“Tend, Feed, Follow”
April 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
What do you do when nothing seems right? When you need a bit of a reset button? Is there a place or a practice where predictability brings you a sense of peace?
Believe it or not, when I was a freshman in college and overwhelmed by a majority classes that required critical thinking and never had just one answer to a question, math homework brought me a sense of peace, knowing that if I did things just right, there was just one right answer.
Nowadays knitting does that for me, one row building off of the next, each stitch linked to the one beside it, hats, scarves, and socks building up in predictable patterns.
In our scripture today, the disciples are looking for this very same sense of predictability, a reset on the pain surrounding them. This story comes to us in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus had appeared to the disciples three times previously. By doing so he had confirmed the promise of his resurrection and proved, even to the doubters, that he was indeed Jesus and had returned from the dead. But for Peter things were yet a bit unresolved. Peter was stuck in the grief of having denied affiliation to Jesus. He was grief stricken and not quite sure how he could continue to follow Jesus when he felt like he had failed him when put to the test. In his defeat he returns to what he knows, what is safe and predictable: fishing.
But then, after a night passes with no luck in their fishing, Jesus shows up again and gives fishing instructions to the disciples. When fishing on the other side of the boat yields a tremendous catch, John realizes that Jesus is the one on the shoreside. At this news, Peter jumps into the water, eager to be by Jesus’ side.
In this moment we see two different responses to the presence of Jesus. First, John is the disciple who sees, who recognizes Jesus and names him. Second, Peter is the disciple who acts, diving into the water to pursue Jesus.
In our relationship with God we need both, we need to see Jesus and to act in response. Or to put it in Biblical terms, we need both the faith and works, both believing and responding.
In James 2:14-18, 26, we read, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith… 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
One without the other is incomplete. A point which Jesus further drives home with Peter by the firelight. Peter is desperate to be reconnected with Jesus whom he loves.
“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.’”
As Peter seeks reconciliation, Jesus not only forgives him, but welcomes Peter back into the community of disciples and empowers him to do the work of God’s kingdom.
In the Greek this passage takes an interesting turn, through the use of two different terms for love, agape and phileo. Agape is the word for the strongest form of love, unconditional love, while phileo is a more subdued term for love, a type of sibling or friendship love.
With these words in play the exchange goes a bit more like this:
Jesus says to Peter “Do you agape me?”
And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”
The second time Jesus asks “Do you agape me?
And Peter says again, “Yes Lord, you know I phileo you.”
The third time however, it changes a bit, Jesus asks “Do you phileo me?”
And Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I phileo you.”
This could be read as Peter’s lack of commitment to Jesus, but I think it’s equally possible, that after Peter’s confidence in his allegiance to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed by his betrayal, Peter wanted to be a bit more realistic in what he was capable of. Jesus asks for unconditional love, and Peter not wanting let down Jesus any farther says that he can provide this friendship type of love. They repeat this exchange one more time, and then the third time Jesus meets Peter where he’s at, asking for brotherly love, which Peter confidently says he is indeed able to provide.
Jesus’ generosity in abundance, patience, and grace with the disciples and particularly Peter underscores this entire story. When giving help with the disciples’ fishing he provides not just enough for breakfast, but enough to overwhelm their nets and boat. When Peter wants forgiveness, Jesus provides both understanding and a way forward, a way that requires Peter to respond with his own acts of generosity, putting his faith into action.
For me, Peter makes this story a bit more accessible than some of the other acts of the disciples. In this exchange Peter is humbled by his past failures, but that doesn’t exclude or excuse him from the important work God has for him. This is a message of hope for all of us, our mistakes do not make us ineligible to serve our neighbor in God’s name. Thanks be to God for that!
Some refer to this story as a “re-commissioning “of the disciples, who were commissioned at the beginning of their ministry to leave their nets and follow Christ. So much has happened between then and our story today. They’ve seen healings, heard parables, and walked long distances, all alongside Jesus who took every opportunity to invite them into God’s will and work for them. Then, this man in whom they’d come to love and trust, was met with the betrayal of one of their own and the opposition of an overwhelming crowd. In the pain of these circumstances, all but John withdrew from Jesus’ company, filled with the very real fear that to remain would be to invite the same fate for themselves.
But over and over again Jesus meets them behind the locked doors of their fear and at the shores of their grief, bringing an abundance of hope and grace. When they’re not sure how to carry on, Jesus gives them a new direction, a new way to throw their nets. When Peter’s worry turns his focus inward on his own failings, Jesus turns him again to look outwards, to tend his feed his lambs and tend his sheep.
Luther Seminary professor David Lose had this to say, “we will fall short of our goals and aspirations. We will at times have to compromise. We will not always follow through. And we will time and again disappoint and even fall away. Which is why we not only need Luke’s story of commissioning, but also John’s of re-commissioning. Because Jesus does not give up on us. Ever! Rather, after each failure he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment – what else is our Sunday gathering? – and then calls us to add what we have and depart worship to meaningful work in the world.”
To what is God calling you today? To what “other side” are you called to extend your nets? What different way forward does God have for you?
Life is messy. Peter knew that, and Jesus certainly does too. But our mess is not an end, but a beginning. Our deficit is not a stopping place, but a place to start again. For where we offer little, God multiplies it into much. In Christ we are called, claimed, and commissioned to be a people of generous abundance. Thanks be to God.