When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these [others love me]?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
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." — John 21:15-17
Last Sunday, in a sermon which I wish I had been present to hear, Pastor Tom told us about Jesus' third appearance to his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection. They had been out on the Sea of Galilee all night fishing, without catching anything. When they return to the shore at dawn, they see Jesus, who invites them to have breakfast with him.
Today, we pick up the story in the very next verse of John's gospel, after they've all finished eating breakfast together. Jesus puts some hard questions to Simon Peter, but he doesn't ask them during the meal. After all, Peter and the other fishermen have just put in a hard night's work and are famished. So he waits until breakfast is over and Peter can think clearly before beginning a serious discussion.
Last week as I read through John 21 to prepare this message, I thought the verses following today's passage could be used as some kind of a message to our many senior citizens:
"Very truly I tell you, 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."
But then I saw that we were getting into a whole 'nother subject because verse 19 explains that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. So there's a message which we'll have to save for another day. Back to today's message!
What does he mean? Just what does Jesus mean in the commands he gave Peter, anyway? Jesus often taught by using parables, and these are just a few of the meanings of what he said that morning which come to me:
Why so much talk of sheep and lambs? We need to remember that, in the Palestine of 2,000 years ago, there were two industries which were very familiar to most people – fishing and agriculture. If you lived near the sea, you caught fish. If you worked the land, you might raise crops such as wheat, barley and grapes and you might herd sheep. So it's no wonder that Jesus' teachings and other parts of the Bible make lots of references to shepherds and sheep. They illustrate concepts which the people of that time and place could recognize and understand instantly.
What we now know as the Christian faith was just getting started when Christ was crucified. There were many new followers who had barely heard of Jesus and his teachings. That morning by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus entrusted to Peter and to his other disciples the task of watching over these many new believers and of nourishing their faith. In one way or another, these first disciples didn't let the faith die out, but helped spread it to all parts of the Roman Empire, and then to all the world.
And how was Peter prepared for feeding Christ's lambs? First, by being fed himself. Peter had been a part of Christ's ministry on earth since it began. He was nourished regularly by Christ's words and teachings. When the Lord calls someone to do his work, he gives him the preparation necessary for it. On this day, Peter was also nourished physically – The Lord gave him a breakfast before giving him a commission. Before you set about doing Christ's work, nourish yourself on his teaching!
In Matthew 10, Christ speaks of going out to "the lost sheep of Israel". In Luke 15, we read the parable of the "one lost sheep". In John 10, Christ calls himself "the good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep", and the "gate for the sheep", and says that his sheep will follow him because they "know his voice". The best preparation for feeding Christ's sheep is love – love for Jesus and for them. A shepherd who doesn't love his sheep is just going through the motions. He will flee in the time of danger, and leave his flock to the wolves. The shepherd must care enough for his flock that he's willing to go through any dangers they might encounter to keep them safe.
I'm sure there's a close connection between today's scripture, and this other passage from Mark 10:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant [or "much displeased"]. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
If you spend a few moments googling, you find there are numerous ministries which use Feed My Sheep for their titles. There's even a ministry which started in Georgia called Feed My Lambs, Inc., which provides schools and preschools to poor children in Georgia, in Africa, and in México, and another Christian ministry in California, also called Feed My Lambs, founded by Dr. Laurie Daly, a Christian teacher and pastor, which seeks to "provide children with fun Christian activities and media".
In all churches, the education and nurture of children plays an important role. At Orangethorpe United Methodist Church, a "Children's Time" has been a regular part of our Sunday service for many years. Even though most of our children have grown up and moved out long ago, we still reach out to little ones in the community around us, via Preschool and Cub Scouts and the annual Vacation Bible School. And then there's a program which is very dear to my own heart, Orangethorpe Learning Center.
Another way in which we "feed the sheep" is through ministries which provide food, and other help, for the many people of the world who are lacking the most basic necessities of life. In our own denomination, there's the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). It's a worldwide emergency relief organization which provides relief in five areas: Hunger, Health, Refugees, Emergencies, and Relief Supplies.
In Fullerton, OUMC is involved in "feeding the sheep" in many ways. This afternoon, many of us will take part in the annual "CROP Hunger Walk" which supports Church World Service and its programs around the world and in the United States which combat hunger.
For a long time, we've participated in FIES, now known as Pathways of Hope, which provides food and shelter to the needy.
We're one of five churches which are a part of Hot Meal Ministry, which has been serving dinner at the church down the street every Monday night for 18 years.
Even more locally, right here at OUMC, we provide food from Second Harvest Food Bank's mobile pantry one or two Saturdays a month to help feed several hundred people. That's something which Pastora Teresa and our Latino Ministry started about ten years ago, and which Pastor Sergio and members of both the Latino and Anglo Ministries have continued ever since.
Speaking of pastors, those of us who speak Spanish know that pastor and shepherd are the same word. The man who was told, that morning in Galilee, to care for the sheep was the first pastor to whom Christ entrusted his flock. We continue to do Peter's work today. We follow the paths shown us by the Good Shepherd and invite others to follow us in those paths.
A great Mexican poet, Amado Nervo, once wrote a poem entitled, simply, Pastor:
Shepherd, I bless you for what you give me; if you give me nothing, still I bless you. I'll follow you if you go among roses; I'll follow you still, if you go through thistles and brambles. With you in less, with you in more, but always with you.
The scriptures are full of examples of Jesus' concern for "the least, the last, and the lost", and "the poorest of the poor". These are the people whom he was commanding Peter to serve and lead. He continues to command his followers down through the centuries to be shepherds. And down through the centuries, people still heed his command and do his work, feeding his sheep, welcoming his children and consoling the poor. I feel especially blessed to have been here at OUMC over the past 36 years and to have known people like Stan Ault, Quent Edwards, Dave Johnson and Mary Harvey, who have taken Jesus' commands to heart and put them into practice.
I congratulate all you who are feeding and tending Christ's sheep and lambs. I urge you to continue doing so and invite you to keep finding new ways to feed his flock.