Our Christian Education committee met on Thursday night – by Zoom, of course. We looked over the minutes from the last time we met, looked over the plans that had been made, and it seemed a lifetime ago. It was like reading the pages of a history book. Life has changed. And we are not exactly sure what is coming next.
We have been looking at stories of what happened after Easter. After Jesus’ resurrection, everything was different. We think of the time after Easter as pure joy, but it wasn’t necessarily, not at first. Life had changed, and Jesus’ disciples were not exactly sure what was coming next.
In the scripture we looked at last week, the verses just before today’s reading, Peter and six other disciples are out on the lake. They have been working for hours and haven’t caught a thing. And then somebody on the shore yelled to them to put out their net on the other side of the boat. “What the heck?” they say, and throw the net in on the other side of the boat. And there is a massive, miraculous catch of fish.
Of course, it was Jesus who had called to them. And Jesus has breakfast for them on the beach.
But that was not the end of the story. After they had finished the meal, Jesus had some business to take care of with Peter. Three times, Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Three times.
The first time, Peter was perhaps surprised by the question. The second time, he may have been irritated that Jesus would ask again, and by the third time, it’s not hard to imagine Peter feeling hurt. Why did Jesus keep asking? It was embarrassing, humiliating. Three times, Peter says answers, “Yes, you know I love you” and three times, Jesus comes back with, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” What is up with that?
There are some interesting details in this story. You may remember some of these from last week. For starters, when it was clear that it was Jesus on the shore, Peter put on his clothes so he could jump in the water. I’m not totally sure what to think about that. Then there were exactly 153 large fish in the net – we speculated about what that meant and why that detail was included last week, but I’m not really sure about that either. But there is one more detail that at first sounds odd but is really helpful.
Jesus has a charcoal fire going, with fish and bread. It doesn’t just say there was a fire on the beach, it is very specific: a charcoal fire.
Now, some of you kids may not know what a charcoal fire is. A few years back, we had the students over to our house for a cookout. At the time, I had decided to give up on gas grills, and I was grilling burgers and brats on a charcoal grill. There was a student there who, honest to God, had never seen a charcoal grill. Eric thought it was awesome, very cool and very retro that you could cook like that. A charcoal fire! How cool! Who knew?
In the olden days, they didn’t have propane grills. Jesus was cooking over charcoal. Now, you could just cook over a wood fire, and if you had camels around, you could use camel dung for fuel, as people still do in parts of the world, but we are told specifically that this is a charcoal fire. What is up with that? Why the detail? Did Kingsford put a product placement ad in the Bible?
There is exactly one other place in the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned, in John chapter 18. We read this passage on Maundy Thursday. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. It is cold, and people are standing around a fire to keep warm. We are told that it is a charcoal fire. Peter is there, near the fire. And a woman asks Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples. And he denies it. Peter denies even knowing Jesus. He does this not once, not twice, but three different times.
Now, Peter is at another charcoal fire. The charcoal fire is a kind of hyperlink between these two stories. And he is asked not once, not twice, but three times if he loves Jesus.
Here Peter has the opportunity to undo the three denials. He is given another chance. Peter is forgiven; the slate is symbolically wiped clean. And in fact, all of the disciples are given another chance. They had worked all night with nothing to show for it, and Jesus says, “Try again.” They do, and with his help, they are wildly successful.
Jesus doesn’t simply forgive Peter, he commissions, or maybe re-commissions Peter for ministry by telling him to “feed my sheep.”
We talked a bit about sheep on Thursday night. Again and again in the scriptures, sheep are a metaphor for people. There are numerous points of commonality.
For one thing, sheep have a reputation for being dumb. Dumb sheep. Well, I have noticed people acting very dumb this past week, and you probably have too. The thing is, when it comes to dumb people, I am often among them. We are kind of like sheep.
Sheep have very few natural defenses. They stay together to protect one another. If one senses danger and runs, they all do. But if a sheep is separated from its flock, it can become stressed. Once a sheep knows it is lost, it will often hide under a bush and begin shaking and bleating. The shepherd has to locate it quickly before a predator does. When found, it may be too traumatized to walk and have to be carried back to the flock.
Sheep are communal beings. We are keenly aware just now of how much humans also need to share a common life, and how stressful separation can be. I think of folks in the hospital or in nursing facilities, completely separated from loved ones. It can be traumatic. Like sheep, we need one another.
There is another thing about sheep. For nomadic people like the ancient Israelites, it would be hard to overstate how important sheep were. They provided a staple food supply and raw materials for clothing and for shelter. For all of their faults, sheep were highly valued. In today’s parlance, they were essential. This is a big part of the scriptures speaking of people as sheep, as a flock. We are highly valued by God.
And so Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” And to us - as parents, as friends, as employees, as neighbors, as students, as caregivers - as followers of Jesus, Jesus says to all of us, “Feed my sheep. Look for opportunities to care for the people and the world that God loves so much.”
In the midst of a very successful career, actor James Caan decided to take some time off. He took a six-year sabbatical from acting and the best part of it, he says, was coaching. Little League, T-ball, soccer. He started coaching because of his sons, he soon became passionate about coaching and really cared about the kids he worked with.
One boy in particular still sticks in Caan’s memory, many years later: a nine-year-old named Josh, the son of a single mom. “He was a big kid,” Caan said, “and he just couldn’t hit the ball. You could see the kid’s head was down and he was ashamed.” Caan spent hours with the boy, working with him one-on-one on hitting.
Caan tells the story:
The next to last game of the year, Josh comes up to bat. The week before he had popped up to the pitcher with the bases loaded. He felt terrible. Anyway, he gets up, and he just creams the ball. I mean, he creams it. And the kid starts running toward first and down toward second. I’m on third, coaching third base, and he looks up at me – I’ll never forget it as long as I live - and there were tears in his eyes. He ran home, stopped just before the base, then jumped up in the air and landed with both feet on the plate. He put both fists in the air, and he looked up at God. The whole dugout cleared out to hug him.Caan said, “Nothing replaces that. Nothing in the world. I mean, to literally change a kid. That was the best time of my life.”
“Feed my sheep.” You might think that this command of Jesus was just for Peter. Or just for missionaries, or preachers.
I don’t think so. I mean, with Peter, we are talking about a guy who put his clothes on so he can jump in the lake. This is not an exclusive commissioning; it is for all of us.
The late Wesley Frensdorff was at one time the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada. Nevada is not exactly known as a hotbed of Episcopalianism. The churches in Frensdorff’s diocese were mostly small, many too small even for Episcopalians to pay a full-time minister. Frensdorff worked to train laypeople to serve these small churches. He focused on the ministry of all Christians – a very Baptist idea. He wrote a short piece simply called The Dream of Bishop Wesley Frensdorff – you can look it up; it is very powerful. One of the things he wrote was that he dreamed of a church in which all sheep share in the shepherding. I love that. All sheep share in the shepherding.
I’ve got to tell you: in recent days, I have observed a lot of sheep sharing in the shepherding. Calling one another, checking on neighbors, offering to get groceries, praying for one another, looking for ways to help those who are hurting. Understanding that we are all in this together - we are all in this thing called life together.
We are all like sheep – prone to mistakes, not always so smart, prone sometimes to wander, yet deeply connected to one another and deeply loved by the Good Shepherd. And Jesus is calling us – all of God’s sheep - to share in the shepherding. Amen.