FEED MY SHEEP
September 25, 2005
As you know, the four gospel records do not just end with accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection and statements about the belief of his disciples. Instead, all of the gospel accounts say some things to us about what we should do if the Son of God has been offered and then raised up from the dead. Each of the gospel accounts has a commission that the Lord gives to his people, a ministry he wants them to have in this world.
Luke says that Jesus opened his disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures, and that he taught “thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
Matthew has Jesus saying that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him, and then telling his disciples that they were to go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and his promising that if they would then teach those people to observe all things that he had commanded, he would be with them even to the end of the world (Matt. 28:18-20).
And in Mark’s account, there is the statement that they were to go and preach the gospel to every creature, and the promise that whoever believed and was baptized would be saved, and that those who did not believe would remain as they were in their sins. (Mk. 16:15-16)
John’s account is a little different in terms of what he emphasizes. It is longer; it seems to focus on more of the ministry of one individual. But the truths that are laid down here are so fascinating and so important to us that we would like to read a good bit of John 21 together this morning. John says, “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 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.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved 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. Truly, Truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at the table close to him and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” (Jn. 21:1-22)
When Jesus met these seven disciples that early morning beside the Sea of Galilee, undoubtedly one of the biggest things on their minds was, “What about our future?” A lot of things that have just happened would have been so confusing and so difficult to understand what you were supposed to do about. What about our future? What do we do next? Where do we go from here? Those, of course, are questions that are at one time or another on every mind.
The theme that seems to tie everything together in this passage is that idea, “Feed my sheep.” It is the note that Jesus repeated, especially to Peter, and I think it had some application to the others who were there that day, too. What he is saying to them is, “Regardless of what has happened now, I am still with you, I am still the Lord, and you still have a ministry to accomplish in this world. Your future needs to be fashioned by what it is that you have been given to do.”
Forgiven People Have a Mission
There are at least three ways this idea is stressed in the events that we have read about together here. In the first place, observe that Jesus does something that is purposefully intended to bring an episode to the minds of these disciples, something that they have already been through that they need now to remember. It is a way of Jesus saying, “Now, before you begin to drift back to what you were doing before, remember that I have already told you that I have a purpose in mind for you.”
Several months earlier, around the Sea of Galilee, Luke 5 gives us the account. That is a different event from this one. In this passage Jesus is on the bank; in that one he is in the boat. In this passage the net doesn’t tear; in that passage the net does tear. In this passage, there is one boat; in that passage there are two. But on that occasion they had worked all night and they are busy trying to wash out their nets and to do whatever mending and repairing needed to be done. Jesus borrowed their boat to teach from it because the crowd was great. Then he told them to put out their nets, and when they did, they caught a great bunch of fish. If you remember the story, when that all happened Peter is the one who comes before the Lord and falls down on his knees in front of him and says, “Depart from me, Oh Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Do you remember that episode? He saw his need for forgiveness that day. Do you remember what happened then? Jesus told those men that day when Peter called out about his sinfulness that if they would follow him, he would make them fishers of men.
Do you notice in this passage here in John 21 after they have gone back to Galilee, Peter says (and I would love to know in what tone of voice he said this), “I’m going fishing.” Did he say it like a fisherman who was doing it recreationally would say it, “I’m going fishing. You guys go with me.”? Or did he say it like a weary man who didn’t know what else to do, “I’m going fishing”? However he said it, they all went with him. It was the kind of fishing they had done before. There was at least the danger or the possibility that these men would respond to the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus by going back to doing what they had been doing before.
So there is the situation early that morning. The Lord has prepared breakfast on the bank and he calls out to them, “Boys, have you caught anything?” It is a little humorous to me to notice the quality about a fisherman. When he has a negative answer, he can say it so briefly: “No.” If he has caught something, it takes him a while to answer the question! The Lord then invites them to come to the bank; he has prepared breakfast for them, and he feeds them. I’m wondering, as this happens, if they make the connection in their minds: if Peter, who now has failed by denying the Lord three times, can remember that time when he said, “Depart from me, oh Lord, for I am a sinful man,” and the Lord had forgiven him. And I am wondering if he makes the connection now when the Lord invites them to come and have breakfast? When he feeds them, if they can see fellowship being extended, acceptance being offered, and forgiveness being emphasized?
These men started understanding again, “He promised to make something out of us, and he is not through with us yet!” The death, burial and resurrection just means that all of that is ready to be done now, that we have a mission, that we have a ministry now to fulfill in this world which is going to result in many people all over the world having the opportunity to be God’s children. He is doing something to illustrate for them again that forgiven people have a mission of forgiveness in this world.
