top of page

Tending Sheep

John 21:15-19

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.”


I had a great walk with Melody, Marissa, and Niko this week on one of the last gloriously cool mornings. We were able to chat about so many different aspects of Christianity, from the words we say at Communion to the difference between belief and faith (and there is a big difference!).

But one of the topics that we chatted about resonated with this particular text in the Gospel of John as I was reading it this week. We talked briefly about the reason for Jesus--why is Jesus and his death and resurrection, important to the Christian faith?

I think that many of us in the church or in our childhoods were told a very particular reason for Jesus’ presence on earth: mainly, to gain us forgiveness and so earn us eternal salvation, heaven. Jesus came to the earth to die as a sacrifice so that our sins would be forgiven and we’d get to go to heaven. While you will find this as an explanation in some passages of the Bible, some of you might be surprised to learn that that’s not the only reason the Bible talks about or testifies to Jesus’ presence among us. I would argue that that is a limited reading of Jesus’ life.

Now, one of the reasons we might be surprised to hear this is that the first reason most of us learned for Jesus’ purpose on earth, the forgiveness one, is a pretty darn simple explanation. It’s almost a math equation, right? It was also easy to understand if you were a first century Jew who grew up with a sacrificial system. You’ve done wrong, you offer a sacrifice to acknowledge your wrong-doing, and now you are forgiven.

But we’re not first century Jewish folks. At least, I know I’m not. And so that explanation for Jesus’ purpose in my life and in his life always seemed to ring a bit foreign to me. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m guessing I’m not, especially as I reflect on Melody and my conversation on Wednesday. So what is the purpose of Jesus?

We’ve looked at Paul, Mark, and Luke’s passages that engage with the resurrected Jesus. In John, we’re exploring Jesus’ encounter with Peter after his resurrection. I think we can expand our understanding of Jesus’ purpose as we reflect on what the resurrected Jesus comes back to tell his disciples, especially Peter, in our passage from today. What are the essential things? It’s like when you leave on a trip and you’re making the list for the house-sitter: feed the pets! Set the alarm! Walk the dog! These are the essential things I do and if they stop, all hell will break loose. We’re going to look at this conversation.

A little backstory to this one-on-one encounter between Jesus and Peter: before we get to verse 15, there are rumors of Jesus being alive, but Peter (perhaps having regret at abandoning Jesus at his crucifixion) has decided to go fishing--back to his old job before all of this Jesus stuff happened to him. After a night of bad luck fishing, a stranger calls to them from the shore to let their nets down on the other side. As the fish swarm into their nets, the disciples realize the stranger is Jesus. Peter is so excited he jumps into the water and swims to shore to eat breakfast with him.

After breakfast, Jesus has a conversation just with Peter because they have some things they need to work through, you might say. In the Christian religion, Peter is important (if you grew up Catholic, you know this for sure--Peter becomes the first in the line of authoritative leaders, known as the Pope!). Peter is actually Jesus’ nickname for this fisherman he met at the beginning of his ministry named Simon, son of John. The nickname Jesus gave him, Peter, means rock. Jesus claims that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church.

Unfortunately, Simon, or “Peter” or “Simon Peter” if you prefer, panics at the end. The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter is asked three different times by folks who are gathered around for the spectacle whether he knows Jesus, whether he follows Jesus, and THREE times Peter denies it. Denies Jesus. THREE TIMES.

So here we are watching this final conversation between Jesus and Peter, the rock of the future community of Jesus. This is it. Final instructions. Parting words. And NOT ironically, Jesus repeats the instructions THREE DIFFERENT TIMES. Also, not ironically, Jesus does not use the nickname Peter, but the name by which he originally called this fisherman out of the boat all those years ago, as if Jesus is giving him a fresh start: Simon son of John, do you love me? Yes, Peter responds. Then feed my lambs. Simon son of John, do you love me? Yes Lord, you know that I love you. Then tend my sheep. Simon son of John, one more time, do you love me. A hurt Peter responds again, Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you! Then feed my sheep.

So what does this conversation have to do with the purpose of Jesus? I think it has a lot to do with the legacy he wants Peter and subsequently the community that comes after him to accomplish: if you love me, if you love Jesus, the work of Jesus now passes on: to feed sheep, to tend sheep, to feed lambs. What is the purpose of Jesus? I think it’s intertwined with our own.

Feed the sheep.

What on earth does this mean? We’d need to reflect on John’s Gospel as a whole to know what this final directive entails, both about Jesus’ purpose and our own. There is one place in particular that would help us in this investigation: chapter 10 of the Gospel of John is all about the good shepherd. A good Shepherd, Jesus says, knows the sheep all by name. A good shepherd protects his sheep from wolves and bandits. A good shepherd lays down his life for them. A good shepherd provides pasture. He leads the sheep to abundant life.

Jesus, in Chapter 10 in the Gospel of John, is the good shepherd, the one to find and love and provide for the sheep of God. The purpose of Jesus is to be the good shepherd.

