P.S. It’s about the Sheep

 A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Year C –14 April 2013

John Edward Miller, Rector

 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. 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.”

                                                                                                                       – John 21:1-19

 The Collect

 O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

When someone says, “And, by the way,” you know that there’s something else coming. Maybe it’s something more that needs to be said, like, “By the way, you’ll need cash to pay for dinner. The restaurant doesn’t take plastic.” That’s something that you’d like to know, right? A lack of information could cause a major embarrassment. It’s a case of more is better. And speaking of more, a postscript attached to the end of a letter can also be a great help. Consider a writer who realizes, after signing and nearly sealing a letter, that there’s a significant thought that will make the letter complete. A timely postscript can make a huge difference for the good.

John’s gospel finishes with something like a P.S. Its twenty-first chapter, which closes the fourth gospel, is an add-on to the original text. We can think of it as a pastoral postscript, a piece of writing added after the author penned, “the end,” to his script. Biblical scholars call John 21 an “epilogue,” which literally means a “word besides,” or an after word attached to what he’s already written about Jesus. But to say that is not to disparage this text; it was clearly seen as inspired, and even indispensable to the New Testament’s witness. The epilogue is written as though it were a part of John’s original gospel text. It extends the resurrection story into the indeterminate future after Easter. Jesus’ third (and last) post-resurrection appearance to his disciples takes place beyond Jerusalem – at the Sea of Tiberias.[1] And beyond is where we are.

The original ending of John’s gospel immediately follows Thomas’ affirmation of faith, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus’ reply, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” And, of course, we are the ones who have not seen, and yet believe, despite our periods of unbelief. So, John is addressing us with that powerful challenge. That is our mission, our spiritual journey. But the gospel writer gives us a parting reminder. He urges us to pay attention to the stories he has recorded. They are primary source of the signs that we are on the right track. Thus John sums up, saying:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”[2]

That appears to have been the conclusion of John’s gospel. However, it didn’t remain so for long. Perhaps some viewed it as an insufficient ending, because the gospel was eventually given another after-Easter episode featuring the risen Lord. This addition – the epilogue – has a corporate focus instead of an individual one. To counsel us as individuals is crucial, but there is more to say – specifically, to the church itself, which serves all sorts and conditions of people. The community gathered in Christ’s name needs direction – perhaps even re-direction. It is possible that this P.S. has some history behind it. Maybe its leaders needed a reminder of the Church’s focus, and to keep their eye on the ball.

The disciples of Jesus formed the leadership core of the early church. But Peter emerged as the leader of his colleagues. In a sense, Peter is the church. John knew that, and so did Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew even has Jesus’ strong commendation: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”[3]

Although the epilogue names a number of other disciples who went on that fishing trip to the Sea of Tiberias, it was Peter who would play the central role. He was the one who got the others going; he led them to do something rather than just sit there waiting for a sign; and when the beloved disciple recognized that it was Jesus hailing them from the shore, and it was Peter who dived overboard and swam like mad to greet the risen Lord.

Moreover, it was Peter that Jesus addressed directly, using his familiar name, Simon, son of John. Jesus asked him, “Do you love me more than these?” That is to say, “Are you the one I can count on to lead my disciples, and send into the world with my message?”

The focus on Peter leads me to believe that the gospel epilogue is a word to the church. It was a final piece of direction to the ones who were called to lead the flock of Christ – then and now.

That beach breakfast hosted and served by Jesus is a fantastic scene, really.  They’d seen him before in the upper room, and they’d rejoiced when the dime dropped and they understood who he was. But there had been some kind of time gap between those Easter Day scenes and the fishing trip. Maybe we’re supposed to appreciate that. It just may be that the lag between then and now is being highlighted for all disciples, including us. Anyway, having joined him ashore for some fish and bread, they were all in awe. And Peter, who jumped overboard fully clothed to get to Jesus first, was literally dripping with enthusiasm.

That’s where the scene shifts to Peter alone. He’s the last one that Jesus speaks to in the epilogue.

As we’ve heard, Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him more than the rest of the disciples do. Peter blurts out a fairly defensive response: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” To that Jesus commands: “Feed my lambs.” Twice more Jesus calls him by name and asks, “Do you love me?” Peter’s sensibilities get increasingly hurt, and he answers each time that he indeed does, and that Jesus surely knows that. Jesus stands his ground. And each time Peter protests, he issues an imperative.

The three orders are, “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep,” respectively. So there we have it: three probing, point-blank questions about love and loyalty; three anxious answers affirming an unswerving, unmitigated allegiance to Jesus; and three directives from the risen Lord.

Why do this exercise in threes? Well, three is a complete number; it’s as if we’re listening to a sweeping inquisition and a full statement of faith. [Our baptismal liturgy has something similar: three renunciations and three acts of adherence, or pledges of loyalty.] That’s one reason for the three-fold Q&A. But there’s another explanation – one that smacks of guilt, contrition, and penance. Peter, you’ll recall from the Good Friday Passion narrative, was the one who denied knowing Jesus three times when questioned by people who were trying to associate him as a follower of the one who would soon be crucified.

