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s161g98 26/4/98 Somerton Park Third Sunday of Easter

"Feed my sheep" John 21.17

I confess I've often wondered why St Peter, fishing naked, should have put some clothes on before jumping into the sea. I usually swim just with bathers on. It is but one of a number of curiosities in this passage.

I want to make three points today - all focussing on the words "Feed my sheep".

Other curiosities (pointed out by CK Barrett and others) are just why this chapter should have been added to what is already a complete unity, finishing with rather a flourish at chapter 20. Why were the disciples fishing at all?!! Why should Jesus call the disciples "children" for the first time? Why did Jesus get the disciples to catch more fish, when he already had some cooking on the shore? Why were the fish they caught counted, but not added to those cooking? And as I said in my Easter sermon, why did not the disciples immediately recognise the risen Jesus? He had come to them twice before.

One of my little pet hates is a sermon which poses lots of questions and never gives any answers to the questions. I come away dissatisfied if I thought the task had been thrown back to me. I am given the problems of the world to fix, and no guidance as to how to do so. I am more than happy if a preacher says things with which I disagree, for at least I know what they believe. If a preacher only poses questions, I come away wondering what he or she believes. If a priest, after however many years at a theological college, isn't starting to hazard some answers, one wonders what the time spent in theological college was about.

So I am not a person who talks for the sake of talking. I wish to do things, to find answers, even if only partial answers, and do what I can to act on them myself. I confess I don't know the definitive answers to these curiosities I listed before. Greater minds than my own have pondered them and not come to any startling conclusions. They are consigned to join the multitude of other questions which I cannot answer, and haven't yet found an author who can.

One of the questions I can have a guess at however. The question why this chapter should have been added to what is already a complete unity finishing at chapter 20 becomes plain to me when I look at the rest of the gospel of John. John remembers Jesus saying "follow me" three other times, but none are really in the context of a general invitation to a particular lifestyle. So he calls Philip to follow him in chapter 1, he talks about sheep following him in chapter 10 and about servants following their master in chapter 12. By the time one finishes chapter 20 one could be excused for thinking that the author bids us simply to believe and to forgive. Now that might well be what the author originally intended, or what the author of the first 20 chapters intended, or what he considered following Jesus to actually consist of. The author of chapter 21 wanted to state the precept of following Jesus as a primary duty of Christians, and to make some strong statements about what he considered following Jesus to actually mean - in terms of two things. Firstly he sees following Jesus the same as following the injunction: "feed my sheep".

The three fold commission to Peter, to feed, tend and "feed my sheep" are, it seems to me, different from giving people questions to answer, giving people jobs to do, giving people advise on how to change their lives or lifestyle, or getting people to attend this or that function.

It means that we have to have something to offer for another person's upbuilding and encouragement. As such it may be a word of encouragement that they are doing OK. It might be a word of understanding when something is troubling them. It is not a difficult or even an overtly "Christian" thing to do. St Paul bids us simply: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15). One doesn't need a theological degree or the laying on of hands with prayer to accomplish this. As the words of the catechism bids all: "to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me". One can do this as a senior executive or as someone unemployed. It costs nothing.

Indeed each of us have something to offer others.

The second thing I want to say about following Jesus, which unfortunately we miss out, finishing the gospel reading, as we do, at verse 19. The words go on: "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?" When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" (John 21:20-22).

There are few things in this world I dislike intensely. One of the things is when I used to shop at a particular chain of stores, they used to ask my name and address to put onto the receipt. I knew it was to make sure that my name and address was on their database so that they could send me catalogues. Indeed, I already received their catalogues, happily. But I object to having to give my name and address every time I purchase something. I am even quite happy to say it is completely irrational on my part, but I felt it was an invasion of my privacy. Even when I said - "Look, I already receive your catalogue through the mail" - I was told it was store policy!

So after Peter is three times told to feed my sheep and then to follow Jesus, what does he do? He turns and looks away from Jesus and sees another disciple. So he asks Jesus: "Lord, what about him?" (John 21.21) Jesus tells him to mind his own business. Following Jesus, and feeding the sheep means minding our own business.

And we need to be particularly conscious of this in these times of computers. Only last week I was in a meeting when someone was given some mail from an agency and they questioned how come it was addressed to them. There was the usual banter about the difficulty of getting ones name off a mailing list! Personal particulars, even just names, give one person power over another. Peter wanted to know about what was going to happen to another disciple, and we may charitably think that that information would be used for the encouraging and upbuilding of that other disciple. But it could also be used as a means of power to get the other disciple to follow a particular path.

We can use our relationship with Jesus as a means of gaining power over other people, to pester or attempt to manipulate others. We are bidden to mind our own business, get on with our own life, and let others do the same. If others invite us to laugh with them, we certainly do - if others invite us to mourn with them, again we certainly do. But power over others is not on.

The third thing I want to say about feeding my sheep is to contrast this with one of the most loved passages in the Bible, the 23rd psalm: "The Lord's my shepherd". After a while one can wonder at the personal nature of this statement. God is my shepherd and not others. There is even more than a little touch of vengeance expressed as the psalm pictures God who "spreads a table before me" - "in the face of those who trouble me" so that my enemies can weep and gnash their teeth at the preferential treatment I am getting - rather than them!

The beautiful thing about "feeding my sheep" is that it carries the automatic implication that there are other sheep for whom the Lord in their shepherd also, and our task is not to fight the other sheep for supremacy or primacy, but to feed one another. St Paul tells us: "... if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink" (omitting his reasons!) (Romans 12:20). It brings the possibility that our enemies are just as likely the Lord's sheep as we ourselves. Those who belong to a different denomination, a different faith, or of no faith at all.

(Added during delivery and after to the text:) We too will say with Peter three times: "Yes Lord, you know that I love you". But Jesus does not want a "lovey dovey", "matey matey" relationship with me or with you. What he wants is for us to do something - for ourselves, for our neighbours, for humanity ...

We are bidden to feed others, to respect them, to see where they have a contribution to make for us to accept. For it is not just us to be the givers of the food or the drink all the time, just as Jesus regularly accepted the hospitality of others.

Interestingly I have had an Internet conversation with a pastor of a Church of the Brethren in Baltimore USA and they have a credo: "nothing except what is in the New Testament" - and we need to see that this has value. There are parts of the Old Testament (and much loved parts) which express vengeful sentiments, alien to following Jesus. And we have much to be grateful to the author of chapter 21 of St John's gospel, be it St John or someone else, for the words do much to clarify our task in following our risen Saviour.


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