More than a confession

John 21:15-22

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.’

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ — John 21:15-22

What an interesting beginning to a story, “They had finished breakfast.” It sounds so ordinary. The disciples had been out fishing all night but were coming up empty. Someone calls them from the beach and tells them to throw the net off the other side of the boat. What difference could there be from one side of a fairly small watercraft to another? Obviously, there was a lot of difference for they could hardly pull the net up for all the fish in it. Meanwhile, Jesus is on the shore, waiting for them and preparing breakfast of bread and fish. It sounds a lot like the same menu as that for the 5,000.

After breakfast Jesus initiates a conversation with Peter, a rather serious one. “Peter, do you love me?” I bet Peter never saw that one coming, any more than anyone would when someone asks them that same question. Often it is a question born of insecurity or doubt, looking for a reassurance and hopefully a positive response. Jesus had a pretty clear idea of people and their motives, even sometimes their very thoughts, it seems, so why did he ask that question of someone who had travelled with him, eaten with him, laughed with him, even watched him do incredible things? Did he want to see how Peter would respond as a test of his honesty? His dedication?

Peter, of course, gave him an answer in the very definite affirmative, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” I have no doubt Peter meant it; why would he have followed Jesus so long and so far if not for love? It must have puzzled Peter as to why Jesus was asking; I’m sure Jesus must have asked rhetorical questions or questions designed to stir up discussion that would lead to new insights on the part of the disciples, but this question seems to go just a bit beyond that. Peter was confused and more than a little hurt. How could Jesus question his love and loyalty? All he could do was keep answering, “Yes, Lord, I love you” in various ways and each time with more emphasis.

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, so we know that Peter denied Jesus three times, precisely the number of times Jesus asked if Peter loves him in this story, but there’s something else about this story that is more immediate: “Feed my lambs, “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”

Peter was often a plank-head, a bit slow on the uptake, and it isn’t hard to imagine that he felt pretty confused by this whole exchange. What did one thing have to do with the other? What did loving Jesus have to do with feeding and tending sheep? Peter probably had a bit of cogitating to do on that one to try to figure it out. Jesus didn’t always make his teachings easy to understand.

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, so we know that Peter denied Jesus three times, precisely the number of times Jesus asked if Peter loves him in this story, but there’s something else about this story that is more immediate: “Feed my lambs, “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”

Sheep aren’t the most brilliant of God’s creatures. They have to be moved from pasture to pasture and they don’t usually do this too well if left on their own. If one goes off it’s likely that a few companions will go along as well and that can lead to trouble. Sheep don’t have many defenses against predators; without some security and oversight, one sheep or a dozen can become either a nice dinner of mutton for one or a banquet for a predator and packmates. Sheep need tending: protection; guidance; a bit of stimulus to get them going in the right direction and keep them that way. That is the job of the shepherd, the pastor, and that is the job Jesus was telling Peter and the other disciples to do.

People don’t like to be called sheep; it’s generally a sort of insult meaning that they can’t make good decisions, cam wander into dangerous territory without seeing or knowing the signs of danger, will follow a group because it’s going somewhere and they don’t want to be left out if any goodies like good grazing land. Unfortunately, sometimes people are just like sheep and the pastor, the shepherd, has to be there to protect them from themselves as much as from predators intent on an easy meal. In laying the job on Peter he also laid it on all of us to take care of the flock, to feed them when they need food, care for their injuries, keep them safe from predators, help them in birthing, and ensure the whole flock stays together because there is safety in numbers, or so we are told.

The world offers a lot of temptations — pastures that look greener somewhere other than where we are, great ideas proposed by individuals and corporations that assure us we’ll make fortunes if we invest in this or buy that, even “Say these words and…” we’ll be assured a seat at the heavenly banquet when we die. It’s very easy to say, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you” on Sunday in church, but what happens when we stand on the front steps of the church and face a world that entices and coerces us in directions away from that affirmation. We are told that poor people are poor because they’re too lazy to work hard. We hear that the crazies on the street are all drug users or prostitutes, even if they are simply people damaged by war, corporate downsizing or just some really bad choices in life. We are taught to fear and mistrust people who aren’t “like us” even though they too are members of Jesus’ flock. Those who aren’t Christian? Jesus wasn’t a Christian and he accepted marginalized people into his inner circle, he healed and befriended outsiders not of the Jewish faith. In short, he showed us what we were supposed to do. But are we paying attention?

The commemoration today is Peter’s Confession of love to Jesus, but I think the bigger story is the directive to take care of the people of the world, God’s children, and even the world itself. A healthy flock needs clean water, a sufficiency of food, and a level of care that provides safety, security and healing. Jesus was speaking not to just Peter but to all of us. “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”

“I love you” can be nothing more than words, but real love, real pastoring, real tending and feeding involves action. More than just Peter’s confession, it is a call to action. The flock is hungry, thirsty, tired, banged-up and confused. It’s time to pastor them, not with “Say these words and…” but “How can I help you?”

I have a feeling that those words, spoken quietly and privately to another, are louder than all Peter’s protestations of love could ever be.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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