“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.”
In this short quote from the end of John’s gospel text, Jesus is asking us to become like Christ in the way that we move in this life, and Jesus gives to us the gift of understanding that words are meaningful only when those words are embodied in our lives. Words, in this sense, have a physicality to them that break the boundaries of the spoken word or of the written word, both of which seem to be locked into a medium of their own – advancing only so far. The wall, this boundary of physicality, seems to keep the thoughts, the words, the imaginings of humanity bound into a limited sphere in which the word is one thing while action is another. And then, we encounter Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh.
In the person of Jesus we encounter not just word or just action but the combination of the two into a single entity that is completely divine. Christ enters into our reality in the Word incarnate and brings with him everything that is God. Jesus’ entire being is the Divine being that exists outside of our sphere of understanding, yet God is made known within our sphere through the person of Jesus – the divine Word that comes among us and walks along side us. In Christ, we discover that God’s word is God’s action, and God’s action is God’s Word. The two things that seem separated by this boundary – word and action – are made a single reality in the person of Jesus. The second person of the Trinity, then, invites us into that same reality to the extent that we are able to participate in the divine being – to the extent that we are able to match our words to our actions, our faith to our embodiment of it.
In the resurrection, we are approached by the terrifyingly beautiful reality of God’s presence within our known boundaries. God’s nearness to us causes us to pause and to reconsider what is possible through the power of the Spirit; God’s nearness to us forces us to question our assumptions and to pray through the actions of our lives by learning how to imitate the life of Christ. God approaches us through the second person of the Trinity and startles us into a new reality, and God calls us forward and encourages us through the Holy Spirit to take the first step towards the joy and hope that is made real in the risen Christ.
As we enter into the reality of the resurrection, we hear the words of Jesus as he asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Our response, “Yes Lord, you know I love you,” is met with a new command to “Tend my sheep.” Do we have the courage to tend the sheep, to go out into the new creation that is before us in order to extend the invitation that Christ offers to any that will accept him?
If our response to that question is a resounding yes, then we must also get used to the fact that our reality is going to change – time and again as we invite more and more people to be part of this flock. If our answer is a resounding yes, it is going to mean that each one of us has a part to play in growing the church. Each of us has an invitation to share with others, and each one of us will face new challenges as we move out into the world to spread the news of what God has done and is doing through the risen Christ. If we, like Peter, answer Jesus’ question in the affirmative, then we, too, must find the courage to step out into the new landscape to share our faith through the embodiment of our words. It is in this way that we fully enter into the post-resurrection ministry of Christ, and it is in this way that we deepen not only our spirituality but also accomplish the mission of the Church.
And yet, if we are serious about deepening our spiritual reality as the body of Christ while also entering into the heart of the Christian mission, we will almost inevitably find ourselves bumping into things that make us uncomfortable. We are made uncomfortable because we bump into something that reminds us of who the body of Christ is meant to be – an apostolic community that has a responsibility to the disenfranchised that surrounds it. The second command that Jesus gives to Peter (and thus gives to each of us) is a command to go and be present with any that are disenfranchised by the context in which they exist.1 While the command certainly includes being ministers to the poor, we also must begin to question what other people groups in our context have been disenfranchised by either society at large or by the Church.2 In order to tend Jesus’ sheep, we must be ready to be present with those sheep. It is a responsibility that requires us to get closer to people that we might prefer would remain just out of sight – much less within our worship services. The call of the apostolic community that we now call the Church is a call to, like Jesus, sit with the disenfranchised wherever we may find them. It is a call to listen to their stories, to bear their pain and suffering, and to offer a place of faith, hope, and love.
The call to tend Jesus’ sheep is a call to practice the ministry of patience and presence while opening our hearts up to the possibility of change. As we encounter the disenfranchised, the Easter story should cause us to stop and think what is actually being offered through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a story that should cause us to question past interpretations of the Scriptures and the past actions of the Church. As we tend the flock of Jesus, the Easter story should make us think about the people disenfranchised from the Church the most in our own context and respond through the act of repentance and reconciliation. It is a call for us to deepen our understanding of the beauty of humanity and to welcome the most disenfranchised into our midst.
From the Easter event until now, Jesus is calling us to find the courage to embody our words by daring to be vulnerable with the vulnerable. It is a call to open our hearts to hear the words of pain that they show us in the markings of their bodies. It is a call to take seriously the challenges of the disenfranchised by way of questioning our own past interpretations. It is a call to break the boundary that our words encounter by understanding that our words only hold meaning when we take the risk of embodying those words in our deeds and actions.
Like Jesus, we have the ability to marry our embodied words to our spoken lives. We are being called to take part in the Easter story by throwing wide the doors of the Church and welcoming all that pass through them with the faith, hope, and love of Christ. We are called to question ourselves because of the realities of the disenfranchised, and we are called to seek forgiveness when we have gotten things wrong.
Jesus asked Peter the same question three times, and Peter responded in the same way three times. Are we prepared to do the same as Peter?
Our yes to Jesus can only hold meaning if we are willing to take the risk of loving those that we feel are most distant from us – whether that happens to be the immigrant that has no documents, the newly married same-gender couple, or the person that votes for the opposite political party. Regardless of who it is that you identify as a disenfranchised person in our own context – an Episcopal parish in the city of Dallas, our call as followers of Jesus is to find ways to be present with those persons, to listen to their stories. It will not be enough to sit for a single story though. To embody the ministry of tending Jesus’ lambs, we must have the courage to sit with the distant, the disenfranchised long enough that their stories break open our hearts and create space for the power of the Spirit to work in our lives.
Christ calls us forward into this new creation so that we might discover that the diversity of creation is precisely what offers us the best opportunity to learn about the depths of God’s love; Christ calls us forward to be unified in His love and to discover something new about the fabric of humanity as we try to love another as Christ loves us.
“Jesus 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?” He said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
- Rowan Williams, “Doing the Works of God” in A Ray of Darkness (United States: Cowley Publications,U.S., 1995), 221-232.