Today’s Mass Gospel is the colloquy between Jesus and Peter on the beach that takes place in the 21st chapter of St. John’s Gospel. I talked about this encounter at length at a recent program on Jesus’ post-resuurection appearances. (You can find the podcast of that talk here.)
Each time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he charges him, “Feed my lamb…Feed my sheep.” As I told participants when I spoke about this recently, I think each word in that charge is important.
Feed. Andrew Murray, a 19th Century pastor and writer in South Africa, observed that “to feed is to give to others what will help them grow.” Just as Jesus’ instruction to Peter had nothing to do with physical food and everything to do with aiding in their growth toward God, each of us must ask ourselves how can we help others to grow? In Murray’s words, “How can we explain Jesus’ words so they might understand? How can we nurture in them a desire in them to turn to God?”
My. Feed my sheep says Jesus. For Peter, for church leaders, for all of us it is important to understand that we have been given a task, but it on behalf of God. There is an enormous difference between giving something to another for their ownership and possession and giving something to the care and trusteeship of another. We nurture others for the Lord, not for the fulfillment of our own wishes and desires. It is His sheep we feed.
Lamb or Sheep. The reference to sheep calls us back to Jesus’ reference to himself earlier in the Gospel as the good shepherd – the shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Peter is not simply called by Jesus to leadership, but to be ready to risk all that he knows and loves.
And something we all need to remember is that being part of community means serving and being served. We are all both sheep and shepherd. All in need of care of others and all capable of caring for other. We have a responsibility to feed each other with the food Jesus gives us….and to allow others to feed us. So our being shephards doesn’t mean we stand outside, apart and above others, but with them.
There is a lot packed into three little words.