Love: Feed, Tend, Feed
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 13, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 21: 1-19
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show us the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples
21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 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.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He 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. 7 That 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. 8 But 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.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So 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. 12 Jesus 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. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 Very 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.
I began this week, knowing that I wanted to preach on the "Feed my Sheep" passage from the Gospel of John. In this Easter Season we have looked at most of all four gospels and their big encounters with the Risen Lord, and this one makes a lot of sense to include, especially since one of our biggest and most successful Mission programs is named for a line from this passage. I thought it would be a simple passage, where Jesus is commissioning his disciples to take care of his people, by telling them/us to "feed his sheep." What I ran into instead is a very complex passage, that seems to have endless possibilities beyond and including this simple commissioning, we all know so well. It has a sending, it has another fit of overwhelming miraculous fishing success, disciples reacting to Jesus, it has a big breakfast, that would make our mouth water, had we not, many of us, had such a wonderful feast ourselves just minutes ago. It has a Peter professing love for Jesus, and then being hurt by Jesus, it has a parenthetical note about how Peter may die, and if you keep reading it talks about how one of the other disciples may never die. It is pretty heavy material, and on Mother's Day of all days.
But being never one to back down from a challenge, and inspired because it is Mother's day, here goes. Since it is Mother's Day, and for the past two weeks I have been living in the midst of a great mom with a brand new baby, I couldn't help but see the similarities between what Jesus tells Peter to do, and the amazing work of a mom: To feed, to tend, and to feed. It seems like a sandwich, of feeding around tending. That has pretty much been the way of it at our house for the past two weeks. The feeding is never done, and between the feeding times is the tending, all waiting around for the next feeding. I stand in awe of all the Moms for so much, but the work that a mom does with a newborn is truly amazing. With very little sleep, a mom is asked to give love, to give food, to create bonds, to give nourishment, and to give life. This must be a model for the kind of love Jesus is talking about. It is literally giving of self for another, self, energy, sleep, milk, time, endless time it seems.
But the most impressive thing a mom does, really gets to the bottom of what I think is going on in this text. Every mom, must build up her child's strength, character, self, education, and then set their child free to be the human being they were meant to be. As a dad I stand in awe of it because I am seeing first-hand the bonds that mom's make. This perfect relationship between a life giver and the person who has received life. What an amazing bond. Beautiful, breathtaking, words just can't describe it. And then eventually there comes the time when the child is prepared and ready to be sent out into the world, having developed enough. To me this is the situation going on in this passage.
Jesus says, "do you love me" Peter says yes. . . Well then great, "Feed my lambs." You are ready now, pick up here where I left off. Go forth and take over for me because there is much to do, and though I'll always be here for you, it is time for you now. In case Peter doesn't get the seriousness of this passing of the torch, Jesus asks him three times. Three is an important number for Peter, he denied three times after all. Does he erase all three denials here? It's on that third time where Peter gets defensive and hurt. But this is not about Peter's guilt, it's about a new mission. This passage opens just like Simon's call to disciple passage from earlier in the story. Simon, now called Peter was out fishing, and catching nothing, then in walks Jesus, and their nets are overflowing. Jesus says, I will make you fishers of men and the rest is history: Peter has become a disciple. Here we are again, same boat, same scenario, different time, and this time it is the Risen Christ, but the result is the same. The nets are full. Now Peter is being sent to do the work he has been trained to do. Feeding the sheep. He is now an apostle, one who is sent, sent to feed Jesus' lambs.
I tied this commissioning to motherhood because no other distinction quite goes far enough because the feeding goes so far beyond mere food. We are sent to feed the sheep of the man who said that man does not live by bread alone. Feeding Jesus's sheep, taking over for him means that we need to give life. We need to give the kind of nourishment that builds up life. We need to leave a trail of life behind us, just as Jesus has. There is no limit to the amount of love that is needed to give either. It seems like limitless. If Peter is taking over for Jesus, how can you feed his lambs less than Jesus did. He can't, he must do the job like Christ. Otherwise the "lambs," Jesus even claims them saying, "my lambs" will not be fulfilled, and it will result in decline. No that can't happen. Jesus has entrusted Peter, which means that Jesus has empowered Peter, which means that Jesus believes in Peter.
And look at where it goes from there, "18 Very 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.)" It won't last forever Peter. Eventually you will be in this place too. And you will need to have feed my lambs enough for there to be someone else who you can pass this torch, too. You like me will be in this position, and there must be someone to follow you, just as you "follow me" The last verse in the passage, 19 is "After this he said to him, “Follow me"
Follow me, walking in my footsteps. He says this, not because Peter can't do it, but because he knows he can. He has been fed, nourished, forgiven, and given life, now he must pass that along to the next person. This is our legacy, passed for 2000 years to us. What do we do with it? Do we feed Christ's lambs, or don't we, feeding them enough to take over for us when we are gone.
This idea of passing the torch is found throughout the Bible. Abraham passes to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob. Then Moses to Joshua. This one has always been important to me because it really parallels Jesus here because when Moses passes his torch to Joshua, the job is not finished. Moses has led the Israelites from Egypt, but they have not yet reached the promised land. Moses only gets to see it, then pass on his leadership on to another. Look at Deuteronomy 34: 1-8
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. 
Moses must pass on before he makes it to the promised land. He sees it but cannot enter it. He must give his responsibility to another, trusting that they can do the job. Jesus does the same to Peter, and Peter must do the same to us. . . and there will come a time when we will need to do so too. Have we fed those who will follow? Do we hold on to things, doing them ourselves because we are sure, positive that if we didn't do it, nobody would? It is not sustainable and it is not healthy, and it is not a part of how we are called to function in that way, always holding on, rather than building up and letting go. We should take a lesson from Jesus here, and we should see it paralleled in all the wonderful moms who have ever loved, built up, and then let their children stand. Such is the basis of true life, true discipleship, and true apostleship. Everything else is destined to die. Jesus steps aside because he has faith in Peter, he knows. He has faith in us too, may we have faith in each other, my how hard that is?This week I came across a quote from Nelson Mandela that I think is fitting to close this
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Imagine believing that about yourself, and then to truly believe that another has that same amazing gift. You certainly then could educate them, empower them, and believe in them, and let them take over just where you left off, just as Jesus does here. . . May it be so.A few years ago I wrote a song for Dr. Bob Gustafson, who was then the interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Hampton. He was preaching at a meeting of the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia about the work of an interim, who must plant seeds and then say goodbye. I thought I would sing that now as a way to close this sermon. . .
Here I stand atop the mountain
The future lies in the Promised Land
But I, myself won’t reach that fountain
I have to place control into another’s hand
Passing on is never easy
Passing on is hard to do
‘Cuz passing on takes so much more faith
Allowing God to work in those who come after you
I have led from the changing moment
Not as myself but by the father’s will
I pass along just before fulfillment
T’ Those next ordained to walk the path I’s blessed to fill
Though I leave many friends behind me
My own path takes another road
I mustn’t let my fear to bind me
Because with God beside me I can’t be alone
I must leave let others steer now
Not my will but thine be done
I must let go with faith not fear now
I know their steps’ll be led as mine were led now on.
Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:1-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 34:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.