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What Does Jesus Ask Today, by the Rev. Cathy Schuyler (April 18, 2010)

Two weeks after the resurrection and things have mostly gone back to normal.  There may be a few chocolate eggs left in the baskets or a jellybean or two under the grass, but basically the celebration of the resurrection has faded in our memory and we’re back to life as usual.   The disciples seem to have been in a similar place.  First the disappointment and horror and despair of the death of their friend, then the stunning news of his disappearance and the stories that a few people had seen him.   Then Jesus himself, alive, in their midst, in their fear, breathing life and spirit into them, and his return the next week, and Thomas’ confession – my Lord and my God!  Then, nothing. The last few days had been quiet, uneventful.  They went home to Galilee, saw friends and family, told them the stories they’d gone over hundreds of times by now.  And then they didn’t know what else to do with themselves.  Friends who heard the story were skeptical; they wanted an explanation.  How can that be?  People don’t come alive again; dead people stay dead.  The disciples started to think about that.  They were right, it didn’t make sense.  Now that they were back home, among the old familiar patterns and ways of being, there was a lot that didn’t make sense.

 

So they went fishing.  Fishing they knew.  They were fishermen for years before any of them had ever met Jesus.  Maybe they’d find some clarity, some new insights in the boat.  But no, they couldn’t even find any fish.  The text says they were out all night and caught nothing, nothing at all. 

 

Just after daybreak some guy on the shore shouts out to them, Children, have you caught any fish?  Nope.  Try the right side of the boat.  They tried it, and hauled in one hundred and fifty-three fish.  That’s a lot of fish, especially after nothing for hours.  The bells in their brains began to go off.  Just like the disciples at Emmaus, who recognized the risen Jesus when he did something familiar, something he’d done many times before in their presence, so this gathering of disciples may well have remembered Jesus’ assistance before.  Oh, those many years ago, when Simon and Andrew had taken a stranger out in their boat with them and he’d told them to let down their nets in the deep water after a night of nothing.  That stranger was Jesus; this one must be Jesus also.  Peter is so excited that he jumps in the water and sloshes into shore to greet the risen Jesus.  The rest of the disciples are close behind, though they stay dry.   Jesus models gracious hospitality – the fire is ready, the logs are set up around the fire.  A few centuries later, he’d have coffee brewing, but bread and fish and water made a nice breakfast even without coffee, especially if you’ve been out on the open water all night.  The mood is changed.  Jesus is here, cooking for them, greeting them, listening to their thoughts.  Perhaps there were long periods of silence when no-one said anything; they just sat and ate and enjoyed being together. 

 

When they finished their fish, they went for a stroll along the beach.  If you’ve watched a group of seven or eight people walk together, they rarely all walk in a pack.  They break up into groups of two or three, walking far enough apart to keep up separate conversations, but close enough to join another discussion if they want.  Jesus and Peter walk together, and Jesus is direct.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  It’s not clear which “these” Jesus is referring to, but it’s ultimately not completely important.  Simon Peter hears the question clearly.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  “Feed my sheep.”

 

The question is repeated two more times.  Each time Peter replies, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.  And each time Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.” 

 

Why the same essential question three times?  Most scholars agree that the three questions refer to Peter’s three denials.  Peter gets a chance to refute all three of the times he definitively declared not knowing Jesus.  When he looks back at this conversation years later, he knows that Jesus’ forgiveness and new hope in him and in his leadership is complete.  We need that kind of assurance.  Research shows that our brains hold on to negative thoughts and experiences with tenacity.  It takes three times as much praise to offset criticism.  Peter knows he had the chance to affirm his love and commitment thoroughly and with completely. 

 

I’m more taken with Jesus’ instruction.  It’s so basic that it’s easy to gloss over it.  Feed my sheep.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.  If in fact Peter and the rest of the disciples went fishing because they didn’t know what else to do, because they’d told the story and hadn’t gathered much of an audience, Jesus redirects their behavior.  Your job is to care for the people. Don’t turn your backs on them, whether or not they hear or understand, whether or not they recognize my presence or think I’m still dead and gone.  Love them.  Feed them.  Care for them. 

 

This instruction is basic to our experience as Christ’s disciples.  After the power and joy of Easter, we sit back and determine to make sense of it all.  Some of us find a position we can live with, some of us struggle with the illogic of it all.  So we go back to our old ways and talk about it.  We may not spend all night at the discussion, but we certainly pull ourselves away from others in order to figure it all out, sometimes because we just don’t know what else to do. 

 

Jesus’ presence in this story pulls us out of ourselves, out of our worries about what we should be about.  Jesus is clear.  Feed my sheep.  After this pleasant breakfast with Jesus, the disciples don’t get a full explanation of the resurrection.  They don’t leave the fire with a scientific understanding of exactly how Jesus who was dead was not alive.  Nor do they end up with a thorough theological apologetic of what the resurrection means.  All they have are instructions.  Marching orders.  And the experience of the presence of Jesus.  And apparently, that’s all they need. 

 

Feed my sheep.  Tend my lambs.  Love the people I place in your lives.  Jesus goes on to tell Peter that he will lead him to places Peter has no desire to go, that Jesus is always at the head of the movement which he is establishing through Peter and the rest of the crowd.  I can imagine Peter feeling somewhat bewildered after such a conversation, a feeling probably shared by his friends who had been eavesdropping.  Perhaps they were hoping for details – what was it like to be raised from the dead?   Perhaps they wanted assurance of where they stood in this new endeavor.  But they got basic instructions.  Feed my sheep and follow me.

 

We do a lot of fishing around here.  After the experience of the power of God in resurrection or in community or in love and support, we back off and take some time to figure it all out, to process it.  We want to understand, to be able to make sense of it all before we proceed.  But Jesus doesn’t give us that luxury.  He sends us out without full explanation.  Just get out there and care for the people.  The disciples, who ultimately became the church, ultimately came up with explanations and understandings.  Jesus’ instructions don’t forbid seeking understanding.  But it’s not a linear process.  You don’t finish one task before taking up the next.  Once you’ve known the love of the risen Christ, once you’ve experienced the gracious hospitality of God’s welcome at the table of the kingdom, get out there and share it.  Understanding may or may not follow, but the call is to feed the sheep.

 

Liberation theologians call it praxis.  Understanding theology through Christian practice.  We are more than our minds and more than our hands.  The love of Christ happens in our lives when we involve all of ourselves in love.  The call leads to service, service leads to reflection on the service, which leads us to better, more loving service.   Understanding, coming to a decision about who Christ is and what he’s about isn’t enough.  We need to practice our faith.  Feed the sheep; tend the lambs.  Head on down to the Union Gospel Mission on Tuesday night; go to St. Mary’s and visit a neighbor who is sick; drop a note to a friend who is going through tough times.  Tend Christ’s sheep.  Your actions may help you understand the resurrection; your loving may shed light on what the point of Jesus’ death was all about.  Or not.  But Jesus’ call is clear – to Peter and to us.  Get out there and love, actively.   You can trust Jesus for the details.  Feed the sheep.  Amen.
Revelation 5:11-14

11Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

 

Psalm 30

1I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

2O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.

3O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,

restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

4Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,

and give thanks to his holy name.

5For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

6As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”

7By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;  you hid your face; I was dismayed.

8To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:

9“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

10Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!

     O Lord, be my helper!”

11You have turned my mourning into dancing;

you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.   O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

 

John 21:1-19

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon 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.

4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to 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 there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When 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.” 16A 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.” 17He 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. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But 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.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

 

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