Does anybody else here feel badly for Peter? A disciple who wore his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, Peter is often portrayed as impulsive, sometimes naïve, and awkward. He shows up in all 4 gospels, and, in spite of his faults and flaws, was the rock upon which Jesus founded the church.
Peter was the disciple who was rebuked by Jesus after suggesting that a home could be built for Jesus on the mountaintop, so he could live with Elijah and Moses.
Peter was the one who leaped out of the fishing boat in attempt to walk on water with Jesus.
Peter was the one who was rebuked by Jesus after he blurted out that God should forbid Jesus from being arrested, crucified, and killed…
Peter was the one who was predicted to deny Jesus 3 times before the rooster crowed, and he did just that.
In today’s gospel, Peter is out fishing with some of the other disciples. After a night of fruitless fishing, a stranger from the shore calls out to tell them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. When they do so, they catch so many fish they could hardly haul the net into the boat. And they recognized Jesus in that moment.
Once on the shore, Jesus invites them to have a breakfast of fish and bread. It is the third time Jesus has appeared to his disciples since his resurrection.
And for me, this is where the story starts to get interesting. Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. The first time, when Peter says he loves Jesus, Jesus tells him to feed his lambs. The second time, Peter says he loves Jesus, and Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. The third time, an exasperated Peter says he loves Jesus, and Jesus tells him to feed his sheep.
So the third time Jesus appears to the disciples, he asks the one who denied him three times if he loves him, and Jesus gives Peter 3 similar responses to his declarations of love. That is a lot of 3’s. Not a coincidence.
There is some very good news here: in spite of his very human failings, Jesus chose Peter to be the foundation of the church. After all the awkward rebukes, the blustery outbursts, even after denying Jesus 3 times, Peter is given another chance to be redeemed.
And in today’s scripture, the path to that redemption is found in the feeding and the tending of Jesus’ lambs and sheep. Feeding and tending. Nothing mystical or miraculous about that. Just basic care and concern in making sure that the metaphorical lambs and sheep that follow Jesus are fed and cared for.
I feel kind of badly for Peter, in part because I can see some of myself in him. Perhaps, you can see some of yourselves in him as well. We’ve all had times when our actions and our words were denials of Jesus. We’ve all had times when we blustered or blurted awkwardly about our faith. We’ve all had moments when we just didn’t get what was going on spiritually.
Similarly, we are all being told by Jesus that if we love him, we will feed and tend his lambs and sheep. Although we aren’t Apostles, don’t you think the church is as much dependent upon you and me to survive as it was on Peter at that time?
Would you agree with me that it seems like when the church started to move away from the tending and feeding of the lambs and sheep in need, and instead started to point fingers at who was a sinner and who wasn’t going to heaven that things began to fall apart for the church? In my book, also not a coincidence.
It seems that when the church began to worry more about itself, and it’s own care and feeding, began to act as the judge of who could be forgiven and who could not, that things began to get worse.
If Peter could be forgiven after denying Jesus 3 times at such a critical moment in the story of Jesus’ journey toward resurrection, then all of us, and all our sisters and brothers can be forgiven our own faults and flaws.
But if we are to take seriously the commission to tend and feed the lambs and sheep in need, we don’t ever get to decide who is a sinner, or who gets into heaven, do we?
Tending and feeding. And what will use to feed our sisters and brother in need? Jesus helps us with that too!
The disciples were fishing all night, and didn’t catch a thing. Jesus told them to put down their nets on the other side of their boat. For the most part, in real net fishing, this shouldn’t make a difference. But this is one of those sacred metaphors that can help us on our faith journey: if what we are doing as the church isn’t yielding anything, Jesus tells us to do something different, even if it doesn’t make sense.
Wouldn’t the tending and feeding of the neediest lambs and sheep be easier if our nets were full? Of course it would!
Imagine this: the disciples are fishing all night, and a stranger on the shore shouts out to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. And Peter yells back, but we’ve always fished on this side of the boat!
Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that the various parts of the institution of the Christian Church could act in harmony. Most Christian denominations can’t act in harmony in their own communities. But I am hopeful, optimistic even, that individual faith communities, like ours, can reimagine how to fish. Can take a risk, and can learn to cast our nets on the other side of the boat, so that our nets might be full enough to feed and tend to the lambs and sheep of the world who are in need.
For sheep in our own neighborhood, for lambs across the ocean. But if we ever start to think that the nets are full for our own needs, so that we can eat, survive, and thrive, well, pardon the expression, but we will have missed the boat!
In today’s gospel, the disciples are told to try something different after a night of fishing yielded no fish. So are we.
In today’s gospel, Peter is given the commands to feed and tend Jesus’ lambs and sheep. So are we.
The institution of the church has developed a language for these things. Words to describe what Jesus is suggesting in our sacred scripture for today: evangelism, and mission.
One of these will almost certainly make some of us cringe: evangelism.
The other, mission, is a much more comfortable word.
But my read on today’s scripture says that we will need to do both in order to fulfill Jesus’ instructions: we’ll need to do some things differently in order to tend and feed his lambs and sheep.
Sharing and spreading the good news in ways that are different from how we do it now may lead to an increased ability to feed and tend the sheep and lambs in need.
Let’s not worry about what others have done in the name of evangelism, let’s only worry about how we can find ways to share and spread the good news to those who need it. Acting on our faith in ways that demonstrate to others what we believe. Using all our gifts of generosity, forgiveness, compassion, patience, and awareness.
Some days our nets will still come up empty. But on the days they come up full, we’ll be able to tend and feed many more lambs and sheep, won’t we?
All of this is so highly metaphorical, just as Jesus intended. But when we boil everything down, today’s scripture seems to be telling us that the purpose of the church, our purpose, collectively and individually, is to tend and feed those in need. Nothing metaphorical about hunger, or poverty, or violence, or trauma, or hopelessness, is there?
I say, let’s work together to figure out what we can do differently, what the other side of the boat looks like, and how to cast our nets over there. And then, let’s be prepared to share our resources with those in need, so that our love for Jesus will be shown in the tending and the feeding of his lambs and sheep. Are you with me? Amen.