Sheep and lambs?’
May 5, 2019
Scripture: John 21:1-17, 19b
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
This is, and remains one of the most delightful passages in scripture. It also however, is one of the most challenging in what Jesus is asking of his disciples…as well as of us. On the surface we see Jesus almost playfully asking the age-old question asked of ‘fisherfolk’…‘Hey, did you catch anything’? Now sometimes, that is answered in the affirmative, but usually the response is a ‘no’, more often than not I think, in order not to give away a good spot if in fact someone is actually having luck!
But in our case, it is even more fun because Jesus is asking the same men who left their lifelong fishing careers on the water to follow after him in the first place. Men who had fished all night long without so much as a single fish to show for their efforts. And it is these same ones who he encourages to ‘try throwing their nets out on the other side of the boat’ in order to be more successful. Can you imagine the glances that must have been cast back and forth between Peter and the others upon this seeming stranger’s request to actually tell them how to fish, and to do so none the less by offering what seems to be ludicrous advice? ‘Put out the nets on the other side of the small fishing boat?’ Don’t you think they would have tried that repeatedly during the night in their attempts to make some kind of a catch?
Well as we know, they took that stranger’s advice and lo’ and behold, the nets were full to almost breaking…so fun, so playful…so very much our God.
But of even greater interest to me is the opening statement that sets up our story in which John tells us that, ‘Jesus showed himself to them in this way’. This seems to set up what I read as an over-riding theme here that appears to indicate that in fact the disciples did not know at first who it was on the beach, and that even after John’s excited claim that it was in fact Jesus, they all still seemed quite unsure of who it was who worked this great catch of fish right there in front of them.
And this is interesting in John’s account of the gospel story in that we see this same pattern of non-recognition of the risen Christ repeated over several times starting at dawn on Easter morning with Mary at the empty tomb.
For it is not as though there was a Hollywood flash and dazzle of brilliant light and choruses of heavenly music such as Luke recorded at Jesus’ birth there on the shores of Lake Galilee, but rather just a man evidently, who was standing there before them, and whom they did not at first recognize.
The disciples did not recognize the one standing there before them as the same one who they had walked along beside of, broken bread with, or sat at the feet of and learned from for the last three years. Now I am not sure about you, but I find this quite curious. Why does it seem that in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that we find a stranger, a man who those closest to him do not recognize? And perhaps more curious, why does the gospel writer make such careful note of this strange fact?
Back on Easter morning we saw Mary standing alone at the tomb after Peter and John had run off to tell the others. Deeply saddened and hurt by the seeming loss of the body of Jesus, she looks up and sees someone standing there before her. In fact, at first, she thought it might be the gardener, and not until Jesus calls her by name were her own eyes opened to the fact that it was indeed Jesus standing there before her.
Now I suppose we could overlook her inability to recognize Jesus for she surely was so broken at that moment and her eyes must have been brimming with tears for the loss of this one she had loved so deeply. And yet in the next breath in John’s gospel account, Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room where again they do not seem to know who he is. In fact, it is not until he shows them his hands and side that the gospel reveals that the disciples rejoiced, finally realizing that they were indeed seeing their Lord. In fact, he had appeared among them in spite of a locked and secured door, and they did not seem to recognize him even after his greeting of, ‘Peace be with you’. And the story continues in that same vein a week later when it is Thomas who, only after touching the marks in Jesus hands and the spear wound in his side then proclaims, ‘My Lord and my God!’
And finally again today, near the end of John’s gospel, we see this pattern repeated once more in Galilee as the disciples closest to Jesus seem unsure of just who it is that is standing there on the beach before them. And yes, as the story opens, the little boat was around 300 feet off shore. So without great eyesight it is possible that the small figure of a man standing on the shoreline might not be recognizable. And yet he did call out to them, in fact he shouted to them and still they did not recognize his voice. It was not until the disciples caught the net full of fish that John realized that such a miracle could only come at the hand of their beloved friend. And it was only at that point that he declared to the others that the one on the beach was Jesus. And curiously enough, even after going ashore dragging their net of fish behind them, the disciples still did not seem to fully recognize the figure standing before them as that of Jesus, for the scripture tells us that “no one dared ask him, ‘Who are you’, for they knew it was the Lord”.
So, what do we make of this? And how on earth does it tie in with the second half of our passage and of Jesus’ repeated commands to ‘feed my sheep and feed my lambs’?
I think that the disciples did not recognize Jesus because Jesus did not want them to fixate on the one physical image he carried for 33 years as he walked in life. I think that instead, (and this is important) that Jesus wanted the disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be able to recognize the Lord in someone regardless of the physical image presented…and to do so by seeing the presence and grace of God in that which the person did amongst them.