And now it’s Peter’s turn. Jesus says: Peter, be a good shepherd. Tend the people, care for them, protect them, keep the nourishment coming, be prepared to sacrifice for them and draw firm boundaries that keep out those who bring death. Peter, know them, protect them, provide for them, liberate them to abundant life. Tend my lambs.

Just as the purpose of Jesus was to care for others, so now, it is Peter’s.

But if you’re a scholar of John, you know that this directive, this conversation between Jesus and Peter, is bigger than this metaphor of Shepherd and Sheep. It is a theme in the whole Gospel. As Erik Heen reminds us, this metaphor and request of Jesus “is a basic Johannine (or tradition of the Gospel and letters of John) theological commitment, a Johannine commitment that love of God/Jesus cannot be separated from the love of neighbor.”

We see it in Jesus as the Good Shepherd and in his directions to Peter as well. But we also see it in the last moments he spends with his disciples before he dies, four days earlier. While the other Gospels have Jesus sharing what is now a Communion Meal, in the Gospel of John Jesus washes everyone’s feet and declares “a new command I give you, to love each other as I have loved you.” To wash each other’s feet. To love me and to love each other.

Love of God and love of others in an anchor in John’s understanding of why Jesus came and why we follow him: to love as God has loved us. To know and love Jesus and so then to tend the sheep and follow Jesus.

If we want to talk about the purpose of Jesus in our lives both then and now, it is right here: love. Jesus came to love God’s people and as he leaves he wants a firm commitment from Peter, the rock of the future community, that that will be in the DNA, or as we would say it, in the Spirit, of all that comes after. This is the purpose of Jesus, this is what Jesus came back to life to tell us: love on each other. Tend to each other. Feed each other. Love. He tells them to do this before he dies in John as he washes their feet and then he tells Peter again--after Jesus has come back to life.

And as we think about God’s purpose in the crucifixion and the resurrection, I imagine if Jesus would have expanded he would have said something like this: Y’all tried. You tried to have your power reign supreme, your empire, your punishments, and threats. This world tried to say that their power for evil was stronger than mine for good--they tried so hard they killed me. But look, I came back because love is stronger than all of that. Love.

I want to return to a concern that some of you may be having right now: What do I do with the understanding, the conviction, the perhaps lifelong belief that Jesus came to forgive me from my sins? Why else would Jesus come? The purpose of Jesus and his death and resurrection was to enact the satiation of a divine equation of wrong-doing and forgiveness.

What you do with that, is up to you. I’m here to say there is another, even Biblical way, to understand Jesus purpose--his life. It does not exclude forgiveness, but it is not limited to it either. It’s love.

When I was in seminary we were studying the different theologies behind Jesus’ death and crucifixion. And most surprising to myself and my colleagues, is that there are quite a few! One student just couldn’t accept this. His whole life he had understood Jesus’ purpose in his life as simply transactional--as a pawn in the narrative of God that would satiate almost a cold and reluctant God, from punishing him for eternity for his struggle to be human. That was it for him, the linchpin in an elaborate equation of the Christian religion.

I remember specifically him saying aloud to the professor and the class, “Why on earth would Jesus even come if not to forgive us?” My response, surprising myself and others in the room, was simply “love.” Jesus came because of love--a deeper motivation, a wider threshold, an energy and conviction and motivation that reaches so far beyond any system of forgiveness and wrong-doing that we here on earth can construct.

Yes love includes forgiveness, but it is not limited to it, Jesus includes forgiveness, but do we limit him to just that, and more narrow yet, our definition of forgiveness? I do not define my entire relationship with my children under the banner of forgiveness. I define it under the stronger and more encompassing banner of love. I do not think of forgiveness as the essential part of my marriage (although important), love is. Have we for too long defined the purpose of Jesus in a way that satisfies our own anxiety and not in the way he calls Peter, he calls us, to carry on the work of his life?

I encourage you, as you reflect this week on Jesus’ final words to his disciple Peter, the Rock of the church, to reflect on Jesus’ work in this world, in our lives, and in this community, as a work of love, of tending, of feeding, in all of its beautiful forms. I encourage you to ask God to show you the many ways in which the presence of Jesus loves us, cares for us, changes us, forgives us, but also gives us abundant life that goes so far above and beyond that--in a way that is deeper, more abundant, and even more costly than we could ever imagine.

I also hope this week that you reflect on ways you are heeding the transfer of power, the transfer of this power to love, implied in John 21. If Jesus were to ask you that same question he asked Peter: Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. What of the love of Jesus, the care of Jesus, are you participating in? Returning to John 10’s description of shepherding, do you know people’s names? Do you know who they are? Are you leading folks to pastureland? Are you protecting those who are being set upon by bandits and wolves? Are you introducing them to a love that goes beyond the confines of even our own understandings and theologies? Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, follow me. How are you following?

bottom of page