by Daniel Harrell
We return to Jesus’ third post-resurrection appearance to his disciples in John’s gospel, picking up where we left off, on the beach. Jesus’ first appearance was Easter Sunday as his disciples hid out in fear. Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit on them, though the effect was a dubious one since one week later they’re still hiding out. Jesus’ second appearance featured Doubting Thomas, who soon after became Believing Thomas. Still, viewing the dead Jesus alive twice still wasn’t enough to get his disciples busy making disciples. Instead of fishing for people like Jesus told them to do, they went back to fishing for fish. They had the Holy Spirit, but it must have been a insufficient dose. You can’t imagine the post-Pentecost disciples behaving this way. Rather than locked and loaded to go to the ends of the earth as they will be in Acts, here in John the disciples just go back to their boats.
It would be easy to chalk what looks like apostolic reticence up to pre-Pentecost realities were the same reticence not so prevalent among us post-Pentecostals too. Last Sunday we repented of our reticence to practice the spiritual gift of hospitality. I related the sad story of a family who tried attending Colonial Church for almost a year, but then left because they never felt welcomed. Many of you responded gratefully to my mild admonishment, saying we need to do better. Some of you told me of spending years here waiting for a welcome yourself—rationalizing that the wait was due to Minnesota Nice and Edina Exclusivity. But whether we’re in Edina, Eau Claire or Escondido, love defines the church of Jesus Christ, displaying itself in the ways we embrace neighbors, strangers and enemies too. Christians love because Jesus loves.
The conversation Jesus has with Peter on the beach is all about love. Peter was fishing out in deep water with the others when Jesus waved from on shore. They hadn’t caught much, so Jesus told them to try the right side of the boat. Like when they first met, the disciples hit the mother load again, a net-breaking haul of fish. The ever-impetuous Peter put two and two together, put on his clothes and then jumped into the water and made a trout-line for Jesus who had some fish frying already, along with some bread. He suggested the disciples add a few of the fish they just caught to the pan. So Peter hauled the whole net-full ashore, trying his best to make up for all of his failures.
How disappointing it must have been to have Jesus rub salt in his shame: “Simon son of John, do you really love me more than these others do?” Jesus used Peter’s formal name “Simon son of John,” the way parents do when they’re really mad. And why wouldn’t Jesus be mad? Back at his last meal on earth, Jesus had predicted how all his disciples would desert him. He said, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for as the prophet Zechariah has written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.’” Nevertheless, the ever-impetuous and proud Peter crowed, “Even if the others fall away on account of you, I never will. Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. I will lay down my life for you.” Peter’s cocky crowing vanished with the cock crow that next morning. Named the “Rock” for his strong leadership among the disciples, Peter’s cowardly denial of Jesus left him looking more like paper mache.
We can relate. As paper mache Christians ourselves, we deny Jesus all the time—and with a whole lot less at stake. Sometimes it’s because we’re scared, sometimes because we’re embarrassed, we don’t want to be bothered or because we’re just not sure what to believe anymore. A friend recently lost a family member to cancer. Having prayed for healing—and believing healing was coming—it was horribly disillusioning when death came instead. This friend mentioned he was going to need some serious theological counseling on the other side of this. God was not supposed to operate this way. He’s supposed to cure our all our diseases and answer our prayers like we want. God knows there would be a lot less fear, a lot less embarrassment, and a lot more faith if he did operate this way. A lot more Christians too.
