The Sunday Sermon: The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 21, 2017
Scripture: John 21:15-19
A Strange Appendix: Feeding Sheep
We’re spending time in the “Strange Appendix” that is the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John this month of May, 2017. An “addendum,” and “epilogue,” this chapter. Clearly so, when you read the last few verses of chapter twenty, which we did last week. But even more clearly so as you examine the vocabulary, rhetoric, and theological imagery. Someone other than the author of the first twenty chapters of John wrote the twenty-first chapter.
But, this shouldn’t lessen the insights and instructions we find in this appendix, and we’re exploring those this year as we prepare for our June fourth, the traditional “arrival of the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost Sunday. It’s curious that scripture for the Gospel of John should fill our time between Easter and Pentecost, because the Gospel of John doesn’t wait fifty days for the Holy Spirit to arrive in the community. That “timeline” is set forth in the two-volume set that is Luke-Acts. John’s Holy Spirit arrives on the evening of Easter Day, itself, as Jesus appears to the scared disciples, gathered behind closed, locked doors and breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For John, Easter and Pentecost, the experience of the Risen Christ and the receiving of the Holy Spirit are virtually coinciding events.
But we like to honor our church calendar here and so we wait a bit longer and learn a bit deeper in what is known as Eastertide. Last week we read the first fourteen verses of the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John. The disciples in that story had returned to their lives, fishing, for their own sanity and for their own livelihood. In the midst of their “daily lives,” they see Jesus on the shore, and go to him. We learned that, though for emotional and practical reasons we, too, have returned to our “daily lives,” nothing is as it was for us now, either. Because of Easter. God, Love incarnate, is in the world for good now, because Christ is alive in us, now – resurrected in us.
This morning, we’ll discover what that is supposed to mean for the rest of our daily lives. Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God … Read John 20:15-19
Another very familiar passage, I believe. As you hear this scene described by John, what do you imagine? Jesus and the disciples sitting on the beach after breakfast, a charcoal fire burning down, the bones of many fish stacked together, some of the disciples digging in the sand to bury them, others cleaning the nets, maybe mending it from the big haul that they just made. Do you picture Simon Peter sitting alone with Jesus by the dying fire? Not wanting to leave him because he remembers all too well what happened the last time he did. In any case, you probably picture Peter alone with Jesus. There’s no indication that the other disciples have left the fire and the food, but the conversation is so intimate that we don’t picture the others within earshot as Jesus starts talking to Peter.
It may be that he swept his hand across the boat and its nets and equipment and the catch of fish and asked his question of Peter: “Simon do you love me more than these things?” In other words, are you ready to give all this up, abandon the only career you know, give up your steady job and dependable comfort? Perhaps … There are sermons on that interpretation.
But I imagine that Jesus is looking at the rest of the little group of disciples, busy about their necessary, but menial tasks. “Simon, do you love me more than these … people, these friends?” If that’s the case, he’s is harkening back to the night not so long ago that Peter pledged his never failing allegiance. (Can we even remember that on this side of Easter?) Jesus doesn’t let Peter off the hook so easy for his actions on the night that he was arrested. Peter, you remember, put himself above the others as he assured Jesus that “Though they all fall away … I will lay down my life for you.” He said then that he loved Jesus more than any of them. And then, of course, he fled with the rest of them. And then, unlike any of them, he denied Jesus … three times. (Quick note: It’s hardly an accident that Jesus questions Peter three times. John is allowing the chance to affirm his love and wipe out the memory of his threefold denial.)
So, I believe, Jesus asks his question in the context of the rest of those moving around them. And Peter surely was remembering his last night with Jesus. He doesn’t lift himself up higher than “those” this time. He responds rather meekly, I think (I can almost see him drawing with his foot or a stick in the sand): “You know that I love you.” Peter knows better than to make comparisons any more. And because he does know better, because he doesn’t life himself higher than any other in this new band of brother and sisters, we see for the first time a authentic Jesus community shaping up on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.
That first Resurrection Community is recognizing the worth of all its members and not considering one more important than another. This is part of the mutual love that marks them all, that marks us all. This is who we are now … because of Easter. And with that recognition of self and other as “one in the same,” comes a task, a call, actually. Something we’re supposed “to do.” Anyone …? (You heard it three times just a few minutes ago.) Feed my sheep …
I wonder why that’s so hard for us to accomplish. It’s a simple, simple, petition. If you love me, if you call me Lord, if you seek salvation through the Love I offer, then feed my sheep. It’s a simple command.
We’ve mad it so … not simple: Who are the sheep and who are the goats? There’s tough love, too, isn’t there? (And my personal favorite) Isn’t that what clergy are for? We’ve structured ourselves pretty extensively to try to figure out how to most fully and effectively “feed the sheep.” To offer the love of God we have received in Christ to others, but those structures – our churches, charities, clergy, and clerics – must never be used to take the place of our own personal responsibility as a disciple of the Risen One. As we have been fed, we are to feed. Jesus announced the Kingdom of God present in the world already, right now, in part through the “shared meal” that is for everyone. Let’s not make this harder than it has to be! Feed my sheep … And the Kingdom will come.
There’s a story I’ve shared with you on another occasion that illustrates this perfectly.
Long ago, in Japan, a woman wanted to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. The monks of the temple agreed to grant her request. “First you shall see hell,” they said as they put a blindfold over her eyes. When the blindfold was removed the old woman stood at the entrance to a great hall. The hall was filled with round tables each piled high with the most delicious feast – meats, vegetables, fruits of every kind, and desserts to make your mouth water. The old woman noticed that there were people seated just out of arms reach of the tables. Their bodies were thin and their pale faces convulsed in frustration. They held chopsticks almost three feet long. With the chopsticks they could reach the food, but they could not get the food back into their mouths. As the old woman watched, a hungry, angry sound rose into the air. “Enough,” she said. “Let me see heaven.” When the blindfold was removed a second time, the old woman rubbed her eyes. For there she stood again at the entrance to a great hall with tables piled high with the same sumptuous feast. Again she saw the people sitting just out of arm’s reach of the food with those long chopsticks. But the people in heaven were plump and rosy-cheeked, and as she watched, the musical sound of laughter filled the air. And then … the old woman laughed herself, for as she observed, she came to understand the difference. The people in heaven were using those three-foot-long chopsticks to feed each other.
Let’s not make this harder than it has to be!
I’m struck by the “coincidence” of our Celebration Sunday recognitions. In just a few moments we will recognize a few of those who have been “feeding the sheep,” young and old in our own community this past year. We will also recognize a group of young people, graduates who will be leaving our flock in ways more tangible than ever before. The number one reason that young people who have been a part of a worshipping church leave that church is high school graduation. College is a time of exploration and discovery, a time of rigorous study that makes a lazy Sunday at “home” in the dorm or apartment even more needed. We’ll see this group a bit less around here in the year ahead. On breaks throughout the year and in the summers. WE have a number of past high school graduates with us now to prove that!
We celebrate and send you six (and Caitlyn Brown, Leonard Faul, isis Girgis, and Natalie Pope – our college and post-graduate graduates) into the world knowing that you don’t need us in the same way anymore. But you will never be without us as you continue to follow your first and final command: Feed the Sheep, wherever you are. Literally, give food to the hungry. But also give hope to those without any hope; release to those who are oppressed, and love to those who need it most. That is what you’ve learned here: community, and promise, and Love.
It’s what we all learn hear. In part through this Strange Appendix at the end of our Gospel according to John. One more lesson for next week. But this morning, let us continue sing and celebrate the feeding our own so that we may be better prepared to feed the world.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor /Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 21, 2017