Psalm 67, John 21:15-25
April 29, 2018
A lot of thoughts come to mind when I read this story. First of all, let me explain this title. It was based on a TV commercial that was promoting reading among children. It was called “Reading is Fundamental.” Do you remember that? It was a long time ago.
Well, a little less time ago than that, I was at the installation service for a pastor friend of mine, and the preacher for the day used that thought, but “changed” it slightly, to this title, “Feeding is Fundamental.” And ever since then, that’s what I think about when I read this passage. This is the story from the end of John’s Gospel, where Jesus tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.”
As I said last week, the disciples had “gone fishing.” And, as I said, they had gone back to fishing. Because they were fishermen! And in this time between Easter and Pentecost, they didn’t know what to think. They thought their “adventure” with Jesus was over. And they were now returning to “life as it was before.”
But, Jesus said, “No!” “Life will be different from now on!” Now you will be leading this ministry. Now you will be telling people about God’s kingdom! And in doing so, he used this word which figures so prominently in this story, the word from my title – “feed.” He told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” In fact, he told him that three times! And in doing so, he was saying that “Feeding is Fundamental.”
That analogy of the congregation as “the flock to be tended,” has been used ever since. Remember, it wasn’t all that long before this that Jesus told them, “I am the good shepherd.” Now it was Peter who was to “tend the flock.” It was he who would be the leader, just as Jesus had been the leader. And of course that applied to all of them. And it applies to us! And that’s what I want us to think about today.
Now, before we go any further, we do need to mention this three-fold question. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” There is so much happening here! But the most obvious thing that people have noticed over the years is the correlation of these three questions with the three-fold denial of Jesus that Peter made just days before, at the time of Jesus’ arrest. Over the years, I’ve heard some people say that was only a coincidence. They’ve said that Jesus was simply making three points, and that’s the only reason for the three questions. I say, “Nonsense!” One of the biggest parts of this story is that Jesus is offering Peter a three-fold reconciliation here!
Sure, Jesus very well may have been making three points. But I’m also sure that Peter’s denial was still weighing veryheavily on his heart. And Jesus knew that. And there’s no doubt to me that he was offering Peter reconciliation for that failure. Remember, it wasonly a matter of days before that Peter was standing in the courtyard of the palace, swearing to a little servant girl that he had never even heard of this Jesus!
That’s a huge part of this story. And it reminds us that Jesus offers us the same redemption through the cross. And he knows our hearts just as he knew Peter’s heart. He knows what weighs heavily on ourhearts. And he offers each one of us reconciliation for our failures. Will we accept him when he confronts us with our faults? (Reconciliation is “resolution” for something, not just forgiveness!)
As this happens, I want you to notice two things. First, Jesus doesn’t call him “Peter.” He calls him by his original name, “Simon.” I think that toowould have gone straight to Peter’s heart. No longer was he what Jesus called him, “Peter, the Rock.” The Rock had crumbled. And Peter knew it! And Jesus was confronting him with that!
Then Jesus asked him, “Do you love me more than these?” It’s been said that there are three senses of that phrase. First, “Do you love me more than these?” meaning, “Do you love me more than you love these others?” In other words, “Is your love for me greater than your love for your friends?” That’s the first way of seeing this. Second, “Do you love me more than these men love me?” “Is your love the strongest love here?” And then finally, looking out across the boats, the nets, the fish, and the sea, he asked, “Do you love me more than these things?” In other words, “Do you love me more than these things, things that represent your way of life?” And that leads to the big picture here. “Because your way of life is about to change!”
Another thing that’s happening here has to do with the word “Love.” When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he uses the word “Agape.” “Agape” is the word in Greek that means “God’s Love.” Remember our “Agape Feast.” Well, Peter doesn’t answer with the same word! He answers using the word “Philos,” meaning “Brotherly Love.” (As in “The city of Brotherly Love.” – “Philadelphia!”) Some have said that Peter answered that way because he couldn’t rise to the level of “Love” Jesus was asking him about. He was too ashamed. But I’m not so sure. Consider this as an interpretation of Peter’s answer. Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter answered, “I love you like a brother!” That’s a little different, isn’t it? I think Peter may have been trying to express a greater intensity of love here!
This is truly a powerful scene, full of confrontation, high emotion, and yes, drama! And I believe it calls us to ask ourselves how much welove Jesus! It’s easy to saywe love him. But it’s notso easy to say “How much” Is it? Do we love him at the highest level? Do we love him like a brother? We need to think about that. And then that begs the next question. “If we do, then what?”
Jesus was very adamant about this part. Each of his questions was tied to a response. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” That is reminiscent to his statement in the upper room. Do you remember? “If you love me…” (What?) “…you will keep my commandments.”
Remember, “Love” is not a feeling. (Though it has feelings associated with it!) Love is an “action” word! Love is a choice! It is a choice of how we treat one another! If we love, we will show respect, treat with dignity, etc…
Well, the way Jesus used the word, it was an “action” word, too. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “If you love me, feed my sheep.” And there’s the word we started with! Of course, sheep need to be fed. Jesus didn’t need to explain that to these first century men. They knew that. And they knew what he was getting at. The people – the sheep – needed to be guided, built up, edified, encouraged, etc… They needed people to lead them and to nurture them.
They, the disciples, would need to learn how to do those things for each other. And of course, many of their letters in the New Testament tell usthe same thing! And remember, those New Testament passages about building up, edifying, encouraging, those were not written forthe New Testament leaders, they were fromthe leaders! They were about the people themselves– they were about us– doing the feeding.
The Church has always been about the people loving and supporting each other! You don’t just come to church “to be” fed. You also come to feed each other. You don’t come just“to be” encouraged, you come to encourage! You come to build up, to edify, to comfort, and to inspire each other. You come to “strengthen each others’ family ties with the household of God.” That’s what you promise to do every time we have a baptism!
Church is not just about what you “get.” It’s also about what you “give.” (And I don’t just mean your offering.) We talked last week about how our lives are to be “different,” how we are to be “the light of the world,” how we are to be compassionate, loving, joyful, etc… We talked about people seeing those things in us. We talked about how that is what other people are looking for! And when they see us doing that for each other, they’ll know that’s what they are looking for!
Again, Jesus talked about love as an “action word.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Now it’s “if you love me, you will feed my sheep.” And the thought I want to leave you with today is that I think a big part of that is Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will love the people I love.”
I’ll never forget the words of Tony Campolo. He said, “If you’re really a Christian, you will have your heart broken by the things that break the heart of God.” When we give our hearts to God, we connect our hearts with the heart of God. And when we do that, we will begin to havethe heart of God!
That’s what it means when Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Eternal God, indeed you know our hearts. Help us to become more like Jesus, and even more, to have the heart of Jesus. Help us to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. For we pray in the name of the one who called us to be such people, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.