Feed My Sheep…Follow Me
April 18, 2010
“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.”…After this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:15-19
“Feed my lambs;” Tend my sheep;” “Feed my sheep;” “Follow me.” These are Jesus’ words to Peter, today. They are words that form commands; words that confer responsibility; words that imply trust; words foundational to the Christian Church.
They are commands that charge one to go forth in love and faith, both following Jesus and caring for the Christian community at the very same time.
Most certainly, these are commands that would normally be saved for only the most trusted friend or family member.
Yet, wait a minute…wasn’t Peter the disciple who just a few days earlier, during Jesus’ arrest and trial in Jerusalem, denied him twice by saying, “No, I am not one if his disciples,” and then a third time by saying, “No, I was not in the garden with him.”
Wasn’t Peter the disciple who could have come forward and defended Jesus, but didn’t, instead choosing to lurk in the shadows and escape responsibility? Wasn’t Peter the disciple who avoided offering the support that should have been given by one of Jesus’ followers; one of his trusted disciples?
Can it be that Peter – the Peter who denied; the Peter who avoided responsibility; the Peter who lost his way - who has now been chosen by Jesus to lead in his place; to, “Tend my sheep, and follow me?”
How are we to interpret this sudden and complete trust in someone who has just performed cowardly acts of betrayal and untrustworthiness? Someone who had just demonstrated blatant acts unfaithfulness?
We might wonder why Jesus didn’t instead choose John for this role of leadership. At first glance, John seems to be the perfect choice. He was, after all, Jesus’ favorite apostle.
It was John, not Peter, who stood by the foot of the cross as Jesus died, ignoring the danger of being arrested and put to death by the Romans. It was John, not Peter, whom Jesus chose to act as guardian of his mother Mary. It was John, not Peter, who had been the perfect disciple; the ever faithful friend; the dependable one. It seems impossible to imagine a more appropriate choice than John for Jesus to choose to lead his Church.
So why did Jesus choose Peter and not John? Did Jesus know something we do not? I think so – I think that while John was the “perfect” disciple; the disciple who did everything right with unfailing loyalty, Jesus knew that we are all Peter. We are not perfect. We all have moments of weakness; times of doubt; periods of our lives that are not so pretty perfect. We all lose our way – every single one of us. No one of us is perfect. And therefore, because no one could live up to John’s example of perfection, Jesus chose Peter.
Jesus does not expect us to be perfect.
Jesus knew that Peter would rebound from his fall and become the strong, natural leader he was. Jesus knew that by choosing Peter, he gave hope to the thousands of generations that would follow…. It’s as if Jesus is telling us, “I do not call you to be perfect. Do not fear falling, or failing, follow me and you will rebound. All I ask is that you have faith and follow me.”
In today’s passage, Jesus also tells Peter, “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.”
Here, Jesus is warning Peter that his newly assigned task of leading the infant Christian Church will be not be an easy one. It will require courage, endurance, and the strength to face a painful death for the sake of the Church; for Jesus’ sake.
Having been given his charge by Jesus, Peter initially worked to establish the early Church by preaching to the scattered Jews and Hebrew Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. Several years later, Peter went to Rome where he quickly became the leader of the Christian movement, and a favorite of the Emperor Nero.
However, Peter, and the tenacity with which he carried forth his mission to follow Jesus by spreading the Good News and creating a Christian community, soon became a threat to the powerful Roman ruler. Nero decided that he needed to eliminate Peter, and the Christian Church, as well.
Church history says that Peter probably died by crucifixion, with his head to the ground and his arms outstretched, shortly after the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64. A fire that Nero himself set in an effort to discredit the Christians.
Margherita Guarducci, who between 1963 and 1968 led the last stages of the research leading to the rediscovery of Peter’s tomb, concludes that Peter died on October 13 A.D. 64 on the occasion of the 10th dies imperii (coronation day anniversary) of Emperor Nero. The dies imperii was always accompanied by much bloodshed – gladiators, chariot rides – all of the Charlton Heston blood and gore that we’ve seen in movies like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur.
It was on this bloody 10th anniversary day that Roman authorities sentenced Peter to death by crucifixion amidst all the rest of the bloodshed that was occurring around him. Peter’s burial place is thought to be where the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome was later built, directly beneath the Basilica's high altar.
Today, we hear that Jesus charged Peter. Jesus charged Peter to feed his sheep and to follow him. Jesus charged Peter with the task of taking the Good News into the world fearlessly, with love, courage, and faith, knowing that his Lord would always be there to guide, support, and forgive him.
Is Jesus’ charge for Peter only? No – Jesus charges us all. He charges us through our Baptismal Covenant; he charges us through the various “calls” that we receive in his name; he charges us in and through the ministry of the lay and the ordained to feed his sheep and to follow him.
Just last Saturday, I was charged by Bishop Dan to “study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model [my] life upon them”. I was charged “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” I was charged “to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”
Several years ago when Julie was ordained, she was charged “to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” She was charged “to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to [her].”
When Bishop Dan was ordained, he was charged “to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.”
You, the laity, are charged “to represent Christ and his church; to bear witness to him wherever you may be; and according to the gift given to you, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take your place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”
Jesus has charged us all – laity, deacon, priest, and bishop. We have all been assigned a job and clearly instructed as to how to carry out that job. We have all been charged to feed Christ’s sheep and to follow him. Like Peter, we will deny, we will avoid responsibility, we will become lost. Jesus knew that would happen; but, he trusted that, as with Peter, and like lost sheep, we would, with the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us, once again find our way.
Last week, after my consecration as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Dan, as is customary, presented me with a bible. His inscription in this bible reads, “May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things, give you the grace and power to perform them.”
This was Jesus’ wish for Peter; it is Jesus’ wish for you; it is my prayer for you.