We have just been through in our country the awful events that struck the Gulf Coast. One of the things that happened, especially in the area around New Orleans, is that there were poor people who had no way out and ended up, for whatever reason, stranded. News reporters were there with cameras to enable us to see some things that maybe would have been overlooked otherwise. Look at the impact that had on our country. I was thinking about that and about the text here, and I wonder what would happen if there were some kind of camera that could take a panoramic view of people’s lives all over the country and we would be able to see, not their physical living circumstances, but their spiritual condition, their hearts, their needs, the deep human needs that people have for the gospel, to know that they are headed in the wrong direction and that there is an answer – there is something that can change them and make them into people who are God’s children who have a purpose in God’s plan. How much would that change us? First off, here is something that calls forgiven people to their mission – fishers of men.
It Requires Loving the Lord More Than Anything
Then notice in the second place that the Lord deals with the motive that is going to be necessary to power an undertaking like that. What he does is to turn to Peter’s love for him. What is necessary in order for anyone to be involved in the feeding of the Lord’s sheep? What is necessary is for them to love him more than they love anything else or anyone else. I am familiar with all the discussions that go back and forth about the different words that are used, but we don’t have time to deal with that this morning. I just want you to see the obvious, and it is that the Lord is calling for Peter’s love to be examined, and he would call for the love of his church to be examined also.
Merrill Tenny wrote of this event in the gospel of John: “Jesus was seeking to probe Peter’s inmost purpose in following him. The desire for personal success, eminence, achievement, reward, or even the relatively unselfish motive of doing something for needy humanity was not enough. Only a complete love for Christ would be sufficient to carry Peter and his fellow disciples through the careers which awaited them in the future.” One of the things that remembering the Lord on the Lord’s Day and offering up praise to him together should remind us of is that no good work is sufficient, but that love for the Lord is what’s needed.
Peter answered, “You know I love you.” “Yes, Lord, I love you. You know I do. You know everything.” Jesus’ answer is the same, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” It is interesting to watch Peter applying what that meant by watching what Peter did in the years that were ahead of him. What did feeding the sheep mean? It had to do, clearly, with helping people know the word of Christ.
When he went to the household of Cornelius, it seems to me that he must have been remembering this episode in John 21. Peter said, “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39-43).
Peter didn’t see himself as the only person involved in tending the sheep. I Peter 5:1-4 speaks to the elders or the shepherds of the church. Peter classifies himself as being one of their fellow elders working under the chief shepherd. This is the kind of love that all of us need to be involved in showing. If we remember that we are forgiven and have a mission, we should then see that that mission is to see to it that we feed the Lord’s sheep by teaching them what he wants them to do in this world, and by loving them and caring for their deepest needs.
Meeting Our Own Responsibility
Third, notice that our passage shows that this task can be accomplished by people who, because they so love the Lord, follow him, instead of worrying what other people do; individuals who are committed to following the Lord and doing what they can for him themselves. In this text, Jesus in verses 18 and following, shows Peter that when he is older, he is not going to be able to just go do whatever he wants to do like he might have done as a youth. He is not just talking about the process of aging. I’m told that when he said “there would be other people who stretch out your hands,” that he used the phrase that was sometimes used of what happened in crucifixion when soldiers stretched out the hands of the victim. You may be aware that at least tradition holds that Peter was later on arrested and that he was taken and crucified in Rome and that he chose, tradition says, to be crucified upside down. What Jesus is saying is the fulfilling of this mission or this task, even when it is done out of love, is not necessarily easy or comfortable. Yet, it is done by people who follow the Lord and keep on following him.
Thomas Paine wrote, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm and whose conscience approves his conduct will pursue his principles unto death.” That is true of Christians, but it is not our principles that we pursue. It is our Lord and following him that we are speaking of.
In John’s case, Peter looked around at John and said, “Alright, what about this fellow?” It is interesting that our tendency to want to evaluate or justify our action in response to Jesus based on what other people are doing. Sometimes it can be, “I don’t have to because he doesn’t” or “It’s not fair. I have to more than he does.” The Lord’s answer to Peter was, “What’s that to you?” In other words in our language, “That is none of your business.” “You follow me,” he says in verse 22. Sometimes that is the only solution. Just let me do what I am supposed to do myself.
There are three principles from this great event that give us pause to remember for our own future that North Star that should guide us in all of our lives. Let’s remember that if we are forgiven, we have a mission, that it needs to be fulfilled out of love for the Lord, and that it should cause us to follow him no matter what.
You may be here this morning loving the Lord and wanting to begin following him. If you need to give yourself to him in obedience to the gospel of Jesus, or if there is some way you are needing the prayers of your fellow believers, we invite you to come if you need to while we sing together.