Sure, Peter talked big at the Last Supper. But having seen Jesus operate—all those miracles Jesus did—healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead and changing the weather—who wouldn’t talk big? Jesus had serious power. Bring on the Pharisees! Bring on the Romans! Bring on the world! Jesus gave Peter a heads up, but no way Peter could have been prepared for Holy Week. The savior you believed to be the way, the truth and the life gets indicted for blasphemy and treason and doesn’t even defend himself? He doesn’t say anything? Doesn’t do anything? Acts like he’s guilty? And then he gets convicted and executed? What was Peter supposed to do? Jesus said that once he rose from the dead they’d meet up again in Galilee, but you can’t take that seriously. Saviors don’t rise from the dead because they don’t die in the first place.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told Peter how Satan had gotten permission to “sift him like wheat.” To pick him apart. Jesus tells Peter he’ll pray for him—not to shield him from the sifting, but to turn him back afterwards that Peter might strengthen the faith of the others. The faith you have may have to fail for you to experience the real power of the risen Jesus. This was Peter’s experience. His faith in Jesus had to fail before he could truly believe.
That Jesus shows himself a third time to Peter corresponds to Peter’s threefold denial. As does Jesus asking him the same question three times. “Do you really, really, really love me Peter?” Peter had to feel all of his shame crashing back down. Unable to confess a love based upon his own track record, Peter relied instead on the Lord’s merciful willingness to see him despite it. Peter replied the third time with a plea, “Lord, you know everything (including my heart); you know that I love you.” Jesus told Peter a third time, “Tend and feed my sheep.” True faith looks just like love.
The structure of the interchange between Jesus and Peter has endured extensive examination over the centuries. You’re possibly familiar with John’s differing uses of the Greek words for “love;” namely, agape and phileo. Phileo generally denotes love for friends or family as well as a general fondness for almost any other person or thing. It is where we get our words philosophy (love of knowledge) and Philadelphia (love of the Phillies). The etymology of agape is less certain though it is the word most frequently employed in the New Testament in regard to the love of God. Consequently, when Jesus asked Peter “do you agape me” and Peter responded “Yes Lord, I phileo you,” some argue for a subtle intention on Jesus’ part to pull Peter’s love to a higher, more spiritual plane. But what’s interesting is how it was Jesus who ultimately conceded to Peter’s terminology, not the other way around. It may be that the milder form of love was all that Peter could muster at this humiliated point, not wanting to overstep his bounds again. But in truth, the distinction between these two Greek words for love is not consistent in John. In fact, in addition to the verb to love in this passage (as well as others), John also uses two different words for “know,” “tend” and “sheep.” The next time you find yourself caught up in dissecting this exchange, it’s probably best to remember that the original conversation would have been in Aramaic anyway.
However what is undoubtedly significant is the metaphor of the Shepherd. It’s a frequent Biblical image and central to understanding the mission of Christ and this commissioning of Peter. Earlier in John, Jesus declared “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The metaphor derives from the vocation itself; one that required strength, devotion and selflessness. It’s much more intense than what gets depicted in those bucolic watercolor Bible paintings of shepherds.
The only actual shepherds I’ve ever encountered were in the West African deserts of Benin. These tireless men roamed the arid countryside in search of grazing fields while at the same time guarding their flocks and keeping the unruly in line. You’ve heard how dumb sheep can be—Jeff preached about it a few weeks back—and its pretty much true; which is among the reasons why the people of God are often referred to as sheep. Sheep are dense and dumb, which makes the shepherd’s job all the more difficult. Nevertheless, good shepherds persist because they love their sheep. Love is indispensable. As a “shepherd,” Jesus indicates his solidarity with Moses and David—super-shepherds who both guided God’s flock. More significantly, God describes himself as Israel’s Shepherd, making Jesus self-designation all the more momentous. However, instead of finding its culmination in Jesus, shepherding finds its continuation in the church.
Its sacrificial nature gets reiterated as Jesus predicts Peter’s future. “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.” While this sounds something like getting forced into a nursing home, there were no nursing homes in first century Israel. Instead, “stretch out your hands” was a way to convey crucifixion. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God—which is a way we rarely think about dying. There are some later accounts that say Peter was crucified upside down, refusing to die the same kind of death as his Lord, though this is uncertain. Jesus said, “Follow me,” which may have meant “to the cross.” But more broadly it meant “be a shepherd.” As Christ laid down his life, so would Peter in following Christ lay down his, fulfilling the promise he made in earlier, prouder days.
