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Feeding the Sheep and Following the Shepherd

Feeding Jesus’ sheep means following Jesus as his disciples.  We cannot do one without the other.

1Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3″I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

11Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” -John 21:1-19 NIV.

A Moment For Redemption

Three years ago, this was the lectionary reading for this Sunday.  But events on the Virginia Tech campus where 32 people were killed by a lone gunman consumed our thoughts that day.  So today we return to this text with a different perspective than we had three years ago when we asked “Where is God In Our Tragedy?”

Today we come to this text to see two commands from Jesus to Peter, but also to us.  Those two commands are:  feed and follow.
The first command provides an opportunity for Peter’s redemption.  Let me set the scene:

In the last week of Jesus’ life and ministry, events unfolded like this:

  • Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adulation of the crowds and the disciples.
  • Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples in an upper room.
  • He was betrayed by Judas, arrested by the chief priests’ guard and was accused of blasphemy.
  • During his trial, Simon Peter was the only disciple recorded to have followed Jesus.  But when Peter is identified as a follower of Jesus, he denies three times that he is Jesus’ disciple.  Jesus had warned Peter that before the rooster crowed, Peter would betray him.
  • Jesus is crucified, and buried in a borrowed tomb hastily because it was approaching sundown on Friday, and the beginning of the Sabbath.
  • When the women who also followed Jesus went early on Sunday morning to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, they found the stone rolled away, the grave empty, and angels who told them that Jesus was not there, he was risen.
  • The women told the other disciples who came to see the empty tomb for themselves, but remained puzzled and fearful.

Jesus appears to the disciples twice before our story today.  Once to all but Thomas, and then a second time which included Thomas.

This is the third appearance Jesus had made to the disciples since his resurrection.

The conversation with Peter is an interesting one.  Jesus three times asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?”  Now, in the Greek there are different words for “love” that Jesus uses, and much has been made about Jesus’ changing the Greek word for “love” each time he asks Peter, “Do you love me?”

My point today, however, is simply to focus on the bigger picture.  Jesus was giving Peter a chance to say three times, “I love you” as a way to redeem himself from his three-time denial only days before.

So, over and over and over, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter, not understanding the significance of the conversation answers “Yes” each time, except the third time Peter seems a little aggravated.

“Lord, you know all things.  You know I love you.”  Jesus did indeed know all things, and I am sure he knew Peter loved him.  But Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself publicly, after shaming himself publicly during Jesus’ arrest.

Feeding The Sheep

But Jesus gives Peter a specific command each time Peter answers the question “Do you love me?”

When Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”  we might expect Jesus to say, “Great, Peter!”  or “That’s a better answer than you gave a few days ago.”  Or something like that.

But instead Jesus responds to Peter’s testimony of love for Christ with a command expressed three different ways:
“Feed my lambs.”
“Take care of my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”

Some folks have tried to make a big deal out of the nuances of Jesus’ commands to Peter, and have seen big distinctions in Jesus’ command to first feed his lambs, then take care of his sheep, then feed his sheep.  But I think they’re really all the same command — take care of the flock.  Tend the sheep.  Feed them, nurture them, care for them.

And, who are the sheep?  Well, the sheep are those whom God is gathering.  The sheep are the lost nation of Israel that Jesus began to gather by gathering 12 disciples — each one representing a tribe of Israel.  The sheep are God’s people for whom Jesus died and rose again.  The sheep are all who hear the shepherd’s voice, and follow him.

Peter is being given a big assignment.  But, it’s not only to Peter, but Peter is the unelected leader of the disciple band.  Peter is the outspoken, bigger-than-life character who impulsively follows Jesus, throws himself into the sea to walk on water as Jesus did, who defends Jesus at his arrest by cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant, and who is the only disciple we know of who follows Jesus to the garrison where Jesus is being tried.

So, Jesus is speaking to Peter, giving him a chance at redemption. But Jesus is also giving the disciples their instructions for the future — feed my sheep.

