We have just read [in John 21:15-19] that, after the resurrection, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. To Peter’s confusion, the question was asked three times. Each time Peter answered in the affirmative. Jesus responded with “Feed my lambs,” “Shepherd my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus wanted to make absolutely clear what he wanted Peter to do. He wanted Peter to look after the other early Christians, as a shepherd cares for his sheep.
Earlier on in his ministry, before the crucifixion, Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” (John 10:11)
As well as making sure that Peter knew he was to be a leader, Jesus was reminding him that he would have to make personal sacrifice, perhaps even sacrificing his own life, in his leadership role. As today’s reading said, Jesus “said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” According to tradition, Peter was executed by crucifixion, but at his own request he was crucified upside down because he didn’t think he was worthy to be executed in the same way as his master. This is why the symbol of St Peter is an inverted cross, and there is at least one knealer in this church with St Peter’s cross on it, although it is quite common to see it turned upside down by mistake.
In this country, we are very lucky. By the grace of God, we don’t have to fear the kind of persecution that Peter did. So what do “feed my lambs”, “shepherd my sheep”, and “feed my sheep” mean to us today?
The answer to that comes in another passage from John’s Gospel, this time from the Last Supper. John 13:34-35:
Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other
For Peter, discipleship meant taking on the mantle of the Good Shepherd, even following Jesus in the way that he died. For us, discipleship means loving one another as Christ loves us.
Loving one another as Christ loves us.
To fully appreciate the power of that statement, we should ask “What does discipleship not mean?”
In my mind, the first and foremost thing that discipleship does not mean is hours of Bible study. That is not saying that it is not a good thing to read and try to understand the Bible, but the Christian who spends many hours in dry dusty libraries—as I have done, and I enjoy doing—is not a better Christian simply because of that study. The Christian who, because of circumstances, opportunity, inclination, or other reason, does not spend hours engaged in Biblical study is not a worse Christian simply because of the lack of study. Being able to open your Bible and find the 4th chapter of the Book of Habakkuk is not a measure of someones Christianity.
Discipleship does not mean anger. There were plenty of synagogues in Palestine in Jesus’ day. I think that pretty much all of them taught things that Jesus disagreed with. Did he camp outside them, waving placards with Old Testament quotations on them? No. He preached his message to whoever would listen, and in love he welcomed all those who came.
Discipleship does not mean holding a grudge. In today’s reading, Jesus appointed Peter as the new shepherd of the church. He appointed Peter. The man who had, a few weeks previously, denied him three times. In love, Jesus forgave.
Discipleship means love. Love for one another, as Christ loves us.
Peter fed the sheep with his ministry. When we love one another as Christ loves us then we are becoming like Christ. In our own small ways, are acting as shepherds for each other. It is with Christ-like love that we feed each other.
This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Saturday 29 June 2013.