Feed my sheep
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” John 21:12
Yesterday morning one of my favorite Christian writers died. Rachel Held Evans was only 37 years old, and I can’t yet fathom that the world has lost her voice. In her most recent book Inspired, she shares some wonderful wisdom about many fascinating stories in the Bible. Today’s gospel comes up in a chapter on fish stories. Rachel tells about a time when she was enjoying a meal at an Episcopal church after an event. As she often did, she asked the strangers around the table what their favorite Bible stories were. One young mother said, “The one where Jesus meets his disciples on the beach.”
Rachel agreed. She said she liked that one too, and then Rachel proceeded to share a theory that in rabbinic numerology the number 153 – the number of fish the disciples catch – might represent completion or wholeness. Or it might correspond to a specific prophecy in Ezekiel that describes a great river full of all kinds of fish flowing out of a restored temple. Rachel also noted that the net is full but not torn, so the net might represent the church, holding a great diversity of fish together in unity.
That’s the challenge of these curious stories in scripture. There are countless ways to read them, and I’m grateful for the scholars and thinkers who help me find all kinds of meaning in these texts. But sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the heart of scripture.
This one is full of delicious, weird details. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus standing there on the shore, even though he’s been with them twice since his resurrection. There’s the fact that they listen to this supposed stranger when he tells them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. And then once Peter realizes that it’s Jesus, Peter – oh, Peter – Peter, who is naked, puts on his clothes before jumping into the water and scrambling the 100 yards to the sand. Peter leaves the rest of his friends on their own with those 153 fish.
But in the midst of all those crazy moments, there’s this: Jesus beside a fire, cooking some fish and warming some bread. “Come and have breakfast,” he says.
It always moves me that the disciples are trying to fish in the first place. I say “trying” because, as you may recall, it doesn’t go very well for them at first – until Jesus shows up. When the resurrected Jesus has been with them before, it’s been behind the doors of a locked room where the disciples had huddled together in fear. In that locked room Jesus has said to them over and over again “Peace be with you.” He has breathed the Holy Spirit into them. He’s told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples know that Jesus expects them to do something big. Something worthy of what they have learned by watching him and listening to him. There’s a mission on the horizon, although it’s not yet clear what it will be.
They must be so scared. And confused. Where is he sending us? How will we know what to do or what to say? What if people don’t listen? What if we get hurt, arrested, killed?
All of those questions. All of those living, breathing, logical questions.
So they go fishing. It’s what they used to do for a living. They know the smell of the salt air on the open sea. They know the rhythms of the waves. They know how the nets feel in their hands. It’s what they know.
That’s what we often do when we’re looking at an uncertain future. We get scared. We huddle up with people we trust. And we turn back to what we know.
I remember standing in front of the building where my PhD-level statistics class would meet. It was the first day of the quarter, and I was scared. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the desire to be back in the high school classroom. Being a teacher was crazy hard, but at least I knew how to do it. Statistics, not so much.
I remember the day that I was ordained as a pastor. I felt the Holy Spirit so powerfully that day – and yet a part of me wanted to go back to being sixteen and sitting in the pew and asking questions about the pastor’s sermon. It felt daunting to be the one now responsible for preaching that weekly sermon.
But going backwards doesn’t get us anywhere. It certainly doesn’t get us closer to the future into which God is leading us.
When the way forward is unclear or overwhelming, what do we do other than going backward?
We have some hints in the exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus keeps asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, in fact. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.”
And then Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “Wait until everything is clear and certain before you do anything. Wait until you get to know the sheep and like them and decide that they’re worthy of your attention.” He doesn’t even say love the sheep in this moment. He tells Peter to feed the sheep.
And Jesus has already done just that. He has gathered his friends around a campfire and fed them breakfast.
Jesus seems to be saying, “No matter what uncertainty or fear you might feel, try doing something. Act as if you believe that wonderful things can happen when you step into that unknown. Act as if the kingdom of God is already fully here on earth. Act as if you believe resurrection is possible.”
Do something. Feed people. Take care of them in the way that God would take care of them. They still belong to God. Feed my sheep, Jesus says.
Imagine that ragtag, half-dressed group of fishermen on a beach at dawn, chomping on some fish and bread. These are the folks who will soon be sent out with the power to change the world with their message. They’re going to tell people the story of a God who loves us into life and whom death could not defeat.
But first – before all of that – they eat.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”[ii]
Come and have breakfast. And then say yes to the life God opens before you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