Feeding, of course, implies care.  Amy, our youngest daughter, and Randy her husband have some goats and chickens on their farm in Tennessee.  Actually, they have some cow and horses, too, but the cows and horses seem better at feeding themselves than the goats and chickens.  So, everyday either Amy or Randy, or our grandson Wesley, has to feed the goats, clean out their barn, and put new hay, food, and water in their stalls.  There’s more to feeding than just throwing food out.

Of course, if you were a shepherd in the first century in Judea, you didn’t feed your sheep Purina Sheep Chow, or whatever it’s called.  Part of the feeding of the sheep was to take them to graze on a hillside or mountain that had fresh grass the sheep could eat.  Along with herding the sheep to a suitable pasture came the responsibility for protecting them, guarding them, watching after them, and counting them at periodic intervals to make sure they were all there.

Just a few chapters before this, John had recorded the words of Jesus when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.”  And, here’s what Jesus, as the good shepherd did to care for his sheep —

  • He calls his sheep by name and leads them out.
  • The sheep follow him because they know his voice.
  • Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.”   The shepherd would literally lie down across the opening to the sheepfold so he knew if any sheep tried to wander away, or if any predators tried to get at the sheep.
  • The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
  • The good shepherd has other sheep, and he will unite both flocks so there is one flock.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, and how the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep who are safely in the fold to find the one sheep who has wandered away.  So, the shepherd’s role is to care for the sheep, even to the point of giving his life for their safety.

Following the Shepherd

But then Jesus gives Peter the second command.  After indicating that Peter also would die for the sheep, Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”  Two words, but words that we too hear from Jesus — follow me.  What does Jesus mean?  After all, Peter has followed Jesus.  He followed him after Jesus called him and his brother Andrew who were fishing.  Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  And, however strange that might have sounded to Peter and Andrew, they literally left their nets and followed Jesus.

But in today’s text, the fishermen-turned-disciples have turned back to fishing.  Maybe in telling Peter again, “Follow me” Jesus was reminding him of his first calling there by the sea.  Perhaps this became a new beginning for Peter, a new call in light of Peter’s redemption.  Whatever the reason, we are reminded by Jesus’ command to Peter that this business of being a Christian is first and foremost a call to follow Jesus.

But, how do we follow Jesus today?  We know how Peter did it — he physically walked with Jesus down dusty Galilean and Judean roads.  Peter followed Jesus into the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus announced his mission, but was then rejected.  Peter followed Jesus to the hillside and heard the new way of living in the Kingdom of God we call the Sermon on the Mount.  Peter had followed Jesus brashly, boldly, and with great courage, even following Jesus to the site of Jesus’ trial.

But from this point on, this following of Jesus would be different that it had been.  For now Jesus was leaving the ministry to the disciples, just as he does to us today.  Of course, he does not leave us alone, for as we saw last week, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them, his Holy Spirit.  He promised to be with them and in their midst where even two or three were gathered.

But still this would be a different kind of following for Peter, as well as for us today.  How is it different?  How do we follow Jesus today?

First, following Jesus means being a disciple, not just making a decision.

While we must all decide to follow Jesus as our Lord, our following him will find expression in how we live our lives.  In other words, this is not just a decision or one moment in time where we say, “I’ve become a Christian.”  To be a follower of Jesus is to be his disciple.  Now we’ve lost the meaning of that word “disciple” today, but in Jesus’ day it meant an apprentice, one who joined company with a master teacher to either learn a craft or a way of life.  A disciple learned to be like his master, to do what his master did, to imitate the actions of his master so that one day he could carry on the tradition as a master craftsman himself.  To follow Jesus means to join his company, learn his ways, imitate his life, so that we can carry on his message for others who come after.

