The first disciples didn’t have that luxury.
When they left their boats that day, they may never have seen their wives, children, and parents ever again.
And yet they knew the instant they met Jesus that he was worth any sacrifice.
Do we have that kind of devotion to Jesus?
The first Christians had to be ready to make that kind of sacrifice at any moment. For them, Christianity was literally a life or death matter.
They could be hauled before a court and told to prove they worshipped the emperor, and if they refused to make sacrifice to Caesar, they could get the death penalty.
Christianity was illegal, a secret underground movement.
We began this sermon talking about our scriptures, the fish stories. Well, the fish became one of the earliest symbols of the Christian movement, and it was a secret means of communication between believers. It was used to mark meeting places and tombs.
Why did the early Christians use the fish as often as the cross to identify themselves?
Think of the other important fish stories in the New Testament.
Jesus feeds the five thousand with loaves and fishes.
When Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection in the Gospel of Luke, he asks them if they have anything to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish.
Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a net full of fish in the Gospel of Matthew.
When Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection in the Gospel of John, they have been fishing all night with no luck. Then he tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and suddenly the nets are bursting with the fresh catch. Then they bake fish for breakfast together on the beach.
So fish are so important in the gospels, and they have the theological connection to the water of baptism.
The word fish in Greek is “ichthys.” The Greek letters, iota, chi, theta, upsilon, sigma, form an acronym: Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, which means Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. So that makes Jesus “ichthys,” or the big fish, and we are the little fish, born in baptismal waters, as Tertullian said.
And here is where we connect back to our Old Testament story.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke: “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
I never understood that before, but I finally got it as I was working on this sermon.
Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, and then finally brought back out of the deep waters of death to life on the shore.
So the same will happen to Jesus and he is telling the people that.
He will have to enter the deep waters of death and return to life on the third day.
So the same happens to us in our baptism. We are buried with Christ in the waters and then raised to new life. We become part of the sign of Jonah.
The early Christians lived in this rich world of symbolism, and that is why they were carving fishes into the doorposts of their homes and the walls of the catacombs in their underground worship spaces.
But the fish was used in one more way that helped people decide every day whether they were ready to accept the cost of discipleship.
When a Christian would meet someone new in the marketplace or the streets, he or she would draw one arc of the fish in the dirt on the ground.
If the other person was a Christian and brave enough to respond, he or she would draw the other arc and complete the fish drawing.
This took two acts of major courage.
The first person had to be brave enough to reach out and start the drawing, and the second person had to be brave enough to finish it.
Both of them were taking a big risk.
They were outing themselves as Christians, and there was no guarantee the other person would not turn them in to the Romans.
But they took the risk because the fellowship and relationship they gained with each other was worth it.
Can we say the same for ourselves?
If we were in that situation, where death for Christians lay around every corner (which as you know is true for some of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world today), what would we do?
Would we be brave enough to reach out to a stranger and draw the first arc of the fish on the ground?
And if someone did that to us, would we have the courage to finish the sign of Jonah, the sign of Jesus, in the dirt, knowing that if things go badly, this could be a death sentence, but if things go right, we have gained a new brother or sister?
These are the hard questions we have to ask ourselves.
I believe in us.
I think we do have the courage.
We are blessed that we don’t have to risk as high of stakes as the first Christians, but we are called upon to risk for our faith every day.
Every time we talk to a friend or acquaintance or stranger about faith, we are drawing the first line of the fish in the dirt.
Every time we get our giving and our time and our passion behind a new project at church, we are drawing the second line of the fish in the dirt, completing the art of the sign of Jesus.
Look for those opportunities to risk for the sake of the kingdom.
Then your fish story, when you talk about how God called you to do something scary and new that was this big, will seem fantastic and amazing, not because it is unbelievable, but because it is true.
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