A blog by preacher D Mark Davis (Left Behind and Loving It) compares the beach scene between Jesus and Peter in John’s Gospel to a song from the wonderful music “Fiddler on the Roof”. Golde and Tevye have been married 25 years – an arranged marriage that produced three daughters. All three daughters are now bucking tradition and asking for the right to marry the men they love. Tevye and Golde are both somewhat bewildered by the whole idea, but Tevye, in particular, starts to think there’s something to this wild new concept. He sings to Golde “Do you love me?” And Golde replies “Do I what?” “Do you love me?” “Do I love you…
(Golde) For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye insists, saying his parents told him they’d learn to love one another, so now, he wants to know again: “Do you love me?”
(Golde) Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
(Tevye) Then you love me?
(Golde) I suppose I do
And I suppose I love you too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know
It is nice to know, isn’t it? But for Peter and Jesus, it’s more than that. Jesus has to know that Peter still loves him, will still follow him – and strangely enough, it’s important for Peter to know that he still loves Jesus too! Not romantic love, but the kind of love that will persist and endure through anything life can throw at it. Commentators tend to make a big deal about the fact that the word Jesus uses for love (agapeo) is different from the word Peter uses (phileo) – unconditional love sourced in God versus the love of devoted friends. That may or may not be significant; but what Jesus is asking is “Will you stick with me, Peter?” And as Peter says, Jesus already knows the answer to that question. So maybe what’s important is that PETER realizes that despite his denial of Jesus on that terrible night the previous week, he WILL stick with Jesus. He’ll stick with him through thick and thin, through imprisonment, flogging, hunger, earthquake, controversy, and finally martyrdom.
Tradition has it that Peter was crucified in Rome – upside down, because he did not feel worthy to share in the same death as the Christ. The final image John gives us of the end of Peter’s life is in sharp contrast to the vigorous Peter who leaps in the water and who hauls the net full of fish in single-handedly. This is a Peter who is old, and frail, and a prisoner. But John’s Gospel assures us that Peter will remain faithful through all the remaining stage of his life.
Let’s return to the beach in early morning. Things have been very hurtful and confusing for Peter, and in the midst of all the pain he’s returned to what he knows – to fishing. He’s gone out in the company of others who’ve been through the horror as well; and perhaps, without speaking, they’ve come to some sort of peace, through the familiar rhythm of the work and the waves. But then Jesus comes along, and stirs it all up again – but this time, not with sorrow, with great and unbelievable joy! With their encounter with Jesus, it all starts again. Jesus sends them off into their lives of ministry, with the same words he used at the very beginning: “Follow me!” And what does it mean to follow Jesus? It means “Feeding his sheep”.
You see, Golde had it right, in her reply to Tevye. She tells him all the ways she’s shared his life, all the things he’s done for him and together with him. “If that’s not love, what is?” It’s in the real practice of our devotion that Jesus sees how much we love him. Our job, like Peter’s, is to feed his sheep: to feed their physical hunger, and to feed their spiritual hunger. We tend to focus on one or the other, but it’s both, always.
The early church gathered around a meal – like the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on that beach at early morning. Indeed, there’s evidence that early forms of communion included fish, connecting this story with the practice of Christian fellowship. Common meals were at the centre of Christian life: I guess potlucks have been around longer than we thought! We can tell, when we read the stories of the early church in Acts, as well as Paul’s letters, how important shared meals were to this growing community of faith. We know, because they had to talk about what foods they could share, where the food came from, who would be involved, who could eat and who would serve – all the things we talk about when we plan a meal together. “Feed my sheep” really did mean “feed!”
Bob Stulmann tells a story about his grandmother who
“brought flowers from the altar to the homebound. I was around seven years old and she brought me with her one dismal winter morning. We entered the apartment of an elderly woman bedridden with some illness which incapacitated her. The room had a dusty sheer curtain over one large window. In the middle of the room was a bed and table. The bedside table was littered with unwashed dishes and other litter which the woman was unable, because of her weakness, to remove. A sink was on the other side of the room filled to capacity with dishes. The floor was bare. With no space on the table for the flowers, my grandmother, proceeded to clear the table, found a container, placed the altar flowers on the table and then went to the sink and washed the dishes. I can’t remember what I was doing. Probably observing in stunned silence as I watched my tiny grandmother roll up her sleeves and go to work. After she finished she came back to the bed, sat there and held the woman’s hand.
An enduring model for ministry: Bring flowers, wash the dishes, and hold a dying woman’s hand. While you’re at it, fix a meal. “ (Bob Stulmann, Stories from a Priestly Life blog, 2013.)
Feeding Jesus’ sheep means really feeding them – caring for them, housing them, serving them. It also means sharing the spiritual food of Christ’s presence with others. We do so in practical forms of caring like this grandmother, and we also do so by nurturing the faith of others – helping them explore what it means to follow Jesus, and encouraging them as they seek signs of Christ’s presence in their lives. One of the questions our spiritual ancestors the early Methodists used to ask each other was “How is it with your soul?” Not just “how are you?” which usually gets a response of “Fine” if people answer at all; the deeper question is asked: “How are you really? Is your spirit healthy, growing? Or are you in difficult place right now?” As prospective ministers we got used to answering the question: “Where did you see Christ today?” It got to be a bit of a cliché, but it’s a good question all the same. It encourages us to see signs of the living Christ which may not be obvious to us at first in our busyness and preoccupation. This is something we can do for each other – especially in times when faith is faltering and we are feeling about as lost as poor Peter did before his encounter with the risen Christ. We can help each other see Jesus, and so renew our hope and our joy.
I want to encourage you today to imagine that Jesus has asked you the question: “Do you love me?” How would you answer him? How will you follow him? How will you feed his sheep?
I found a little litany on the internet this week; it’s called “Somewhere someone”:
The kingdom of love is coming because:
somewhere someone is kind when others are unkind,
somewhere someone shares with another in need,
somewhere someone refuses to hate, while others hate,
somewhere someone is patient – and waits in love,
somewhere someone returns good for evil,
somewhere someone serves another, in love,
somewhere someone is calm in a storm,
somewhere someone is loving everybody.
Is that someone you? (jke)
If it is you – then you’re feeding Jesus’ flock; you’re feeding Jesus’ sheep.