In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage, John relates this post-resurrection story about Jesus’ march- ing orders to Peter.
John 21: 15-17 (NIV) – Feed My Sheep
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
When I read this story recently, I was thrown back to the 1970’s. I was making my bed while deliberating about whether to sign up for a 2-year teacher-training program for the Bethel Bible Series when I clearly heard a voice say, “Feed my sheep!” Surprised, I turned to look at the radio (which was usually tuned to NPR) and found that it wasn’t even turned on! No one else was in the room – or even in the house. Who had said, “Feed my sheep?” Could this be the voice of God? The deadline for signing up for the training had passed. I was new to the church, afraid of my shadow, and aware that I was completely unprepared for this kind of adventure. Was God really telling me to do this frightening but awesome task? I was thoroughly shaken. Had I missed an opportunity that God was calling me to follow?
The next day was Sunday. I went to the evening service, and, lo and behold, the person who was conducting the training was preaching. My stomach was in my throat, but I gathered enough courage rush up to him after the service and ask if I could still join the training.” He smiled and said “There is one opening; it’s yours.” That two years and the teaching assignment that followed were huge milestones in my spiritual formation.
I imagine that Peter felt somewhat the same way when Jesus spoke those words to him. It had already been a day to beat all days. After the crucifixion, he and the other fishermen among the disciples had left Jerusalem and had gone back home to Galilee totally discouraged. They decided to do what they did best (or perhaps to return to their careers since the time with Jesus was over) and go fishing. They had no luck until someone on the shore yelled to throw their nets on the other side – which, of course, they had already tried. But they did as told, and their nets were immediately so full, they almost tore.
John (who retells this story in his Gospel) recognizes the voice and tells Peter, “It is the Lord!” Peter, impetuously leaving the others to harvest the huge haul, jumps in the water and swims to shore where he finds Jesus tending a charcoal fire and preparing breakfast. When the other disciples join them, Jesus tells them to add some of their freshly caught fish to the fire. He then feeds them bread and fish.
After breakfast, Jesus begins the questioning that our scripture passage relates. Three times he asks, “Do you love me?” Twice Peter answers, “You know that I do.” The third time Peter is hurt because it sounds as if Jesus doubts him. And then a scene floods his memory. He was standing by a charcoal fire just a week ago when he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. It all becomes clear.
Try to imagine how Peter felt. Ashamed, guilty, afraid, embarrassed, hopeless? But still he answers, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Eugene Peterson says, that “the three Jesus questions on the Galilee beach reverse and redeem Peter’s three denials at the trial the week before in Jerusalem. The three affirmations of love harness Peter into continuing Jesus’ work of feeding the sheep.”
Peterson then points out that Jesus finishes the conversation by saying, “‘Follow me.’ He did not say ‘Lead in my name” or ‘Lead my flock.’ He says as clearly, briefly, and emphatically as possible, repeating it twice, ‘Follow me . . . Follow me.'” Now, try again to imagine what Peter feels. He has been forgiven. He is still loved. He has been told to resume the work that Jesus has started. He has been warned that his life will end just as Jesus’ had. And yet, he grabs on with both hands and begins his ministry. Following Jesus means feeding and caring for his flock, wherever and whoever they are, using the gifts that God has given to work collaboratively with him.
♥ Have you ever personally received direction from Jesus to “Feed my lambs” or “Take care of my sheep?” How did you live that out? If not, reflect on taking this passage personally and seriously. With three years of Jesus stories available, John included this one in his gospel; he must have thought it was an important instruction for all of Jesus’ disciples. How could you feed Jesus’ children, his lambs, literally? How could you enrich the lives of others as Jesus did?
♥ What does it mean for you personally to follow Jesus right this moment? How do you follow Jesus in your family relationships? How do you follow Jesus in the life of your church? In your work place? In your neighborhood? How do you follow Jesus in today’s political climate? God might be calling you to something very different now than he has been in the past.
♥ Read the quote below. What is the difference between leadership and “followership.” How can you become less and less? And why?
MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“The Christian life does not consist in achieving great things for God but in allowing Jesus to use our inadequacy and failure to rehabilitate us to a life experienced as grace and love and obedience. Peter’s recovered focus on following Jesus to a sacrificial death [see John 21: 18-19], undistracted by what others might or might not be doing under Jesus’s [see John 21: 20 – 21] emphatic “Follow me” is basic for each of us. The Christian life is not about leadership but ‘followership,’ not about becoming more and more but less and less” (Eugene Peterson in As Kingfishers Catch Fire).