Feed My Sheep

This sermon was originally preached on Sunday, May 5, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church in Alaska.

You can watch the video here.

John 21:1-19

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 sheep.” 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Yesterday, the Christian community and the world experienced a huge loss. Woman of valor, author, and theologian, Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday. Rachel, who was 37, is best known as a blogger, someone who deconstructed and reconstructed her faith in a very public way, and then went on to write about faith, doubt, and the Bible. Rachel approached writing with a sense of humor, a vulnerability, and a warmth that radiated through her words on the page.

I had the privilege of meeting Rachel at a conference she curated while I was in seminary, called “Why Christian”. I had just been on her book launch team for her most recent book at the time, Searching for Sunday, and I held it in my hand as I approached her signing table. Immediately, Rachel saw me, a complete stranger, and she got up from her table, and hugged me. I told her my name, and she told me she knows me from the internet, and I tried to hold back my giddiness as I thanked her for everything she had done in my life, for teaching me how to write and preach with an authentic voice, and for the ways she loved so well, even those she had never met.

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I tell this story because it shows the compassion and the love that Rachel had for the people who invested in her, so much love that she was willing to act in love to prove how much she cared. It is easy to say you love someone or something, and it is an entirely different battle to prove it, through one’s actions. This leads us to our text today.

A few months ago, we read a story that began very similarly to this one we read today. The disciples were fishing, and were pretty unsuccessful, even though they fished all night, when it was thought to have been the prime fishing time, while the waters were the calmest. And so tired and without fish, Jesus gives them instructions, and they catch more than they could imagine. When we read this the first time, we talked about rest, and how we can allow ourselves to take breaks and frame our lives and our work around Jesus’ instructions.

Today, the beginning of our story is the same, but it’s different because of when these events take place. Jesus is risen this time, and the people know that it’s Jesus. So yes, Jesus still is calling them to follow him, but that call takes different form, because he’s beginning to teach them about the future, how we won’t be with them physically forever.

Jesus has a way of allowing us to see him through the familiar, through the things we’ve already seen or through the ways that make sense for us to see Jesus. Some examples of this: Mary didn’t recognize Jesus outside the tomb until Jesus called her name. On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus broke bread like at the Last Supper. And today, Jesus leads the disciples to the abundance of fish, like he had done before.

Jesus is willing to make himself visible to us through love, so that we can see what is often right in front of us. God is willing to offer grace and show us again when we miss a key point, or when we ignore it altogether. And today’s story is a great example of that.

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So Jesus makes himself known to the disciples, by instructing them on how and where to fish. And right after, Jesus invites them to breakfast, to eat with him. This is where we see our patterns begin. The passage says that this was the third time Jesus had appeared to the disciples. It shows us both this idea we just spoke about, how God isn’t afraid to show up for us multiple times. And it also highlights this rule of three that Jesus follows quite often, and we see that throughout this story.

If we remember, prior to Jesus’ death, we know that Peter denied Jesus three times. Now, Jesus showed up three times. Then, as they were eating, Jesus goes to Peter and asks him three times if he loves Jesus. Each time, Peter answered yes, but it almost feels as if Peter is offended that Jesus would ask him so many times, when he said yes the first time. But when we look back, just weeks prior, Peter hadn’t really made it clear that he loved him, because he denied him more than once, because the way he was acting said otherwise.

Then comes the responses from Jesus. The first time Peter says yes, he does love him, he does so also making it known that Jesus already knows, because he, as the son of God, knows the love Peter has for God. Jesus responds, saying “feed my sheep”. This may be an out of the blue thing to hear, but what Jesus really is saying, is that our words reflect a part of our truth and our love for God, but if we say we love God, but do not reflect that in our actions, there is nothing there to go off.

So the second time, Jesus asks again, and Peter again says to Jesus, “I do love you, and you already know that”. This second time, Jesus tells Peter “tend my sheep”. And the third time, the same ask and the same responses are offered, and Jesus responds, saying “feed my sheep”.

