Feed My Lambs

(John 21:1-19)

Forgiveness gets a bad rap in our culture. Conventional wisdom holds that forgiveness is just another way of saying “I’m too weak to actually do anything about the harm that’s been done to me.”

Doormat. Wimp. Nebbish. Poltroon. Gutless invertebrate.

But it’s more complicated than that.

With my students sometimes I’ll say, “If forgiveness is the easy way out, let’s try an experiment. I’m going to punch you in the nose.” (Generally speaking, they don’t find this pedagogical strategy helpful.)

So, I say, “Ok. Imagine that I punched you in the nose.”

They like that better.

“Now,” I say, “will you forgive me?”

Silence. Students shake their heads.

“No? Why not? The easy thing would be to try to punch me back, right? The difficult thing would be to forgive me. It’d cost you something, wouldn’t it? It’d cost you a punch in the nose.”

And just walking away nurturing the bitterness of a life filled with unavenged punched noses isn’t the same thing as forgiveness. We’ve got a lot of that in our world. Instead of outright hostility, we have passive-aggression—people who will say when punched in the nose, “No. That’s all right. I’m fine. Yeah, don’t worry about it.” But they don’t mean it, do they? Some people can drag that around and make you pay for it the rest of your life.

Not punching back, but then leaving vague but nasty Facebook statuses doesn’t equal forgiveness.

No. Real forgiveness is tough. It’s not for cowards.

Forgiveness requires truth-telling, a willingness to decide that maintaining relationship means more to you than the pain of walking away.

Forgiveness costs … sometimes everything.

Jesus had a pretty good handle on the cost of forgiveness in our Gospel this morning. How could he not? He’d been killed, then abandoned by just about everybody a short time before.

Think about Peter. They were at the Last Supper. Jesus had already washed their feet. Judas had taken off to collect his thirty pieces of silver. Remember that whole, “You will deny me three times before the cock crows” thing? Remember that one? Peter said, “No, that’s nuts! I’d never sell you out, Jesus.”

But Jesus was on his way to meet the executioner, the cock crowed, and Peter was nowhere to be found.

Gone. Bugged out. Decamped. Did a runner.

“Tell us about your revolutionary pal.”

Peter said, “Jesus? I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about. Never heard of him.” When I was in seminary, I was kind of rough looking. Not a whole lot different than I look now, come to think of it … except back then I rode a motorcycle.

Anyway, on the day of our graduation my best friend, Scott, told me (half-jokingly, I think) that his sugar-daddy—a rich executive who’d paid Scott’s way through seminary—was going to be at commencement. Scott said, “So, if you see me coming down the hall with a guy in a suit … act like you don’t know me.”

That was Peter, hoping against hope that—when the black boots came to round Jesus up and cart him off to the lock-up—Jesus wouldn’t make eye contact, wouldn’t let on that they were pals.

As Jesus is being manhandled by the Roman Stormtroopers, Peter’s sending out this vibe to Jesus—”Come on man, act like you don’t know me.”

Then, Peter’s gone.

That’s got to be a tough pill to swallow if you’re Jesus, doesn’t it? In the darkest hour of your life, not only is your best friend not there for you, he’s got his yearbook out actively trying to scrub it clean of any incriminating evidence you might have left in there. No more, “Stay cool! Your friend, Jesus” on the back page. Sanitized. Like you never even existed.

You don’t get over that kind of stuff easily. That’s not one of those things where your buddy blows you off when you’re supposed to drink beer and watch the game down at Buffalo Wild Wings. This is serious stuff.

Peter said, “I have no idea who that guy is.”

But here we are in our Gospel for this morning, just a few days after the disciples had abandoned Jesus. The disciples have already seen him, but they’re still pretty shook up. They need a little time away after all the recent chaos.

Peter says, “I don’t know about you all, but I need to get my head straight. I think I’m going fishing.”

Jesus shows up on the beach unannounced, and they have another one of those big fish hauls for which Jesus has become famous. They carry the fish ashore and Jesus says, “You know, now that you mention it, I could use a bite to eat.”

So, they all sit down, have a little clam bake and do a reenactment of the last supper … only this time instead of bread and wine, they have bread and fish.

But there’s still tension in the air. Nobody wants to bring it up, but they all feel guilty about taking off on Jesus … especially Peter.

Jesus, however, refuses to let the relationship be broken. He says to Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”

Does Jesus mean, “Do you love me more than you love these other guys?” or does he mean, “Do you love me more than these other guys love me?”

Hard to know what the antecedent to “these” is supposed to be. But what’s clear is that Jesus is trying to reestablish contact with the person who’s hurt him, arguably more than anyone else.

Peter was the rock, the guy you could always count on to help you change the brake pads when everybody else was busy.

But when Jesus looked up in his darkest hour, Peter was gone … just like everybody else.

Now that they’re together again, Jesus addresses Peter specifically: “Simon Peter, do you love me?”

