By Suzii Paynter
For many years, I have worshipped beneath these beautifully simple fishing nets draped across the chancel of the sanctuary at First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas. Nets are not a common item in our 21st century American culture, but they were oddly present in the Gospel accounts. In Matthew and Mark, disciples are casting nets, washing nets and leaving nets to follow Jesus. The fifth chapter of the Gospel of Luke describes Jesus teaching multitudes from a boat and then directing Simon to push out and let down his net that is soon full of fish after Simon’s obedience to Jesus’ command.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is described as a net full of squirmy fish of many kinds. It is a picture of abundance and God’s generous strength; and although laden, the nets do not break.
John returns to nets late in his Gospel. Post-resurrection, when the disciples don’t know it’s Jesus, he directs them to recast their empty net and find it full. Their eyes open to Jesus’ presence upon obeying his direction.
These biblical reminders have forever linked the simple net as an image of call and resilient discipleship. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been called a “big tent” organization — I prefer “big net.” A tangle of twine creates unexpected strength in the form of very breakable parts, which, when knotted and woven together, are strong and fruitful.
We have some net-casting to do and some net-mending too. Listening to the news of strife and dissension, seeking solidarity with Christians around the world, dodging the polarization and reductionism of tit-for-tat communication, healing and tending needs in ministry prompt me to ask of us as CBF Christ-followers — where shall we cast a net in obedience toward resilient discipleship?
One direction is clear: God has brought us to the starboard deck of global faith and we are beckoned toward stronger relationships with Baptist Christians around the world. Our work in each congregation is to build resilient discipleship in all quarters of the world — in spite of our cultural and interpretive differences. Faced with the searing image of kneeling Coptic martyrs on the shore of the Mediterranean, the cruel brutality of a violent regime left me with the feeling of sheer helplessness and undeniable connectedness. In a small gesture of Christian solidarity, I spoke their names aloud in prayer.
Casting a wide net begins at home.
Net work speaks out. The acts and lives of ordinary Christians engaged in acts of love bear repeating. Were it not for her tragic death in Syria, we would never have seen the letters of Kayla Mueller. She was a faithful woman. Hear Kayla’s words:
“I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no one else…+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”
After reading these words, journalist Krista Tippett of On Being remarked: “[Kayla’s] letter to her parents, sent while in captivity, reminds me of my reading of mystics and saints across the ages, including Julian of Norwich and Mother Theresa…our world is abundant with quiet, hidden lives of beauty and courage and goodness. There are thousands, if not millions, of people at any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all.”
Kayla was herself a knotted place in the net of Christ-like love.
When Jesus pulled the fishermen away from the shore and said they would be fishers of men, he was making of them a net to catch the world in free fall. We need to be a big net, not for diversity sake, but because the world in free fall is so big and in need of reconciling and healing love. Join in and be formed together with CBF missions and ministries and churches across the United States and around the world in resilient discipleship. Although laden, the net will not break.
Suzii Paynter serves as Executive Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.