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. 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.’
Feed My Sheep. John 21:15-19
It turns out that people can learn a lot about Jesus while cooking together. This week, I'm bringing you a couples stories about meals, one around a charcoal fire and one in a middle school cafeteria, that teach us something important about what it means to follow Jesus. Our first meal is by the seaside, or, really by the lakeside. The Sea of Tiberias, also called the Sea of Galilee, is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. Seven of Jesus' disciples had been fishing there. They were having no luck until Jesus showed up and helped them out. Boy, did he help them out. They caught 153 big fish! More importantly, they were reminded that the surest sign of Jesus' presence was an abundance of care and provision for people in need. Just to punctuate his already proven point, Jesus also made them breakfast. No sense in making a bunch of exhausted anglers also have to fix breakfast after a long and mostly fruitless night. In making them breakfast, Jesus once again demonstrated his care and concern for them. It wasn't the first time he had fed hungry people, and it wouldn’t be the last. The difference is that the next time, it would be through the hands of his disciples, the New Body of Christ, the ones whom he would send forth.
Let's have a quick reminder about who is here at this impromptu beachside breakfast. Nathanael, Thomas, the Sons of Zebedee, and two unnamed disciples had all gone fishing together. Simon Peter was there, too. In fact, this whole fishing trip had been his idea. Simon Peter has struggled greatly since Jesus was arrested. Through the last several chapters of the book of John, we have seen the man who once was willing to literally fight for Jesus' freedom quickly become the man who denied being one of Jesus' disciples. Three times he was asked if he was one of Jesus' followers. Three times he denied his own discipleship. I really can't imagine quite what that felt like. I imagine it's some mix of fear, with a little hopelessness and shame mixed in. And, now, even though he was one of the first to see the empty tomb and he was present when Jesus appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, rebuilding them as the new Body of Christ for the world, Simon Peter still seemed to need help rebuilding what was lost when he denied his discipleship. Jesus seems to know that three questions once knocked Peter down. He's going to use three questions to build him back up.
The seven gathered around the charcoal fire, sharing the breakfast that Jesus had cooked for them. Jesus looked Peter square in the face and said, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" This time, Peter did not balk. He said, Yes. Of course. You know that I love you. Jesus responds, "Feed my lambs." Jesus asks again, Simon son of John, do you love me? Peter says, again, Yes. I love you. You know that. Jesus responds with, "Tend my sheep." Much to Peter's frustration, Jesus asked a third time, "Do you love me?" Frustrated, Peter said, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus responded more fully this time than the previous two, first saying "Feed my sheep" and then explaining that this sheep tending is not always going to be easy. His final words to Paul in this portion of scripture, and also to us, are "Follow me." Even if discipleship is hard... Even if you don't know what to do... even if you don't know how you will get by... My spirit is with you, providing for you. Follow me.
With these three questions that Peter has now answered affirmatively, Jesus has fully restored Peter to the Body of Christ, allowing him to actively reclaim his discipleship. And, importantly, Jesus outlines what discipleship, that is, following him, actually looks like in this post-resurrection world. Scholars helpfully outline a couple aspects of discipleship. As I have said before, one thing that discipleship means is that you must be willing to be at odds with the dominant culture, even if that puts you in danger. Remember that there is a part of the Gospel where Jesus said that all of his followers must be willing to take up their cross and hold dear the things he held dear, that is, loving God and loving neighbor. Secondly, Discipleship also probably has something to do with following Jesus' actions after the resurrection, that is, modeling his reconnection with God through the ascension (which we haven't read about yet) by rebuilding our own relationship with God. This reconnection to God often seems to take place by turning our primary concern outward, beyond our own needs, towards our neighbor's needs and towards praising God. For Peter, in particular, and all of us who have felt like we have been overwhelmed by our call to discipleship, this encounter also means trusting that we can be restored to the Body of Christ when we falter and that we will be able to participate, even lead, in this new era of discipleship, despite the fact that we were once afraid of Jesus' calling.
Can you think of a real world example of this kind of discipleship? I heard a great example of the second part of discipleship this week, the part where we tend to our neighbors' needs. Remember how I said I'd be telling two cooking stories today. Here's where the second story comes in. This time, the people in the story aren't cooking over a fire by the lake, even though they are pretty close to the ocean. And, yet, Christ is in this story, too, feeding his sheep, or, well, feeding his middle schoolers. It all started when a couple women from the Federated Church of Thomaston, a UCC/UMC congregation, approached their pastor, the Rev. Vanessa Winters, with a calling to serve their neighbors, the kids in the community in particular. They knew that many of the children in their town struggled to have enough food to eat. You see, more than 50% of the kids at the middle school qualify for free or reduced lunch. And, even if they had regular access to food, they often knew little about how to choose and cook healthy meals. Rev. Winters said that the level of need really hit home for her when she was volunteering at a summer reading program and one little girl shared that she was very glad to have the strawberries for their mid-morning snack because she hadn't had anything to eat yet that day. She also shared that this was the first time she had ever had fresh fruit. She was six years old.
Volunteers from the Federated Church connected with a woman who works with a federally-funded program called Cooking Matters to bring a more formalized cooking classes to local middle schools that also have a large number of low income students. They help with the cooking classes where the kids learn to cook and are also given food and recipes to take home and share with their families. I bet that some of these students are the only ones in their households with time and energy to cook. It's like the church is feeding the sheep, and then the sheep get to go home and take hay the rest of the flock. Through the discipleship of the Federated Church, in partnership with Cooking Matters, these kids have been equipped to take care of themselves and to provide for their families. I know that folks in our own church are feeding Jesus' sheep, too, by working at, and regularly donating to, our own local food pantry and working with Meals On Wheels. And, maybe this summer, some of us will even be able to go glean local fields to gather extra produce for our neighbors to use.
Providing meals is not the only way we are feeding the sheep. Today, everyone is invited to share a simple meal of communion. Hey, maybe we're really just like the kids at Cooking Matters. Jesus feeds us and we go out and feed others. And, we keep coming back to Christ's table to be nourished for the work we do together in his name. I bet some of us even feel a little like Simon Peter, learning that we can still follow Jesus, even if we've been afraid to do so before. Either way, I hope that we can continue to hear Jesus saying, "Breakfast is ready. Come and eat. The, go feed my sheep. That's what it means to follow me." Let's remember to savor the grace we've been offered and share with the rest of the sheep out there.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2809
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1619
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-3-c-two-things-everyone-needs/
Food insecurity in Maine: http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2014/overall/maine
Cooking Matters: https://www.gsfb.org/how-we-help/programs/cooking-matters-maine/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.