A shepherd’s love is sacrificial love, devoted and eager to give. The title shepherd goes mostly by pastor these days, from the Latin word to graze—which fits given the recent Duke Divinity School study showing that on average, ministry is the chubbiest profession. Our cups and plates runneth over. The good news is that we’re satisfied in our work—which makes us both fat and happy. In a Star Tribune article this week, Chris Enstad, senior pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, said “It’s a great job. Who else is welcomed into other people’s lives, from birth to death and everything in between?” However being involved so intimately in people’s lives has its stresses. Which may explain the eating. That and tater tot casseroles and doughnuts. Fruit just doesn’t convey emotion as good as cake. “At least we get to wear black,” Rev. Enstad said, “which is supposed to make us look slimmer.”
Writing in his own epistle, Peter instructed those to whom he conveyed church leadership simply to “be shepherds.” By implication he meant no less than to be like Christ among those entrusted to their care. Be shepherds, he said, not because you must but because you want to. Be shepherds, he said, not greedy for money, but because you are eager to serve. Be shepherds, he said, not seeking to control others or to exert power, but by being an example of Christ. And when Christ the Chief Shepherd appears—the one who called you and empowered you to serve in this capacity—you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
The church needs good shepherds—more than it needs professional pastors. In a misprint, the Star Tribune referred to Rev. Chris Enstad as Rev. Christ Enstad, reinforcing both the Messiah Complex we pastors have as well as the pedestals we sometimes occupy. But nobody can be Jesus by him or herself. Only together can we be like Christ. We’re all called to be shepherds, providers instead of consumers, givers rather than grazers—remembering that in the early church, the willingness to shepherd each other meant that no one ever had any need; everybody was fat and happy.
Nevertheless, getting us to do this together is not easy. We forget what shepherding looks like. We’re trying to lose weight. Having learned the hard way himself, Peter wrote, “wear humility.” A more literal rendering is: “wear an apron.” It hearkens back again to that Last Supper, where as the disciples argued over which one of them was actually the greatest disciple of them all, Jesus got up, wrapped an apron around his waist, grabbed a basin of water and washed their dirty feet. Artists’ renditions of the scene never reveal the certain horror that must have accompanied the disciples’ seeing Jesus stoop to this humiliating level. Nor do any paintings of this scene suggest the shame that must have been plastered across their faces as they realized how they had missed the whole point of what it meant to be great in the Kingdom of God. Christian shepherd-hood has never been about position or authority or power or pedestals. Instead, it’s always been about people willing to give what they have for the sake of Christ’s flock, for the sake of their brothers and sisters, be they newcomers, old-timers, Ukrainians, Mexicans or Families Moving Forward. Jesus said that a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Who’s good enough to do this? It used to be that the biggest problem was Pharisee-types: self-righteous church folk who, thinking that they thought they had their act together, went around whacking others on the head with their judgmental crooks. But few think that way anymore. Instead, most come to church, look around and depressingly assume everybody else has their act together. You bleat sheepishly and defensively about how you’re not spiritual enough, how could a sheep as sinful as yourself ever shepherd others? But you’re forgetting something very important: when it comes to sinful sheep, the church has the same percentage in it that it has always had (somewhere around 100%). This is what makes this whole shepherd thing so wonderfully hilarious. God uses sheep as his shepherds!
And since we’re all dumb, sinful sheep, it only stands to reason that we’re all shepherds too. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It applied to the disciples then. It applies to disciples now. There are no excuses, no exclusions—especially if Peter is the patron shepherd. He failed miserably when it counted most—which also made him the patron sheep. Yet it was to him that Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Why? Because when you fail you finally experience the real power of the risen Jesus—the radical power of his unconditional love. And having experienced that, you want to make sure others experience it too. Convinced that you’re a spiritual failure? Jesus has job for you: “Feed my lambs.”