Gospel: John 21:1-19 1After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Next Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is known by many as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and I tell you this now because in today’s reading, Jesus talks to Peter specifically about feeding lambs, tending sheep, and then feeding sheep as well.  In one of the congregations I served some years in the past, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, one of the faithful members would show up on that Sunday with a cardboard box.  The box was open at the top, and inside was a blanket.  On that blanket would be a lamb recently born.  He brought it forward for Gospel Time, and all those who had come up had the opportunity to interact with that little lamb.  He said he did it for the kids… but I believe he did it also because he loved his little lambs, along with the rest of the sheep on the small farm he kept, while he managed the elevator in town.

What do we know about sheep?  Most of us are familiar with the cute little story about Mary and her little lamb that followed her everywhere she would go, even to school one day.

The truth about sheep is they are not easy to handle.  They often have a very narrow focus, so they follow things without paying attention to where they are, following another sheep or a line of tasty vegetation.  Sheep easily become lost if there is no fence to keep them contained, or no shepherd keeping watch.  Lost sheep don’t usually find their way back.  If not found by the shepherd or accompanying sheepdog, either a predator snatches them up, or some other fold gathers them in.  The latter is much more rare than the former.

It is not terribly flattering to be called sheep.  It is, however, realistic when we consider our relationship with God.  I say that because for many of us, God is such a constant part of our lives that we often will overlook God’s presence.  It’s almost as if God becomes a part of the furniture of our lives, so normal and expected that we notice only if something changes, and then maybe not until something unexpected happens.

We get wrapped up in our own lives, in our desires, our goals, our jobs, and our families, and just like the sheep that follows a line of grass beyond sight of rest of the gathering, it is not uncommon for us to become suddenly aware that we are alone, wondering what happened to everyone else.

Jesus’ words to Peter were as annoying as they were unexpected.  Jesus calls him by his birth name, rather than the prestigious rock of steadfastness.  “Simon, son of John,” he says, “Do you love me more than these?”  It’s not clear whether Jesus means the rest of the disciples or the boat and the nets and the less complicated life of fishing.  It’s also possible he’s asking whether Simon loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus.  Peter doesn’t actually answer the comparison, whatever way it might be intended.  Instead, he simply insists on his love for Jesus.  Three times Jesus questions, and three times Peter insists.  Maybe it’s because of the three denials during Jesus’ trial, but the author is clear to reference Peter’s hurt when Jesus asks the third time about his love.

We don’t like to be questioned on our love, or on our loyalty, especially when it comes from someone we see as one with authority who has our respect, someone like Jesus.  Why would anyone lie to Jesus?  Doesn’t Jesus know that we wouldn’t dare to try to pull one over on him?  Isn’t Jesus already fully aware of the love Simon Peter has for him, despite his denials during the trial?

I believe Peter is hurt not because he thinks Jesus is unaware of the sincerity of his love, but because he knows Jesus is fully aware of how frail Peter is, how frail we all are.  We allow other things, important things, to distract us from what is the most important.  We forget that the most important is not to be set aside when we are dealing with those other important things, but to be brought along into our interactions in community, with family, with careers or jobs or personal goals.  For example, if we should decide to go fishing, like Peter did, we bring Jesus along with us!

When we visit with friends and neighbors, we bring Jesus with us because Jesus loves not only us but those with whom we are interacting.

When we are at work, we remain aware that Jesus is with us, and that our interactions with people at work embody God’s actions in our workplaces.

When we are taking a break or on vacation, we don’t get the idea that Jesus is left behind, concerned only with those who are sitting in the pews.

Like sheep, we are often distracted by important things.  Let us learn like Peter that Jesus’ love is also to be part of all those important things, and not to be left behind in our churches and in our Bible studies.  Jesus’ love isn’t limited to a “Me and Jesus” worldview (or a “Jesus and Me” worldview, to be more grammatically correct!).  Jesus’ love is meant for everyone.

So, when Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” we are reminded to broaden our view, so that while our focus remains on Jesus, all those other important things receive the positive effects of our relationship with Jesus.  While we are fed by the gathering of the faithful, we also become those who feed the world out there with God’s love.  While we are God’s sheep, we also care for God’s sheep, feeding and tending no matter where we are or what we are doing.

We are Jesus’ little lambs, and follow Jesus always.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen