Feeding the Sheep
Sermon on May 5, 2019, Third Sunday of Easter
Knox Presbyterian Church
Text: John 21:15-19
In our Lectionary Bible study on Friday, we soon had to admit that none of us had ever fed a real live sheep, but we quickly realized Jesus was not talking about sheep anyway, but about people.
Then we asked, So who are these sheep that Jesus tells Peter to feed? We thought it sounded like the sheep are the flock of Jesus’ followers, the church in other words, and we also thought that since Jesus doesn’t put anyone outside of God’s love, the sheep could be anyone around us. We recalled how worship began here at Knox for many years: “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”
Then we wondered what it meant to feed the sheep. We noticed newer translations have Jesus say, “take care of my sheep.” So I did a little digging in the Greek text and found that in the first and third command to Peter, the word can be translated either “feed” or “tend.” But in the second instance, there’s a different Greek verb that has Jesus saying to Peter, “Shepherd my lambs.” It seems like special attention to the young.
Another translation takes into account the Greek present tense which can include a sense of continuation. Love and keep on loving, give and keep on giving, for instance. This translation puts it, “Keep on feeding my sheep,” “Keep on shepherding my lambs.”
So feeding the sheep is an ongoing shepherding task, it’s tending and taking care of the sheep along with getting them fed. It begins to sound more and more like Jesus is commissioning Peter, and by extension all of us in the church, to keep on shepherding the flock. And the flock may very well include folks who never come to church but whom Jesus loves and considers his precious sheep.
In our woefully limited experience about sheep, we turned to what we’ve seen in movies or might notice on the coastal hills of Sonoma County. We noticed that in order for sheep to be fed and cared for, they have to be moved from one place to another. In Colorado, the sheep are moved to high country in summer and lower down in winter and that’s what tending and feeding sheep really is. It’s moving them on to a better place.
This seemed like a nice metaphor to us. Jesus is commissioning us to help one another get to better places, better sets of feelings, better spiritual situations as we make our way through life.
Dana Couey’s name came up as one who shepherded and tended and fed many precious ones in this congregation and all around the world. Her vibrant, talented and encouraging ways lifted people to better places in their hearts and souls. We can praise God for those like her.
I also think of Arline and all our teachers today. After almost 60 years of teaching, Arline has decided to make her next few substituting jobs her last days in the classroom. She helped take kids from not knowing how to read to knowing how. She watched the light come on in little kids minds as they realized, “Hey, I’m reading this book.” And she worked so hard at it all these years, all along bearing sorrow for those who didn’t seem to move very far along the way.
Those who teach, those who take care, those who nurse and support and a host of other helpers we rely on are fulfilling Jesus’ commission to Peter every day, and we can praise God for them too. The world does not function without the shepherding ones.
Then there are those chance opportunities that come along. Rich told us of coming across a tall, somewhat difficult neighbor of our church, once a brief participant here, a man who has trouble speaking, and who is now likely living on the street.
Rich asked him how he was doing, and the next thing he knew the man was crying, then he was hanging onto Rich. Rich asked where his dog was, and the man said, “He died two days ago.” And then the man was gone. For that short time, Rich happened to be the one to help the fellow to a better place in his grief. He probably had no one else.
I have to believe Rich tended one of Jesus’ precious sheep whether he intended to or not.
So feeding sheep can happen in many ways. And it can be tricky. No matter how much we care or how hard we try, we can’t always help move people to a better place. We can’t solve every problem.
But Jesus isn’t telling us to do that. He’s telling us to be shepherds, to be listeners and encouragers, in other words ministers. Martin Hessel always listed the ministers of this church as “All the People.”
Ministers soon learn that they can be called to be with people whose difficulties are too great to put right. Time and again, I’ve found myself in situations that were beyond me, and when the conversation was coming to a close, all I could do was ask, “Would you like me to pray for you? Would you like our church to pray for you?”
Sometimes they said no, but often they wanted a prayer. Often they wanted the congregation to pray for them. So we prayed for them on Sunday, and then we let them know we did. . We began to get prayer requests from people in the community, and we prayed for those folks, and we let them know we did so. It was a good thing, a shepherding thing.
We didn’t offer miracles or promise divine deliverance, we just offered to pray for people who wanted us to. It became a shepherding ministry to people up and down the River, and they appreciated it.
I’m wondering if it could be done here. Simply offer to pray or have the church pray for people. And after the church prays, send a little note, or, I suppose, an email, that our congregation prayed for you at our worship service last Sunday. The Peace of God be with you. Signed by a Deacon or Elder of the church. It seems a natural way for churches to feed, tend to, and shepherd some of Jesus’ precious sheep.
So, the church and its people are commissioned by Jesus to tend his sheep, which can include any of those around us. And we find it can be a difficult calling, but also satisfying and even glorious at times. That’s the calling to which Jesus calls Peter, and to which he calls us. All of us are shepherds, and sometimes the shepherds need shepherding. That’s the church of God.
Yes, the feeders also need to be fed, and so we gather around this table where graces and mercies are spread before us in this bread and cup. We take them into ourselves and feed upon the very love of God to all the world. And here we are fed by the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, even Jesus our Lord. Amen.