This series of asks not only highlight Jesus’ willingness to forgive Peter for the ways he has not loved him in the past, but Jesus also defines the relationship very clearly. If you are to love me, to really love me, then here is what I expect. Here is how you will prove your love for me. When you tend and feed my sheep, that is, when you care for the people around you, helping them provide for their needs as they do for you, then I know you love me. Then you can follow me.

We are called by God to show up for those most in need of care. We are called to care for our fellow sheep, as a means of showing love. Jesus teaches us today that it is one thing to say you love someone. Peter said he loved Jesus, yet he denied him three times just a few weeks ago. It is another thing, he teaches, to show up for people when they need you to show up. It is another thing to feed those who are hungry, or to advocate for voices that are being stifled, or to clothe those who are in need. That, Jesus says, is what it means to love him. He teaches Peter, and teaches us, that love without action is just a word, and that in order for us to prove our love for God, we must follow our words with action.

Today, we are being called to act. Each of us, I imagine, have love for God somewhere in our hearts. Perhaps that’s why we continue to come back here. And Christ knows exactly where we stand with that. But what God can see, others may not be able to. We are being called further than simply knowing in our beings that we love God, that we want to worship God and remember and study the story of Jesus. We are being called further than that. We are being called to act, to expand that love from simply believing it to really proving it, through how we live, and who we surround ourselves with.

Simon Peter is being asked to show his love for Jesus by feeding and tending his sheep. In what ways do you tend and feed Jesus’ flock because you love him? In what ways do you radiate love through your actions?

Continually, we are being called to follow Christ. This is at the heart of our mission as Christians, followers of Christ. The disciples were too, being asked to follow him. At first, it was physically following him, doing what he did, going where he went, eating where he ate. And now, Jesus is expanding the limits of his invitation. Soon, Jesus’ bodily presence will be no longer. He knows this when he interacts with Peter and the others. And so, Jesus begins, from today on, to allow us to see this ‘following’ as something that can be carried out long after Jesus is physically gone. He is inviting us into a new way of living and a new way of loving, being Jesus for the world.

Our call, in a lot of ways, is to live for Jesus, through following him. We follow him through showing our love for him, love that is proven to the world through our actions. Just like how Jesus wasn’t believed until he proved that it was him, at the tomb, at the table, on the fishing docks, we too need to prove our love for God, our willingness to show up physically even after Jesus is no longer able to, by loving our neighbor, by feeding our fellow sheep, by tending to the needs of others.

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As we show up in these ways, God’s love becomes apparent through us, and we are able to be a part of making disciples, all because we made the decision to make our love for God public. Our Christian journey is not an easy one, but our call from God is simple: love God and love neighbor. And through our love for neighbor, we show others our love for God, a love which is worth our serving and our feeding and our tending. So may we allow ourselves to act in love, to let love be an action that lives and breathes out loud.

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One way we can do that, honor our love for God out loud, is through remembrance of Jesus’ story. This season of Easter, a very important part of the story is still fresh in our heads. We know that in order for Jesus to be resurrected, to live among the disciples for this period we read about today, he needed to leave for a period of time, he needed to die. Before he leaves, before he was crucified, he set up a meeting with his closest friends. And the agenda of that meeting was basic; it was about love.

Just like we are called to do, Jesus wanted to show his love to his friends, to the disciples, and just like he told Peter to do, Jesus fed his sheep. Quite literally, Jesus brought food, which symbolized love, through his body and blood, and he nourished the bodies of those gathered there through a meal which became holy as word became flesh. Today, we celebrate that meal as such, a story of active love that has stood the test of time, and a kind of active love we are invited back to remember again and again.

In the United Methodist Church, the table is open to all, to experience the love of God and the story of Jesus. It is not my table or yours, or the denomination’s table. This is God’s table, and it is open to you and me and all of us today.

One of our newest saints, Rachel Held Evans, shares this about communion, about the table being open for us all:

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes.”

-Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

So friends, today, in active love, you are being invited to this table today, to say yes; yes to grace, yes to hope, yes to remembrance, and yes to active love.

Let us honor the sacred act of Holy Communion together, by turning to page 13 in your hymnals.

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