Feeding Sheep

John 21:1-19

This may seem an odd place to start this week, but I cannot help but wonder where Jesus got the bread. Or the fish that were already being grilled on that charcoal fire for that matter.

Oh, I suppose it would be nothing at all for one who has just defeated death to conjure breakfast out of thin air. After all, this is the one who had already fed thousands with less than what was waiting the disciples on the beach that morning. My imagination has taken me a different way today, though. For just as miraculous, it seems to me, would have been if it had played out in this way:

I like to think of Jesus getting up early that day — surely before dawn. He would have known that his followers had gone back to what was most comfortable, most familiar as they awaited what happened next. It would have made sense that he would find them fishing once more. So perhaps it was so that he actually made his way early that day towards the Sea of Tiberias. And perhaps there was a village along the way. And perhaps there was a lone woman outside at her stone oven pulling the day’s bread out for her family. And maybe Jesus’ senses were awakened as he caught the smell of that fresh baked bread. Indeed, I can imagine him following that delicious odor right into her courtyard and engaging her in conversation. I can imagine that when he told her he had a hungry group of men to feed that morning, that she wrapped up several loaves in cloth and handed it to him. Oh, I can’t imagine she would have fully known why, but something in the way he leaned in to speak to her, the kindness in his eyes, his invitation to be generous would have touched her in such a way that she did not hesitate to send some along with him.

I mean, the bread had to come from somewhere. I like to think that even before Jesus met those disciples on the beach. Even before he fed them breakfast. Certainly before he engaged Simon Peter in this marvelous one on one exchange, that he had also invited another, perhaps countless others, to do precisely what he was calling Peter to now.

For this is the essence of it all, isn’t it? You and I who have been so abundantly fed at the hand of Jesus are now called to feed others. Indeed, at the core of it all, followers of Jesus who claim to love him, are called to ‘feed his sheep.’

Only this is so, isn’t it?

It does not always turn out to be quite as simple as that.

Indeed, so many years ago now when I was still a young pastor, part of the congregation’s call where I was serving then was to help provide food for a local food pantry. The community was well served by this caring ministry of a neighboring congregation and it was a privilege to be a part of it in even a small way. So it was that to help make the appeal for food more visible, someone got their hands on an old shopping cart. We set it up in the entryway¬† of the church with a sign on it and the people would shop and would drop off their purchases in that cart to help feed the hungry in our community on their way into worship.

It wasn’t before long, though, that we started getting complaints about the shopping cart. Mostly those who expressed their concerns thought it looked ‘shabby’ — that it made our entry look cluttered.

It probably was shabby. It probably didn’t do much to enhance our entryway. I just remember being befuddled by that reaction though. For such a reminder to ‘feed Jesus’ sheep’ as we entered into worship seemed absolutely appropriate to me.

These many years later I don’t recall how we solved that relatively small ‘collision of values.’ I do know we kept gathering food and giving it away.

Oh, it seems like it should be so simple, but it isn’t, is it? Indeed, it should be straightforward, but we often don’t let it be so. We let ourselves get waylaid by concerns about how the shopping cart looks, or even more so about who is getting fed and why, or in wondering about why others aren’t doing their part to be sure the hungry are fed.

Of course, Jesus knows this is so. That it will always be so. Perhaps this is why in the conversation shared at the end of today’s Gospel Jesus addresses Peter as Simon son of John. Maybe this is why in this way Jesus points out that he recalls where Peter has come from before he ever laid eyes on Jesus, before Jesus gave him a new ‘name’, before Jesus invites him to the life that is before him now. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus also does the same to you and me.

For Jesus knows that which holds us back. The fear. The pettiness. The seemingly necessary endless compromises. The sense of being overwhelmed at all the ‘hungry sheep’ we encounter day after day. Jesus knows the struggles, big and small which hammer away at our sense of abundance and possibility and hope. He knows the temptation we all have to simply ‘go back to fishing,’ to do what is easy or familiar or to focus only on what is nearest to us in terms of what is our responsibility — Jesus knows our yearning to sometimes just go back to our ‘old names…’

Only just like with “Simon son of John,” Jesus does not leave us there. He may call us by our old familiar names, but as he does so he also reminds us of where we have been since.¬† And he makes it ‘basic’ as he does so, simply inquiring about the core of our relationship to him. “Do you love me? Do you love me?¬† Do you love me?” And each time we answer ‘yes,’ he urges us on to feed those precious ones he loves so much.

  • And maybe we start small as Jesus did on that beach so long ago.
  • And maybe on our ‘way to the beach’ we keep before us the simple goal of feeding those who are hungry.
  • And maybe on our way we stop and engage a stranger or a friend who happens to be by her stone oven in the back yard.
  • And maybe she knows herself to be a part of something larger, too, because you stopped to visit, to ask, to invite.
  • Indeed, maybe we all get a clearer picture of what ‘love looks like’ as we do so.

A long time ago some well meaning folks complained about the shopping cart in the entry way. I do not recall how we resolved their concern, but I do remember the quaking feeling in my stomach as I realized that ‘feeding the sheep’ was never going to be as simple as I thought.

And of course it’s not. It never has been as we also hear in Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s future now. It never will be. Even so, I like to think that

  • in someone’s courtyard as she pulled fresh loaves out of her stone oven so long ago and gave them away;
  • and on that beach when the disciples sat down to breakfast;
  • and every time since that as love is lived out in “bread and fish” or whatever we have been given to share, that the love of Jesus is lived out.

So then even if it is not always so ‘simple’ at least the connection between loving Jesus and ‘feeding his sheep’ becomes more and more clear and we keep doing it anyway. And this is so. Sometimes, somehow in these ways of ‘living it out’ the whole world opens up and love shines through.

That is what I like to think and have come to believe more and more. How about you?

  • What do you make of Jesus calling Peter by his old name? What do you think peter hears as he does so?
  • How has the conversation about how to ‘feed the sheep’ played out in your setting? When has it been simple and straightforward? When has it not been so?
  • I have clearly taken liberties and ‘created’ a scenario about where Jesus got the bread for that meal on the beach. Maybe he conjured that bread out of the air. And maybe not. How do you like to think about this story? Does it make a difference?