According to Mennonite theologian, Norman Kraus, “Jesus was no new, or novel, word about God, but rather the eternal self-expression of God now focused in this one life for the salvation of the world.”  In other words, everything we need to know about God, we know through Jesus.

Second, following Jesus means we read the Bible through the life of Jesus.

What do I mean by that?  Well, here’s a good example:  In Exodus 21:23-25, the Bible says,

23 “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” -Exodus 21:23-25 NIV

Now this sounds reasonable.  This is a great example of retributive justice with consideration for the extent of the injury.  So, if someone knocks our your tooth, you can’t kill him.  That would be too harsh.  But, to even the score, you can knock out his tooth. Same with an eye:  if someone puts out one of your eyes, you can’t take his life, but you can take his eye in measured retribution.

These were reasonable, and even revolutionary laws when God gave them to Moses, because the uncivilized world knew nothing but death and destruction when it came to avenging an offense.  So, for God to give them a law that limited vengeance and retribution to make the punishment fit the crime, was a big step forward.  And, amazingly, it is still a principle we employ today in our legal system.

But, by Jesus day, the spirit of the law — acting with restraint to preserve the community — was being lost.  So, Jesus said,

38″You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Jesus recovered the original intent of the law — preservation of community — an elevated the conduct of his followers so that he eliminated retribution.  So, we can no longer simply turn to Exodus and say, “Bible says, ‘eye for an eye’ so we can take our vengeance on those who wrong us.”

When we read the Bible through the life and ministry of Jesus, it makes a huge difference.  The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message said,

“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” -BF&M, 1963

Third, following Jesus means we do what Jesus did.

I do not mean that we wear a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, although that’s not a bad thing to do if you really do what Jesus did.  What I do mean is that we look at Scripture, we see how Jesus lived, what he said, the actions he took, and we do those same things.  Some are easy — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Some are hard — “Turn the other cheek”; but in our spiritual journey we are followers of Jesus, not followers of a philosophy, a political party, or the whims of our culture.  We are Jesus-followers, and as such, we do what Jesus did.

Thomas a Kempis famous book, The Imitation of Christ, captured the idea of following Jesus by doing what Jesus did.

I am not saying that it is easy to do what Jesus did, but I am saying that is what he calls us to do.  The Sermon on the Mount is not just the wish of Jesus that things were different.  No, the Sermon on the Mount is the description of how life is lived in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus came announcing the Kingdom.  The Gospel of Mark records the words of Jesus, “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”  – Mark 1:15

When asked what were the two greatest commandments, Jesus replied, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  And then he included as the neighbor the most hated group of people that Jews could imagine — the Samaritans.  Oh, and for the ultimate example of doing what Jesus did, read Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “In as much as you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me.”  And what Jesus talked about us doing was feeding the hungry, offering cold water to those who thirst, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners.  In other words, feeding the sheep.  Taking care of the flock.  Ministering to others because when we do we are caring for Jesus himself.

Finally, following Jesus means we follow him in community.

This business of following Jesus is not a solo trip.  As a matter of fact, the New Testament never speaks of followers of Jesus except in some type of community.  It is only as the church, in all of its expressions, bears witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, is the world able to know who Jesus is.

Being a follower of Jesus is not just a personal ticket to heaven for us individually.  Rather, as we follow Christ, we join with others here in this place, and all who have ever followed Christ, to bear witness to the fact that “this same Jesus” who was crucified on a cross, God has raised up and made Lord of all.  One person cannot bear that message, one person cannot live that life, one person cannot embody all the gifts of God’s Spirit, meet all the needs of God’s world, or offer all the praise due to God.  Only together, only in community with fellow-believers, only as the body of Christ, can we truly follow Christ.

When Jesus says to us, as he did to Peter, “Follow me” he fills us with his Spirit, he equips us with his gifts, he guides us with his Presence, he protects us with his Power, and he keeps us with his love.  Two commands — “feed the sheep” and “follow me.” We cannot do the first, without doing the second.