The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, Otey Memorial Parish

“Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (Jo. 21:17).

Feeding sheep is more complicated than it looks. In Jesus’ day it involved leading the flock from pasture to pasture. Shepherds were not in the business of bringing food to the sheep, serving up “sheep appropriate” bonbons to essentially passive sheep consumers. Neither was there a stationary source, a feed trough for the sheep. Sheep required “green pastures” (Ps. 23:2), and leading to still waters, in order to be fed. The work of a shepherd involved movement, and not just because shepherds liked living rough. The “right pathways” (Ps. 23:3) the Psalm talks about were the road that needed to be traveled in order to sustain the flock.

The final chapter of John’s Gospel from which we’ve read today is all about the apostolic life, the life of Christian believers. Jesus appears to the disciples in what seems to be a postlude to the central events of death and resurrection. The chapter has the aspect of a dreamscape, in which the risen Lord and his disciples go fishing, share a meal, and have a conversation. Strange, almost psychedelic, and difficult to fit into the larger story, since there is no conclusion to this appearance. Strange, but not unfamiliar, because the chapter offers a reprise of larger Gospel themes, and attaches them firmly to the post-resurrection life of the Church.

In the Synoptic Gospels, fishing figures in close association with call, and as a metaphor for ministry. In the first two Gospels, Jesus calls the brothers Simon and Andrew from their work as fishermen. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt. 4:19). Then he calls another pair of brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, from mending their nets, in order to follow him. In Luke the scope of the story expands, as Jesus actually tells Simon to go out into the deep water and to let down his nets for a catch. He catches so many fish that the nets begin to break and his boat begins to sink. It’s only then that Jesus lets the fishermen know that they will soon be catching people, and that they’re meant to follow him.

In our Gospel today, Jesus instructs Simon Peter where to cast the net for the fish. It’s like Luke’s story of call, in that it too has Jesus giving directions about where to go for the catch, but it isn’t a story of call. It’s a story about recognizing the risen Lord, and continuing in the ministry, and sharing the meal. Here too, fishing is metaphor for the continuing work of the disciples. Jesus is showing the way to the big catch, to the haul of fish that exceeds our ability to contain it. John’s postlude makes it clear that this apostolic work is to continue after Jesus has risen from the dead; in fact, it’s in doing this work that we will encounter the risen Lord. He himself will appear and show the way.

But let’s get back to those sheep who need pasture, because this is where the conversation after breakfast leads. Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jo. 21:15).  Peter says “yes” three times, and the last time Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep” (Jo. 21:17). Again, this exchange is all about the apostolic nature of Christian life, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As we practice the Christian life we will need to get moving, because the imperative of feeding the sheep will not allow us to stand still. The life we’re called to requires transition and progression from one place to the next: from where we are to where we need to be. No one will be fed if we remain where we are.

Jesus’ conversation with Peter ends on a sober but realistic note. Jesus tells Peter that rather than going where he wishes, a time will come when others will take him to where he does not want to go. In other words, sometimes the search for pasture will lead us where we are unwilling to go. Apostolic ministry is a death and resurrection business. How could it be anything else for Jesus’ followers, for those who go out into the deep water in search of the big catch?

Our confirmand this morning is putting us all in mind of these truths this morning, as we continue the risen life of Jesus Christ by the renewal of our baptismal vows and through the laying on of apostolic hands with the prayer of the community. We’re praying today for grace for our confirmand and for ourselves to follow through in this way of life. This morning we’re moving from where we are to where we need to be. We’re saying “yes” in response to Jesus’ own question to us. Do we love him more than these? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Well then, “Feed my sheep.”

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee