Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tending Sheep

Tending Sheep
John 21:15-19[1]
  I’ve never raised livestock myself.  But you can’t grow up in a small town in Texas without being around livestock.  And yet I wouldn’t claim to know the first thing about raising sheep.  The only time I’ve been around sheep was when I was a much younger man, serving as the pastor of a little country church in central Texas.  Most of the folks in that area raised cattle.  But one of the leaders of that little church raised sheep.  It seemed to me that raising sheep was a pretty simple task.  You made sure they had enough land to graze, you had sheep dogs to keep them from getting themselves in trouble, and every once in a while you had to get rid of predators that were lurking on your land.  I’m sure my take on it is probably too simple, but it seemed that tending sheep wasn’t a complicated job.
  As I’ve mentioned before, the lessons during these weeks of the Easter season repeatedly express the idea that the purpose of our experience of new life through Jesus Christ is so that we might spread the news far and wide.  I think some of us may think that task is reserved for someone with more knowledge and training, like a pastor.[2]  I think we tend to see ourselves as either unqualified or unable to talk to other people about our faith.  And so when we hear that we’re supposed to bear witness to the new life we have found through our faith, we effectively “count ourselves out,” thinking that there are others who are much more suited to the task.
  Our Gospel lesson for today may speak to that reluctance.  I can’t think of any of the apostles who would have better reason to be reluctant to speak about Jesus than Simon Peter.  After boasting that though all the others might desert Jesus, he would die before doing so (cf. Matt. 26:33/Mk. 14:29), Peter publicly denied even knowing Jesus.  Not once, but three times.  I think Peter had all kinds of reasons for going back to fishing.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought his career as a disciple of Jesus was over.  I think it would have been easy for him to think he had forfeited any right to serve as a witness to the new life through faith in Jesus.
  But I think Jesus had different plans for Peter.  As Peter and the others were fishing, Jesus revealed himself to them again.  After they shared a meal together, Jesus had an unusual conversation with Peter.  He began by asking, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15).  Although it’s unclear, it would seem that Jesus’ question alluded to Peter’s boast, which implied that he loved Jesus more than the others.[3]  Peter, now a much humbler man after his bitter failure, simply answered,  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And in response, Jesus simply told Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Nothing spectacular.  Nothing that would bring him any special distinction.  Just a simple task, yet one that would take all the love he had to give.  And to leave no room for doubt about what Jesus had in mind, he asked Peter the same question three times, and each time he told Peter that if he loved him, Peter should show it by tending the flock.[4]
  I think there’s an important lesson for us all in this unusual conversation between Jesus and Peter.  I think we are likely to view those who do things like serving on the mission field as the ones who really love God.  In so doing, we discount our ability to do anything significant for God.  But Jesus told Peter that his love for God and for Jesus were to be channeled through the simple act of tending the flock.  And I think the same thing applies to us. We’re all called to “tend sheep.”  Nothing spectacular.  Nothing that will bring us any special distinction.  Just a simple task, yet one that will take all the love we have to give.[5]
  You might think that tending the flock is the job of the pastor.  And you’re right, that is one of my most important roles as your pastor.  But tending the flock is not just the pastor’s calling.  It’s a calling that belongs to all of us.[6]  And in a very real sense, the “flock” that we’re called to tend is not limited to the members and friends of this congregation.  The “flock” we’re called to tend consists of the world of people around us.  Everyone we come into contact with, whatever the extent of that contact.[7]  The people we meet in our daily lives are the “sheep” we’re called to tend.  And we tend them just like any shepherd tends sheep--we care for them, we value them, and we try to help meet their basic needs.  It’s a simple task, yet it’s one that will take all the love we have to give.
  I think this is one of the most important ways in which we can share our experience of new life through faith in Jesus Christ.  But in order to do that, we may have to change our outlook toward the people we come in contact with every day.  Rather than being suspicious or defensive, we may have to try to see them as “sheep without a shepherd” so that we can have compassion for them as Jesus did (Mt. 9:36/Mk. 6:34).  It is only when we care for the people we encounter that we can really share the love we have for God and for Jesus Christ.  If we want to share our experience of new life, we first have to demonstrate it by doing the simple, but demanding task of tending the sheep around us.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/14/2013.
[2] There is significant discussion about whether Jesus’ commission to Peter in Jn. 21:15-17 constitutes designating him as the leader of the Apostles. On this, see G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 406-7.  The circumstances of the conversation don’t seem to support that in my view.
[3] Cf. Beasley-Murray, John, 405; cf. also Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 226, 232; and R. E. Brown, “The Resurrection in John 21 --Missionary and Pastoral Directives for the Church,” Worship 64 (no. 5, S 1990): 441.
[4] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible  IX:864: “Peter’s love of Jesus will be evidenced when he cares for Jesus’ sheep, not apart from that care.”  Cf. also Paul S. Minear, "The Original Functions Of John 21," Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (Mar 1983): 94: “Love for Jesus must be seen to be inseparable from care for his flock.” Cf. also Beasley-Murray, John, 405.
[5] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 103: “the compassionate life is mostly hidden in the ordinariness of everyday living.”
[6] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:861: “the charge to ‘feed my sheep’ does not distinguish Peter as the true successor of Jesus, but rather describes what it means to ‘live out one’s love for Jesus.’”
[7] Cf. A Declaration of Faith, 1977, 7.6: “We are called to live now as God's servants in the service of people everywhere.”  Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, 94-95, where she says, “At its most basic level, the everyday practice of being with other people is the practice of loving the neighbor as the self.  More intricately, it is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being,” which can be as simple as meeting his or her eyes.

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