John 21: 1-19
Third Sunday after Easter, 14th April 2013
This is such a visual text, John 21, with Jesus appearing along the lake shore, the disciples hard at work fishing, the risen Jesus beside a charcoal fire cooking for his friends. "Come, have some breakfast." They're surprised to see him; happy to see him again. They gather around the fire and eat and talk and enjoy one another's company, rich fellowship, deep sharing. The story is so real, concrete, and tactile. You can almost smell the fish as it cooks on the fire and taste the warm bread.
The author of the gospel is masterful in his attention to detail, which helps provide a sense of realism to it all. This attention to detail is more than just a literary device, more than a tool used to craft of good story. It is a tool of course, but John's attention to detail serves a theological end. Everything in John's gospel carries a meaning; almost every word carries significance and points us toward a deeper reading of the story, something seemingly insignificant is central to the story and its meaning—something so seemingly insignificant such as charcoal.
Did you see/hear the reference to charcoal in John 21? Jesus was cooking around a charcoal fire. It stands out. Why charcoal? You have to go to a Bible concordance to find the answer. Look up every place where the word charcoal is used: three times. Once in Proverbs (26:21), and twice here in John's gospel. Where precisely in the gospel? We heard it on Maundy Thursday: "Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself" (John 18:18). It's around this same charcoal fire that Peter denied having anything to do with Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.
And so we are around another fire and after breakfast Jesus gets down to business. It's time to talk—to talk with Simon Peter. "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"—meaning, more than the other disciples? "Do you love me?" Not once, he asked, not twice, but three times, each time giving Peter an opportunity for confession as if to undo each statement of denial. Jesus never says to Peter, "Hey, why did you deny me?" Or, "why did you abandon me back when I was on the cross?" Jesus doesn't return to judge or condemn, but ultimately to restore the broken relationship, for Peter to know that he's been forgiven, that he's still loved by Jesus, and given an opportunity to begin again. Yet, each time Jesus asks the question, Peter gets a little frustrated and testy. Peter pushes back a little. Was it out of guilt and shame? Jesus never mentions the denial, but Peter knows it. Jesus knows. Peter knows.
If you love me, then "feed my sheep." "Follow me."
John's Gospel was written for his community of faith, it's a text that tells the story about Jesus; but it’s more than history, it's written to encourage the people in his church to participate in Jesus' story and move the story along. Participate in the story and we discover that there's a bit of Peter in all of us. We are all like Peter to one degree or another. We have all denied Jesus; we all deny Jesus; and we all will continue to deny Jesus—because following him is difficult. Yes, the denial produces guilt and shame in us. But it needs to be stressed here that guilt and shame are rarely ever the best ways to encourage someone to do something. We might choose to do something out of guilt and shame, but there are other ways, healthier ways to get us to act, to follow. Jesus never says anything nor does anything to engender guilt or shame. Nothing. Instead, he moves the conversation toward something else, toward love. And he asks Peter—asks us—Do you love me?
It's love that motivated Jesus' life. It's a love for God that defined Jesus' ministry. It's his love for humanity that called him and sent him and put him at odds with the religious and political authorities of his day. It's love that led him to a cross. And it's love that brought him back to his friends because he wanted his friends to know he was—and is—about love.
It's all about love. It's that simple, really. And, so difficult. That's the Gospel. Even the Beatles get it: "All you need is love. Love is all you need." But it's easy to sing about love—and there are countless songs that prove this point. Putting love in action, that's something else.
Do you love me?
What's striking here is that throughout Jesus' ministry he rarely talks about love in the abstract. He doesn’t talk about love in general. It's not an idea. And it's not necessarily an emotion or feeling. Ideas are fickle. Emotions and feelings come and go. In the Christian experience love is always particular and love is always a choice. We choose to love—even when it doesn't make any sense to, maybe especially in those times. We choose to love—even when we don't feel like it. It's always love in action. It's concrete and real. It's embodied. Feeding people. Healing people. Forgiving people. Raising the dead. Washing the dusty, sweaty, smelly feet of his disciples—there's nothing abstract about this. Before Jesus died he said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34). And here after his death and resurrection, the love continues. Jesus says to Peter—and to us – feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep.
Who are the sheep? The disciples? Followers of Jesus? Members of the church? Every one created in the image of God? It depends upon how narrow or broad we wish to be. How big is this flock? It's tough to say. Personally, I would rather be broad than narrow, if in being narrow I unintentionally exclude one of the sheep. But should we even be concerned with who is in and who is out of the sheepfold? We're called to love our neighbors, and as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) knew, the neighbor is anyone who stands before us or beside us. Maybe if we treated the people we meet as if they’re already part of the sheepfold, even if right now they don't see themselves as bearing the image of God, they might in time come to see themselves as a fellow sheep.
Feed my sheep, Jesus said. Take care of them. Take care of them because at times we're not too smart, we get lost and lose our way, we make poor decisions and we’re stubborn, we get tangled in thorn bushes and stuck in ravines, we get lulled away oh so easily. And make sure they're fed and watered. Feed my sheep. No one should go hungry, no one should go thirsty.
It's not surprising that the Church has been engaged in feeding and healing people, providing shelter, establishing hospitals and hospices for a long time. We’ve been at this for centuries - soup kitchens, breadlines, food pantries. We've been helping to provide clean drinking water. When I served in Newton Presbytery, in New Jersey, we had a partnership with Nairobi Presbytery in Kenya. One of our projects there was providing fresh water to people living in remote villages near Kibwezi, several hours east of Nairobi. We built an enormous tank to collect the water and then we installed a ceramic pipeline underground that brought fresh, clean drinking water from the tank to thousands of people in the villages. (I remember climbing up the ladder and standing on top of the tank and looking out toward all the villages in the bush.) It was built underground so that the elephants couldn't crush the pipes when they came barreling through the jungle obliterating everything in their wake.
Feed my sheep. If the sheepfold is large, then this means continuously reaching out toward people; there’s a job for us to do. The Church will never go out of business. Feed my sheep informs the work of the church and how we do ministry. This is really important for us to note because the nature of ministry is changing in the United States. The models for ministry are rapidly changing. We are in the midst of one of the most significant moments of transition in the history of the Church.
For the last forty years or more the American Protestant church has been operating with what is known as a consumer church model, shaped by the consumerist bent of the American populace. In the consumer church members says, "I go to church." The Church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services—engaging worship, good preaching, inspiring music, Christian education, adult education programs, exciting youth ministry. People go to church to be "fed," to have their needs met through quality programs and to have their seminary-trained professionals teach their children about God. "I go to church." I go to be fed. And if I'm not getting fed, if the preaching isn't good or the music uninspiring or if my kids are bored with church school, if I’m not getting what I want I’ll withdraw my financial support, stop pledging, I will shop around for a different church where I can get my needs met. In a consumer church model it's all about "I." The customer has to be pleased. If not, she'll take her custom elsewhere.
There’s nothing biblically or theologically sound in any of this. And, to be honest, it’s not particularly faithful.
For the last ten years or so theologians and biblical scholars have been seriously—and correctly—critiquing this model. They're trying to bring us back toward a biblical model for the church, a model known as missional. Mission means, literally, to be sent. A missional church views itself as a people sent on a mission. Members do not say, "I go to church." We say, "I am the church." “We are the church.” Together, we are a people sent. We’re a people who gather together as a community for worship, for rich fellowship; we’re committed to that community of people no matter what; a community that’s not pastor or program focused. We’re a people engaged in community engagement; we hear the teaching from the Word in worship, we self-feed ourselves throughout the week, in order to be equipped to go out into the world feeding the people of God wherever they are.
The consumer model looks inward. The missional model is always looking outward. The consumer model is individualistic. The missional model is community oriented. The consumer model assumes that we just sit here doing our churchy thing and wait for people to flock to us, to be fed here—if they're convinced that we're worth coming to (or coming back to), all of which requires a lot of self-promotion.
The missional model knows we need to go out and meet God's people where they are, beyond the walls of the sanctuary, to love and care and feed them—not to get them to come to church or become members, but simply to serve, because that's what we do as God’s people, that's how we witness God's love, that's how it's embodied in the world. Becoming a member is secondary.
It's the missional model that's bringing the church back to its roots. It's the missional model that's best suited for our post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, post-Protestant-majority world—for we have to remember again what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what Christ calls us to do in the world, if we're going to be able to feed the sheep today and really follow.
How do we translate "feed my sheep" for today's world? For the church, for ministry? Perhaps one word might help us here: compassion. In The Secret Revelation of John, an ancient text discovered in 1945, a text that had not been seen since at least 180 AD, maybe earlier, unearthed in Nag Hammadi, in the deserts of Egypt, Jesus says to John, "Arise and remember that you are the one who has heard, and follow your root, which is I, the compassionate." Jesus the compassionate. When Jesus says, "feed my sheep," he's saying to Peter, be compassionate, extend compassion to my people. If you love me, Jesus says, then feed my sheep, be like me the compassionate one, and live in such a way that when they people see you, they know you're compassionate, part of the sheepfold; live in such a way toward others so that they know that they, too, are sheep, that they too are the objects of God's compassion.
Just imagine what a difference this would have upon the life of the Church, upon us as a community. Just imagine what a difference this would have upon the world. May it be so.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847).
 For a fuller exposition of a missional ecclesiology see Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
 Karen L. King, The Secret Revelation of John (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).s