The disciple John, the ‘one whom Jesus loved’, knew in his heart that the one standing 100 yards off on the shore, was in fact his Lord Jesus by the miracle of the fish in the net after a night spent without catching a single one. He knew it was Jesus by the work he had done amongst them…he recognized the hand of God in the actions of Jesus…even though it did not appear to be the same man they had followed for the past here years. They knew who it was by the evidence of holiness in the life he lived and the walk he walked…
…and Jesus expects the same to be true of us. That we too not seek to find the one image we hold of Jesus in the works of grace we see each day, but rather to see the image and presence of the Lord in the actions of any and all who seek to serve the Lord in love.
Therefore, this has a lot to do with ‘feed my lambs and feed my sheep’…and it is good that Jesus saw fit to repeat it three times, for it is in our doing exactly this, in our careful feeding of the Lord’s sheep and lambs…that our Lord shall in fact be seen…that our Lord shall be recognized, and that our Lord shall become known.
Jesus asked Peter three times, to be sure that he and the others understood the magnitude of what was being asked of them (and of us). Jesus said in essence, ‘are you sure you love me? – because it means this!’…and Peter said, ‘yes’…and once again, ‘are you really sure? – because it means this as well’…and Peter said, ‘yes’…and finally a third time, ‘are you really sure that you love me?, because in addition to what you have at hand and easily available and accessible, it also means reaching out, far beyond what you may be used to in order to love one another and to advocate for the justice of our God?’…and a third time Peter said, and we all must say as well. ‘Yes Lord’.
I also think that in reflecting on this three-times request we are able to see Jesus giving emphasis to the importance of the disciple’s future work as well as the wide diversity of needs they would come up against. So, how are we to bring this forward into our time and our understanding? How can we make this passage speak into our day, for truthfully, we are not so much involved with sheep and lambs anymore?
In fact, ‘Shepherd’ and ‘shepherding issues’ were very present and living images to the disciples. By speaking in these images, Jesus was drawing on the disciple’s knowledge and awareness of all that feeding and tending vulnerable and helpless, yet extremely valuable sheep actually entailed. And ‘vulnerable and helpless’ is something we all can relate to, especially in this time in our history.
So, in reflecting on this story, considering both the seeming unrecognizability of Jesus to his disciples except through his work among them, and the call to feed the lambs and sheep of the Lord…if I were to look in ways that we as followers of Jesus today might hear these three-times repeated instructions, I might hear them this way…
‘Feed my lambs’… Care for the children, for the young, for those who are at the dawning of life and hope…give them truth in a time of deep question as to what is truly fact and what is instead contrived fiction…give them hope for a ‘tomorrow’ in general, but specifically hope for a planet that can continue to sustain healthy and wholesome fulfilling life as we now know it…give them wings to fly in the direction of all their dreams and just as importantly, permission and support to do so…give them room to be themselves uniquely and joyfully, and finally…give them encouragement to dwell in the promise of life even in the midst of all that would seek to rob them of it.
‘Feed my sheep’ – ‘the first time’…Care for the adults of all ages within your fellowship. Learn how best to cherish, to lovingly and meaningfully care for, and to be involved enough in the lives of your brothers and sisters to be able to sense, or to know their hurts and their hopes. Learn lovingly of their weak points, and gently fill in for them. Learn as well of their points of strength and be willing and able to draw upon them for the good of the fellowship. Be always sure to encourage them as they seek to walk the sometimes difficult paths of light and of witnessing for truth and justice…offer them needed space and encouragement that they might speak truth into life…and finally…challenge them to seek the face of God and to reflect that knowledge onto all they meet, to enable them to live as one family, one body dedicated to the pursuit of God’s love made real in our midst.
‘Feed my sheep’ – ‘the second time’…Reach out to and care for all the rest, all those who dwell outside of the reach of our immediate fellowship. And learn to do so by showing them Christ by your life as you live it, much as Jesus did when he helped the disciples catch a net full of fish…show the love of God and the true Christ who welcomes all…the One who accepts all, regardless of faith, race, gender, or any of the other markers we construct to separate ourselves one from another. By your life lived in all faithfulness show them the Christ in you…the Christ who reaches out to all, and the Christ who offers sanctuary and hope in the midst of deepest darkness.
I started by focusing on the opening words of John where he said that this was the way Jesus, ‘showed himself to them’. In closing I would like to look at the very last words of the passage, where Jesus says simply, ‘Follow me’. For between these two statements, Jesus very specifically charges us not only to show the love of Christ by our lives, but also, never to presuppose that the image of our God is fixed in any one, or only one single expression. In his command to feed his sheep and his lambs, Jesus asks us each to joyfully accept that the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit in fact gives each one of us the ability to let that same grace shine out upon the world. And to do so though our words, our actions, our behavior, and our every faithful and loving intent.
Jesus says, ‘follow me…do what I have done among you…do for others what I have done for you…reveal God to others as I have revealed God to you…let others see the grace and goodness of God in all your ways and in all your words…
…for the face of God is most evident wherever and whenever it is made visible in the face of another…