Peter, ever the eager one, says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

And rather than say, as I might have been tempted to say, “Oh really? You picked a funny way of showing it the other day when you swore up and down you didn’t know who I was,” instead, Jesus gives him mercy.


He forgives Peter.

Three times Peter confesses his love for Jesus. And in the process Peter symbolically atones for the three times he said he didn’t know Jesus. And that’s pretty great, right? Peter is officially welcomed back into the fold.

But this forgiveness is no small thing. It costs something.

And we know what it’s like to need forgiveness, don’t we? We know what it’s like not to be able to look someone in the eye whom we’ve wronged. We’ve walked over to the other side of the street to avoid a person we’ve hurt.

So, we treasure the wonderful feeling of forgiveness, of having people love us more than they hate our penchant for being idiots.

And if that were the end of the story, we could walk away feeling loved, relieved that the break between us no longer defines our relationship to one another.

But Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter; he does something even more amazing. He restores Peter’s vocation, gives him a job: “Feed my lambs.”

And this isn’t just any job, is it? Jesus said a few chapters back that he’s the good shepherd. Now he’s handing the reigns over to Peter?

After completely botching the corporate merger, not only is Peter not getting fired, he’s getting a promotion.

David Lose says it like this:

“We are commissioned at Baptism to share in the work and ministry of our Lord. And yet we often fall short, failing to give witness in word or deed to our faith in the living Lord. And yet Jesus doesn’t just commission us, Jesus also forgives us when we fall short. And Jesus doesn’t just forgive us, but calls us to try again. And Jesus doesn’t just call us to try again, Jesus also invites us to share what we have and gives us meaningful work to do.”

That’s no small thing. Human beings, I’m convinced, need work to do. And not just any work, either … good, important work. Meaningful work.

Merlin Mann says that what makes a good job a good job is sharp tools and interesting problems.

And Jesus gives Peter a whole set of interesting problems, doesn’t he? Indeed these sheep aren’t easy to feed. They can be difficult, these sheep.

Will Willimon, when he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke, used to say that he could never get over either the enthusiasm or the naïveté of Divinity students.

He’d say, “Why do you want to come to seminary?”

And the students would almost invariably say, “Well, I want to work with people.”

Willimon says, “I always ask them, ‘Do you know any of these people? Have you ever met any of these people you’re so enthusiastic about working with?’”

Sharp tools and interesting problems. Peter screwed up. He’s going nowhere fast. Traitor to his Lord and best friend, hasn’t got much left. It’s gotten so bad for him that he’s reduced to a little naked fishing.

But here comes Jesus, looking past the denial, looking past the betrayal, and giving Peter, not only the restored relationship of forgiveness, but the gift of meaningful work, interesting problems.

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus says. “I’m giving them to you. Try not to be lousy to them. And while you’re at it, try not to be too lousy to yourself either. You’re worth a punch in the nose to me. In fact, you’re worth a great deal more than that. I’m not only going to forgive you; I’m going to entrust you with the most important thing in the world to me: My children.”

Almost thirteen years ago, my predecessor here at Douglass, Dean Bucalos, went on sabbatical … and changed my life. He said I should do a three month interim for him while he went to France.

It was a difficult decision. I’d recently come off a bad experience with the church I was serving—so bad, in fact, that I’d made up my mind never to work in the church again.

But as these things often do, it came down to a simple calculation: He needed a favor, and I needed the work.

So, I came here in 2006 to put in my time, do what I could for three months before I resumed what I figured would be my life in academia. I never expected much more than to do my little song and dance, and move on.

But my time here did something for me, did something to me. You all were so loving and kind to me … encouraging me, challenging me, and in the end, healing me. I’m not sure I’ve ever told you this, but Douglass Boulevard Christian Church redeemed the church for me—or perhaps, more accurately, redeemed me for the church. And when I came back here a year and half later, I still had no intention of actually working in the church again as a permanent thing. It was just going to be another short term gig. But something happened.

Not only did you love me, you gave me interesting problems. And in that first few months I was here we had more interesting problems than one little group of people ought to have to confront in such a short period of time.

But here’s the thing: You entrusted me with work that had meaning. You entrusted me with that thing most precious … your lives.

And together we’ve walked into a future none of us could have imagined at the time. If anything, we’ve learned over that time how many different kinds of lambs Jesus wants us to feed, how not only did some of them wander off, some of them were driven away from the flock. You amaze me by your willingness to believe that God knows more about where we’re going than we do.

The thing I love about the community of faith here at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church is that when Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” the first response isn’t “Aw, do we have to?” or “Which ones don’t we have to be responsible for feeding?”

You say—time and time again you say, “How, Lord? Just show us where to go.”

And to that Jesus simply says, “Follow me. We’ll figure it out on the way.”

Feeding lambs. Figuring it out on the way. That’s interesting problems, meaningful work enough to last a lifetime.