When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. — John 21:15-17 (NRSV)
I was looking for something else and ran across this passage in the search. Oddly enough, it fit what I was looking for far better than the original object of the search. I think I hear God chuckle whenever that happens.
Who or what is it that Jesus is asking Peter about? Does Peter love him more than what? His boat? His family? His possessions? His friends? His fellow disciples? Whatever it is, Peter says that yes, he does. This happens three times, recalling the three denials Peter made on the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Jesus then gives him three instructions: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. They sound similar but there can be a multitude of facets to them. And oddly enough, Jesus gives these commands to feed his sheep and lambs right after Peter had finished breakfast. Teachable moments can come at any time but it’s easier to absorb the lesson when one isn’t listening to one’s borborygmi.
How I understand Jesus’ message to feed his sheep and lambs can depend on how I perceive the message through denominational lenses. The church of my youth would say it meant telling me of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, my own complete unworthiness of such a sacrifice, and the need for me to acknowledge Jesus as my personal savior, thus ensuring my place in heaven. The church of my later years tells me it means to look after not just the spiritual well-being of others but also their physical well-being with food, shelter, safety and clean environments. I won’t argue with either as I believe both have a part of the message.
All living things need feeding and tending, some more than others. Sheep aren’t particularly bright although the lambs are endearing. Sheep have to be herded to where the pastures are, kept away from cliffs and precipices, protected from predators and often assisted during birth. They have to learn to accept the shepherd as part of the flock, allow him to come close enough to get them out of trouble, shear them or lead them to a new pasture. It is the shepherd’s job to tend those sheep, the job of a pastor.
Commentaries point out that this is Peter’s call to pastoral ministry, to care for those Jesus would leave behind and to lead the group of disciples Jesus has formed, keeping them safe, on track and fed spiritually. I wonder, was Peter really the best Jesus had to choose from? Was Peter really the pastoral type, or was he more of a person who operated by fits and starts, thick as rocks at times and sometimes so insightful? I can see him going along, doing the right thing and then getting distracted in the middle of it, leaving the sheep to get along as best they can until Peter recalls what it was he was doing before he interrupted himself. Peter couldn’t wear Jesus’ mantle because he wasn’t Jesus, but evidently Jesus felt Peter would do the best he could as a fully-human, impetuous, often flawed pastor to the flock, feeding and tending it, being present at the birthing of new members of the flock, teaching them by word and example as Jesus had, and caring for them to the best of his ability.
The call to feed and tend the sheep and lambs isn’t only for shepherds and pastors. Peter was never formally ordained in the way we understand it today. I believe each person who is a member of Jesus’ flock is called to pastoral ministry by virtue of their baptismal covenant. Some may be called to feed others in soup kitchens, feeding or hydration stations, or as part of their ministry at their regular jobs. Some are called to tend the flock as priests and pastors, public safety officers, librarians, judges or legislators. Everyone, though, has a ministry to do, whether they recognize it as such or not. Not all ministry is done by ordained people nor should it be. Ministry, pastoral ministry, can be a calling for many who will never attend seminary or seek ordination. Pastoral ministry can be simply a way of people tending each other’s needs, seeing Jesus in each other, and being present to the opportunity placed before them.
The question I must ask myself today is, have I been a shepherd to someone today? Who has been a shepherd for me? What difference have we made in the world? Could I face Jesus and say that yes, I loved him more than anyone or anything? Could I tell him whom I have fed or tended today in his name? I wonder how I could respond.