Thomas J Parlette
“From Fishing to Shepherding”
John 21: 1-19
James Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District of England, working the land where his father and grandfather tended sheep and where many others have done so for thousands of years.
His book, The Shepherds Life: A Tale of the Lake District, takes those of us who are uninitiated into the rhythms of life on those green hills – rhythms that haven’t changed much for shepherds over the course of hundreds of generations. Despite all the advances in technology and progress that characterize the 21st century world, shepherding is still an ancient and unchanging way of life that is always about the sheep and the land.
Most of us think of shepherding as an idyllic profession from a bygone age. We picture the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. We miss the fact that shepherding is also muddy, bloody, smelly and difficult work. It takes a practiced hand and an eye for detail that is honed over time. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who just want to dabble in it as a hobby. Nevertheless, for those who can stick with it, the shepherds life can be rewarding and satisfying.
Rebanks describes some would-be shepherds who rent a farm to try their hand. “The get-up and get-out voice in their heads isn’t strong enough and they just don’t care enough about the sheep and the land to sustain their initial enthusiasm once the going gets tough. Things fall apart, and they soon leave. The voice in our heads is what holds the Lake District together, puts the walls back up, drains the fields and keeps the sheep well-tended and bred… Get-up and Get-out. It is done because it should be done.”(1)
In this mornings story from John, Jesus calls on Peter, indeed on all his followers, to think of themselves as shepherds, with that Get-up and Get-out mentality.
This passage is often referred to as a sort of Epilogue to John’s Gospel. It seems like the book should end at the close of Chapter 20, which reads – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The end. The curtain closes. Thank you for coming.
But before the houselights go up and everyone exits the theater, John (or someone writing sometime after John) steps out in front of the curtain and says, “Wait, before you go, you should know that after these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius… and it went a little something like this…”
This post-resurrection story is very similar to one that Luke tells at the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus is calling the disciples. Many of the same elements are there.
Jesus stands on the shore.
The fishermen haven’t caught anything.
Jesus tells them to try again.
And sure enough, the pull out a huge catch of fish.
In Luke’s version, Jesus then then tells Peter, “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people.”
But in this story from John, Jesus tells Peter what to do with people once he’s caught them. Jesus shifts the call of all his disciples from fishing to shepherding.
Despite Peter’s enthusiastic response to seeing Jesus again – jumping into the water and wading ashore – there is an awkwardness in this scene. As they sit around the charcoal fire, the same kind of fire that Peter warmed himself by in the courtyard outside the Palace where Jesus had his trial, Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t help but think of Peter’s boast – “I will never deny you, I will die with you”, and then his three-fold denial.
So there on the beach, over bread and fish, Jesus gives Peter the chance to redeem himself. Jesus asks him “Do you love me” three times. Each time Peter says “Yes”. And Jesus’ responses move his disciples role from fishers of people to shepherds of the flock. After this lakeside cookout, Peter is forgiven and reinstated back into Jesus’ good graces.
Normally, we hear this story applying to ministers, since the word “pastor” implies that ministers are like a shepherd, and that is true. But the shepherding task is really for all who follow Jesus. For we all have a particular flock that we tend. Your flock could be your family, or a group of co-workers, or a circle of friends. I bet you can think of a time you have tended to your flock in one way or another.
In his classic book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller describes how a shepherd’s staff becomes a symbol of the man’s very being. An experienced shepherd has carried a staff for so long, it seems a part of his body. The staff is his very identity – a badge of office. On one occasion, Keller saw a shepherd use his staff to gently guide his sheep. Unlike the rod, which is an instrument of stern discipline, the staff is a gentle reminder of the shepherd’s presence. Sometimes the shepherd reaches out his staff to touch one of his animals on the flank, to gently indicate that a change of direction is in order. Sometimes, it’s even more intimate than that.
“Sometimes,” writes Keller, “I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they are “in touch.” They will walk along in this way almost as though it were “hand-in-hand.” The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd, and revels in the close, personal contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It’s a delightful and moving picture.” (2)
You can see how this kind of shepherding applies to Jesus. But I also hope that you can see this applying to you and your own flock, whoever that may be. I’m sure you can think of times when you have walked alongside someone, just to stay in touch, like a shepherd with a staff. That’s what it means to tend Jesus’ sheep.
Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Pastor, as a vocation, for me seems like a being put in charge of one of those old-fashioned elevators, spending all day with people in their ups and downs, but with no view.”(3)
That’s what tending a flock is like – spending all day with people in their ups and downs.
Psalm 23 speaks of the Lord who is our shepherd preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. This line about the table doesn’t mean God promises to protect us in this life. What God does is promise to do is to provide.
Not protection, but providence. There’s a difference.
Protection would be if the hurricane never makes landfall. Providence means a volunteer from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shows up after it does with hot food and directions to a shelter.
Protection means our partner never cheats on us. Providence means that, should that happen, together we work hard to find a way to reconciliation or resolution.
Protection means the blood clot never travels to the brain, causing a stroke. Providence means there’s still much joy to be found in life, even if some things don’t work as well as they once did.
That is what Jesus’ shepherdly command to “feed my sheep” truly means. It means that when the world around us seems to be falling apart, we gather together around a table in the presence of the Lord, and find there such food as feeds the soul.
More than that, around such a table, we enjoy a life-changing fellowship with one another. Somehow, the howling wind outside doesn’t seem so formidable when there is food to share and company to remind us we are not alone.
Through it all, God does provide.(4)
So let us be led by the Good Shepherd to the table this morning that we may be nourished for our role as shepherds of the flock.
May God be praised. Amen.
(Responsive Benediction in the bulletin)
1. HomileticsOnline, retrieved 4/23/19