After this he said to them, “Follow me.”
This reading from the gospel of John is one of several post resurrection appearances. During Holy Week we walk through Jesus’ betrayal and passion. On Easter we hear the stories of the Resurrection. And in the Sundays of the Easter season the gospel readings recount the post Resurrection appearances. You know the stories: Jesus appearing at the tomb to the two Mary’s; Jesus suddenly appearing and standing in the room where the disciples are locked for fear of the Jews; the appearance to doubting Thomas; and the road to Emmaus when their eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread.
But this is an interesting vignette today. If you think about it, the disciples have gone back to their old way of life. After three years of living and walking with Jesus they have gone back to fishing. I wonder what Zebedee, the father of James and John who left their father tending his nets when Jesus called them thought… He may well have thought, look at those crazy irresponsible kids who ran off and left me. And now here they are back to work fishing. They want their jobs back?
So anyway several of the disciples are gathered together by the Sea of Tiberius and Simon Peter says, ‘I am going fishing.’ They go fishing and seem to have lost their touch. They caught nothing all night. They are out of practice. Jesus shows up on the beach and tells them where to catch fish, then builds a charcoal fire and feeds them breakfast. Now if you think about it, if Jesus were more influenced by his humanity than his divinity at this time, he could have been pretty ticked at these guys. They were the ones who did not stand by him, scattered when his trials came, and Peter had denied him three times. If any of us had been through such an ordeal – betrayed, denied, arrested, tortured, executed, and resurrected – would our first task be to make breakfast for those who abandoned us? Or to help them return to their old way of life, fishing? But Jesus was gentle. And the disciples hadn’t figured out the idea of the Resurrection yet. How could they? They had just seen Him crucified. They were in the midst of living the story; it was still unfolding.
In his book Resurrection, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury writes ‘One of the strangest features of the resurrection narratives is precisely this theme of the otherness, the unrecognizability of the risen Jesus…Whatever the experiences of the disciples at Easter were, it is hard to deny that this element must have played a part – that for some at least, the encounter with the risen Jesus began as an encounter with a stranger.’ A curious way to make a point. But out faith is not always so logical, not always two plus three equals five. It is not formulaic. It is interesting that when Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus, or to Ananias in Damascus, or to doubting Thomas he is recognizable. But his appearances to his close friends, the Mary’s, and the disciples are characterized by His being unfamiliar, a stranger at first. When Jesus appears in your life, is He recognizable? Or is He a stranger?
What is Jesus to our lives? And what difference does it make? Perhaps it is illustrative to look at today’s gospel story again. An interesting thing happens in this story. After the disciples miraculously figure out that it is Jesus, they don’t have a reunion and check on how each other is doing. Instead Jesus questions them and then essentially commissions them, especially Peter. Commissions them to ‘tend sheep.’ Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ Three times. Most scholars believe that this threefold questioning of Peter is Jesus’ effort to redeem or rehabilitate Peter, to forgive him for his threefold denial of Jesus when the cock crowed. Henri Nouwen, that great theologian says that this is the most important question of the Bible. Do you love me? Three times. Do you love me? Do you truly love me? The most important question in the Bible.
And that is the same question for us here today, two thousand years later. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ We have been through Holy Week, relived the Passion, seen the glory of Easter, and reveled in the message of the Resurrection, the risen Lord. We have the benefit of the story having developed for two thousand years. We are not in the midst of living it out, figuring it out as it unfolds. Perhaps it is easier for us than for the disciples. But what difference has it made?
In his post Resurrection appearances Jesus calls to action; he turns Thomas’ doubt to faith and he moves Peter from faith to action. He sends Paul on a mission. And his message is simple. Follow me. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Follow me.
Interestingly Jesus doesn’t ask them, or anyone to be a leader. He calls them to follow. And to tend the sheep. A shepherd doesn’t lead the sheep. A shepherd tends the sheep. There are lots of leaders here. We esteem leadership, give it a high value in our society. Do we have it right? There is the story of a young woman applying to college. As she is filling out the application blank there is a question, ‘Are you a leader?’ She becomes very anxious, and while she fears it will doom her chances of admission she must answer honestly ‘No,’ she is not a leader. To her surprise she received a letter from the college: "Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."
Jesus doesn’t ask us to be leaders, he asks us to be servants, to follow. To follow the way He did. Jesus led by serving. Another example of those paradoxes inherent in the Christian faith. He came not as a king but in a lowly manger. His Resurrection was a function of Crucifixion. He led as a servant. Didn’t he wash feet?
There is another story told: During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, "Sir, I am a corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again." The person who got off his horse and helped the men was George Washington.
Follow me. Tend my sheep. What does that mean for us? We, so many of us, who like to be leaders, or think we should be leaders, what does that mean for us? It means hospitality and generosity and giving and kind words. It means being good stewards of the environment. Turning the other cheek, dealing gently with one another. Serving breakfast. It may mean phone calls to those having a rough patch in their life; driving someone to the doctor; taking communion to those at home; sitting with shut-ins; being gentle with the person who slows you down when you are in a hurry. It means respecting the dignity of every human being black white straight gay Democrat Republican liberal conservative. Respecting the dignity of every human being. Our lives are our testimony. Braziliam Bishop Don Helder said, ‘Watch how you live. Your lives may be the only gospel your hearers will ever read.’
Do you love me? Jesus asks. If you do, follow me. Tend my sheep. The Provost has chapter members reading a book on servant leadership. A bit paradoxical that term? Servant leadership. But that really is what Jesus calls us to. Servant leadership. One of the points of the book is that a truly effective leader is always servant first. There is a quote in that book that says, ‘We have seen what Jesus was like. If we wish now to treat him as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, he wants us to serve.’
C.S. Lewis sums it up well for us. In his essay The Weight of Glory he writes, ‘Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point…It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him or her to think too often or too deeply about that of his or her neighbor. The load, or weight, of burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken….There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.’
Jesus is really pretty simple in His call, in His instructions: Feed my sheep, tend my sheep. Follow me.