Preached April 24, 2016; printed by request
by Floyd Brand
In this appendix, chapter 21, John relates how Jesus attends to some unfinished business between Peter and himself, and by reflection, between Peter and the other apostles. Peter’s faith in the resurrection of the Lord and its message of the forgiveness of sins needed to be signed and sealed for all time to come, and likewise Peter’s commissioning to proclaim in days to come the resurrection and its message. He had soared in faith before, only to crash soon after. Therefore the necessity of this conversation. Before the events in the Garden of Gethsemane Peter had boasted, “Though all men should deny thee, yet will I never deny thee.” Jesus speaks now to Simon the sinner, not to Peter the rock. His first question picked up on the boast: “Simon, son of Jonas, are you more devoted than other disciples? Do you really love me more than these?” When Peter answered his Lord, he used a different word than Jesus had used, though both words appear the same in translation, “love.” Our English word love is so stretched that it loses much of its meaning. We say, “God so loved the world,” and the Christian so loves God and his fellow Christian and his neighbor. But we also say, “We are so in love!” and even, “I so love my chocolate!” Jesus’ word for love indicates an act of the will arising from the worthiness of the beloved. It is the word for the love of God. This love is unique. It is the act of the divine will bestowing worthiness on the unworthy, without waiting for them to first prove worthy; in a word, “grace.” Peter’s word for love on the other hand expresses the feeling of the heart. It emphasizes the emotion in response to the affection one has experienced. Peter’s heart was now humble. He does not have it in his heart to vaunt his love. Jesus accepted his answer: “Then feed my lambs.”
Jesus’ second question was simply, Do you love me? Peter gave the same answer, and again, Jesus accepted it: “Then tend my sheep, shepherd my sheep.” This is the whole of caring for a flock, feeding, protecting, rescuing, and providing veterinary care. But then the third time Jesus asked, he used Peter’s diminished word for love: “Do you really have such great affection for me?” It was this change in the wording even more than the third repetition of the question that now brought tears to Peter’s eyes. “You do not need to ask me,” he responded; “you know all things, you know already.” Again Jesus accepted the answer: “Then feed my sheep.” All this is far more potent than if Jesus had simply said, “I want you to know, Peter, that I have totally forgiven you,” and then had turned and said to the others, “And you need to forgive him too.” Entrusting Peter or anyone with the flock of God, the souls of the redeemed, is a most emphatic absolution. It is a seal of forgiveness. It is sacramental, only without earthly elements. Peter could fall back on this conversation in times of trouble, when the devil would say, “Are you sure you are cut out for this? You really are not worthy you know.” And by assigning him this commission, Jesus further cuts off in advance any objection of unbelief to Peter’s message. No one should ever say, aloud or even to himself, “And why should we listen to him?” They should listen to him just as they would listen to Jesus himself. Thus “Feed my sheep!” was the seal on the absolution.
By the same token, such absolution bestows on everyone thus justified his own share in the Great Commission, in proclaiming to the world that the Lord reigneth, in feeding the flock of God. Now that he knows what forgiveness is, now that he knows how the Spirit of God breathes life into the soul, he is just the one to show forth the praises of God who has called him out of darkness into his own wondrous light. Here Peter is reinstated into his place as an apostle. The apostles laid the foundation. They were authorized to go anywhere and everywhere with the announcement of the resurrection of the Lord. They were equipped with the special gift of the Holy Ghost, so that when they preached and when they wrote, the wording would be just perfect. Otherwise they had the same struggles with the flesh as the rest of us. Through the apostles Jesus laid the foundation for the church of the New Testament. But he did not arrange for successors to the apostles. There are none. For those who come after, the field of labor does not cover so many square miles. Also, in their proclamation they labor to come as close as they can to the faithful expression of the Gospel of Christ, the truth of God. Yet Jesus did not leave his church in the lurch either. He does his work through the imperfect, and provides them authority enough and ability enough for each one to carry out his individual responsibility. When Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” Peter leaped at the chance, and as we read, he trained and guided those who would carry on after he had glorified God with the martyr’s death. Still, he needed to learn to avoid the comparisons with others and their labors. To Peter and to everyone: “You follow me. The others you may commend to God. You follow me! that is all.”
Shepherd my sheep. Everyone has his share, and everyone one does well to leap at the chance. Now the form of the ministry as we are used to is not a blueprint set forth in the New Testament. It is a historical development, and whether to keep it as is or adjust it according to circumstances, and even to adjust it radically, is a judgment call. There is nothing unscriptural about making adjustments, even major adjustments, if they are made in the fear of God and for the good of the church. To see the familiar arrangement as following a blueprint for the structure of the church, as the law of God, this is unscriptural. But for the moment, looking at things as they are usually done in the church, how would you feel, or how would you have felt at the time, if your son said, “I would like a larger share if God should see fit; Dad, Mom, I would like to study to become a minister”? Or if a daughter would say or would have said, “The young man I am in love with is a minister, or will be a minister. I love him for who he is, but if this is his calling, I am happy with it”? One wrong response would be, “Not the kind of life I want for my child.” A wrong response from the other direction would be the proud mother at the kaffee klatsch asking, “What are your children up to these days anyway? My son is studying for the ministry, bet you can’t top that!” Hannah devoted her son Samuel to lifelong service at the sanctuary, but the decision to do so was gratitude not gloating. Her song was, “Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogance come out of your mouth.”
After the first reaction favorable or unfavorable, panic or pride, one needs to settle down and get to the real issue: the good of the church. Whether one approves or disapproves, this is the one valid reason to take up one’s share: the good of the church. Concern for the good of the church is where counsel should be formed, whether encouraging or discouraging. One needs to be careful when one says, “I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.” On the Last Day these words will strike many a person on the mouth, namely, those who think, “The Communion of saints, what a beautiful thought!” but go no further. When one says, “I believe in,” it means, “This is what I live for. This is what I put first.” These words of the Creed will smite even those who care fervently about their own salvation and about the salvation of the dear ones within their circle, but pay little heed to the salvation of those outside their circle. When Jesus says, “Tend my sheep,” he means all who belong to him. This is what counts, that they belong to him, the Good Shepherd.
Feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep, the good of the church. There are pastors who are pastors, and there are those who serve the church richly in other ways, because they caught from their father, whether or not he was a pastor, and from their Christian mother a love of the Word of God and a love of the Savior and a love of the church. Or, who knows where they caught it, but catch it they did. There are pastors who are pastors because their fathers were pastors, and they did not really know what else to do with their life. But the question to one who wishes to study for the ministry would be, Do you love the Word of God? Have you been reading and pondering your Bible on your own all along? Have you read it through at least once cover to cover? And there would be the warning. Be careful that the schools where you study the Word of God do not corrupt the way you read and teach the Word of God. Schooling is necessary, and it can bring you to the starting point; but you need to weigh what you are taught also. For the institutions of any church body both embody and expand the good features and the faults of that body. This takes one back to the question, “How much do you love the Word of God really?” For one, if you do not do your own wrestling with Scripture, then you will never stand the gaff. For the sake of peace and paycheck, of career and cash, you will not have it in you to stand up to evil. And if you do not do your own wrestling, the group in which you serve will own you. You will be its slave, its lackey following orders. You will have to trust what your church tells you, because, “Who are you to know your way around in the great questions?”
One must take this even further. If you would serve your group of Christians, your congregation, or conference, or synod, or denomination, you need to stand with one foot inside the group and the other foot outside. This is true of club, community, and country also, but here we are speaking of things far more important. You have to hold the group at arm’s length and see the forest for the trees, and discern what is healthy and what is unhealthy, what to continue and what to correct, what to repent and what to retain. This comes when you step outside yourself, and see yourself as God sees you. How others see you is not the important thing here, but how God sees you. This is what Jesus was doing for Peter. Now and from here on, Peter saw himself in his own right totally wretched and totally worthless. He saw himself at the same time in Christ, totally justified, totally worthy, and totally competent and capable of feeding the flock of God. When thus you can stand with one foot outside yourself and one foot outside your group, then you can live with yourself, then you can give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name, then you can feed the flock of God. Amen.
All of the quotations from the Sacred Scriptures in this paper are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.® ESV®, copyright© by Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, Compact Leather Edition, 2003. Used by permission. All rights reserved.