Peter needed redemption; he had fully turned his back on Jesus, and he was deeply in need of truth and reconciliation. And he got everything he needed, including his marching orders. As block-headed, flawed, impetuous and timid as he was, Peter was still the rock on which Christ would build his church. In a sense he is the church. He represents us. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

My ordination certificate instructs me how to follow Jesus in my vocation. It proclaims that, as a priest of the church, I “shall nourish Christ’s people from the riches of God’s grace, and strengthen them to glorify him in this life and in the life to come.” There are many ways to fulfill this ministry. Some come easy, like visiting a new mother and father, and having the rare privilege of holding their baby and pronouncing God’s blessing. At other times, the process of nourishing and strengthening people calls for patience and considerable courage. Mediating a dispute in a family, or hearing an outpouring of guilt, or being with the bereaved when their loved one dies, or praying with someone who has just received the worst news possible, is a demanding task – one that goes well beyond any pastor’s abilities. Effective care in these difficult settings is made possible by grace alone. Grace – God’s mercy and supportive power – is there always; but it flows through the channel of openness to receiving help, as well as to one’s willingness to respect the dignity and integrity of others. 

A fellow clergyman once told me, “I love being a priest. I love celebrating the sacraments; I love writing and preaching sermons; I love theology and ethics; I love interpreting the Scriptures. The problem is that I just can’t take coffee hour.” That was quite a confession. It was like that of a physician who said, “I like medicine, but I just don’t enjoy dealing with patients.”

The people need shepherds who will feed them – all of them. In the final analysis, it’s really not about the rules, or the dogma, or the rituals, or the vestments, or the edifice that houses our worship. What matters ultimately is the depth of love, and care, and spiritual nourishment that is received by the people. Ministry is service; it is about loving God without reservation, and loving your neighbor as yourself. It is not exclusive, and it is not an academic exercise.

I should have realized that when I entered seminary. During my formative years, pastors regularly visited my family home. My father was homebound and physically disabled. He depended on a mechanical device for his breathing, and on my mother for everything else on earth. Religion was not an easy subject in our house. My parents’ marriage was a powerfully forged bond, but their faith backgrounds were very dissimilar. The spiritual divide was Catholic-Protestant, and the pressure from families of origin could be intense. So, we didn’t talk about it very much – especially in front of grandparents.

Nevertheless, both my father and my mother received pastoral care from gracious clergy who braved the unsettled situation and came to visit us. My mother also received spiritual nourishment from singing in her church choir. In addition, my Dad received attentive care from an elderly deacon in Mom’s church – a man who understood my father’s physical limitations and vulnerability to respiratory infections. So he simply and faithfully called Dad once a week just to say, “We’re thinking of you.” And, oh yes, there were taped worship services that Dad received, and played every Sunday when Mom participated in the live version of church.

My brother and I witnessed all of this. We met the pastors, and felt the benefit of their visits. They helped our family in ways that shaped the direction of our life. They served as empowering examples of God’s grace. They defined ministry in practical terms.  

And yet, when I said yes to ministry, I paid more attention to my mind than to my heart when I entered Union Seminary. I plowed into the academic curriculum with excitement, and I found that my intellectual focus was producing good fruit. Those were heady times; the lure to do doctoral work was strong. A future in academia looked bright, and I was determined to go there. In the meantime, however, seminary required that every student pass a basic course in pastoral care. I regarded that course as seminary-lite, and I could barely stand its practical exercises and its seminars led by mellow graduate students who nodded thoughtfully and said, “I hear you saying . . .” Well, I passed. But I didn’t like it, or appreciate it, until I got my first fieldwork assignment.

I had to work with disturbed children in a clinical setting. They were deeply damaged. All had been abused emotionally, and some had been abused bodily. One little boy who was six kept wanting to draw pictures with me. He could draw figures fairly well, but the faces of those people – especially the little ones – were always blank. There were no features – no eyes, nose, mouth, ears, or hair. My supervisor recognized that I was perplexed by the boy’s drawings. In his caring way, he guided me to allow the boy to express the blankness of his wounded soul, and then to ask if I could draw his portrait. With that encouragement I showed the child how I saw him, and gradually he accepted me, and himself.

That experience brought me back to the heart of the matter. Academics are wonderful; I feel fed by the stimulation of ideas. However, for the pastor, following Jesus means feeding and tending the sheep. In the church, it’s all about the sheep – the people. That’s our Lord’s focus, and that’s our focus.

The epilogue to John’s gospel makes that clear. This was Jesus’ postscript to the church. It’s a last word to all of us, and our leaders – whether they be priests or pastors, bishops or deacons, vestry members or committee chairs, Sunday school teachers or volunteers in the nursery. Anyone who represents Christ, who follows him faithfully, has a charge: to tend and feed his sheep. This is a good word to remember. It is not the only word to us, but it is an essential word. For each of us is a sheep of Christ’s own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming. He is our shepherd, and with the care that he offers us through the ministers of the church, we shall not want. Amen.

[1] The Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, is a large fresh water lake about 85 miles north of Jerusalem.

[2] John 20:28-31.

[3] Matthew 16:18. The text in Greek contains a play on words, namely “Peter” (Petros) is the “rock” (petra) on which Christ will build his church. In Aramaic both the proper name and the term, rock, are the same word, kepha. Peter also went by the name, Cephas.