Feed my sheep

John 21:1-19

Lin Hatfield Dodds

How difficult it must have been for the disciples to hope and believe after Jesus died. They were either present or heard about soon after it first-hand. So they knew, absolutely knew, that he had gone.

He had said he would rise, but, you know, he said a lot of things, many in story form – who knew what at was metaphor or allegory and what was statement of fact?

How hard to hang onto faith in the absence of presence, in the absence of relationship.
But then Jesus started revealing his risen self to them. Not in spectacular ways at special moments, but in the most ordinary of moments and the most ordinary of ways – while walking along a road, while sharing a hurried meal, and in today’s passage, at work.

Gathered here in an inland city it’s tempting to forget that these guys didn’t ever fish recreationally. When they fished, they fished for survival, to catch enough to keep a roof over their heads and food in their family’s bellies.

So there they are, the band of friends and brothers. They’ve been through a lot together and you have to wonder if part of why they were out on the water again was to bring some normality back into their lives. But after most of a day and all of a night – nada. Zip, zilch, squat. No fish. Early morning they were pretty close to the land and so were able to hear some random guy up and out early ask them if they’d eaten anything.

When they confirmed they had been fishing for some time with no luck, the guy suggested they cast the net in a particular direction. Who knows why they did? Perhaps they were on their way in anyway and who really cared what direction the last cast would be in?

The passage from John records that Jesus stood unrecognised on the beach for a while. Just think about that for a moment. How many times a week do you cast an eye around your workplace or home just in case Christ is standing there about to enquire about your eating habits? Who expects the Divine to illumine the ordinary? Or from another perspective – this was the person who had undoubtedly caused the greatest upheaval that their lives had ever known. How could they not have recognised him? Was it because, in spite of Jesus’ assurances that he would be with them to the end of the age, they simply couldn’t allow themselves to hope?

Anyway, the disciples did what Beach Guy suggested, and chucked their nets over the right side of the boat. It wasn’t till they were straining their backs pulling the nets in, fish sliding out the top and the whole bulging alarmingly, that it clicked and they realised that random Beach Guy was Jesus.

Simon Peter immediately and characteristically flung himself into the water to get to Jesus while the others came in by boat. And Jesus shared breakfast with them. Fish and bread. Can you picture the scene? A small fire on the beach, probably crackling away in a shallow hole in the sand. Fish skewered on sticks, hard slightly stale bread from the boat. Some pieces probably damp. Nothing makes food taste better than hunger though, and between that and knowing that they were with Jesus again, I bet it was one of the best meals that they had ever eaten.

And it was while they were eating, lulled a bit by the fire, warm bellies and an incredible catch of fish; off-balance a bit due to Jesus turning up during an ordinary day and making it extraordinary, that Jesus gets to the point of the day’s learning.
Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him.

“Do you love me more than these” ie more than the means to provide for your family?
“Yes” says Peter.
Jesus says “Feed my lambs”.
Again, “Do you love me?”
“Yes, you know I do”
“Tend my sheep”
And again, “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter’ is grieved by the number of times the question is asked –
“You know everything, you know I do”
“Feed my sheep”.

There are two threads in this story that I want to highlight today. The first I simply want to note, and that is that when God chose to enter our world in human form, God chose to immerse Godself in all of our lives. To live if you like, in solidarity with us. I find that a challenging concept, to sit with the notion that the incarnation may have had more of a solidarity than a charity imperative.
This perspective speaks to me of God’s intimate knowledge of us, God’s compassion, and God’s limitless imagination.

To stand in solidarity with means to journey with. Not to remain above, or separate, but to choose to experience, to feel, to connect with the other. Which takes me at least to a place of feeling amazed at the depth of love required to come alongside all of us. Each of us.
To stand with us in the everyday. While we are walking, or eating, or going about our daily business. To feel empathy and compassion for us, to understand our pains and joys.

I find the solidarity perspective works for me. It enables me to imagine why God doesn’t step in and fix hard stuff for us. Why in spite of not fixing the hard stuff, God remains right there. Solidarity is never about assuming someone else’s burden, but about sharing the load.

Psychologists, theologians, and writers through history have proposed that one of the key markers of being a mature adult is a true apprehension, or gut understanding, of your own mortality. Not just a cognitive understanding – yeah, yeah, we all die sometime – but a very present visceral knowing that I, too, will die. Richard Fowler, one of my favourite theologians (could it be because he is also a psychologist?) records his experience in his book Stages of Faith. He describes waking one night in his late 30s knowing that he would die one day. He and others have described this experience as looking into the void; as feeling absolutely alone in an infinitely large and dark universe. For many of us, it seems that truly seeing our mortality equates with knowing our fundamental aloneness. Richard, being a person of faith, at his darkest alone moment, instinctively reached out for God. Who was there.

I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly been my experience of God. Through the miscarriages I experienced many years ago, to Dad’s illness and death, God was there. Not fixing my life up, not operating as a puppeteer, but being there. Scripture tells us that this love is characterised by a deep respect for our unique humanity and dignity, as well as by the kind of abandoned heart love that we most often feel for vulnerable children in our care.

Present love. There in the everyday, experienced often when least expected. Practical love. Ensuring that the guys in the boat went home with some fish. Feeding them a hot breakfast. Feeding their souls.

Feeding their souls? The Q&A set that Jesus and Peter engaged in – feed my sheep – was not just for the benefit of the sheep. We all need to belong and feel valued, and that comes as we feel able to contribute to our community. I always remember a mate of mine saying here at Kippax that he had settled here because there was space for him to contribute. He’d moved here from interstate to study and had been at a whole lot of churches where he was welcomed and looked after. Which he appreciated, but what he needed over the long term was to find a place in a community, and he could only do that by contributing to the community.

Which provides a lovely segue to the second thread that I want to highlight from John today.
Feed my sheep.

Look around you, and feed my sheep.

In a moment, Steve’s going to share about one of the ways we feed God’s sheep here at Kippax through the Newpin program that assists families experiencing significant difficulty or distress. It’s an approach that exemplifies the solidarity perspective. No judgement, no charity, but tons of compassion, support and shared learnings.

One of the ways in which we feed God’s sheep together at Kippax is through the supports and services we offer through UnitingCare Kippax. Other ways are through the care we demonstrate for each other through prayer, our small groups, the meals roster and simply journeying together.
As well as each of us being part of our community at work feeding sheep, we are called in this passage, in the example of Jesus speaking directly to Peter, to reflect and act in our lives beyond our faith community.

How can we each feed God’s sheep in the ordinary everyday rest of our lives? Who are the sheep? What would a solidarity approach look like for those sheep? How can we journey with any integrity with people randomly in our lives through study, or work, or our kids, or any of the interest groups we are a part of?

I can’t answer those questions for you. But the beauty of a faith community is that we can ask these questions of each other and map out a way forward together. We can have a go, we can fail a lot, we can succeed some of the time and we can learn throughout the whole.
Jesus could have organised a huge rally to pass on the “feed my sheep” message to thousands of people at a time, but he didn’t. He sat on a beach near a small town with a group of tired and wet men and spoke to one. “Feed my sheep”.

People matter. Love requires us to open up and journey with each other. As we do so, God journeys with us. And we are no longer alone.

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