“Tend My Sheep”

John 21:12-17

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / April 16, 2006 – Easter Sunday


The Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Does it matter? And what does it mean for us today? Two very important questions for us to consider this morning.


Does it matter if Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? For you and for me, this is a matter of life and death. This is not some optional, ‘take it or leave it’ doctrine, where a diversity of opinions is welcome. Whether Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father or whether He remains in the grave, is for us the difference between unfettered happiness and unequalled horror.


The Resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our assurance that our sins were forgiven at the cross. If someone says to you, ‘How do you know that Jesus secured your forgiveness on the cross? How do you know whether His death actually accomplished anything for you?’ Our answer is the Resurrection. The Resurrection is our tangible confirmation that Christ delivered on His promise. The Resurrection provides visible evidence that Christ’s death effectively secured forgiveness for His people.


And we know from the apostle Paul’s testimony that Jesus did not appear to a mere handful of people, but rather, after appearing to the disciples, we are told Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred people at one time” (1Cor. 15:6). More than 500 eyewitnesses to the most impressive miracle in human history!


But what does it matter? The apostle Paul explains what is at stake in the Resurrection when he writes, “if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless; and you are still in your sins” (1Cor. 15:17). You see, the connection between the death of Christ on the cross and His subsequent Resurrection is a vital connection—Paul’s message implies that the former is ineffectual without the latter. For this reason, Paul goes on to say “(if Christ is not raised) we are, of all men, most to be pitied” (1Cor. 15:19).


There appears to be no middle ground here. Either we are the most blessed or we are the most to be pitied.


I presume that most of you are here this morning because you regard yourself among the blessed. You believe that Christ is risen, and that this is no memorial service. You are here to celebrate. You are here to sing, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today, Hal-le-lu-jah!’


Yes, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead matters—it matters more to us than anything in the Universe.


I think most of us have some understanding of the significance of the Resurrection from a historical standpoint, and I suspect we have an appreciation for how the Resurrection of Jesus relates to what happens to us when we die. But I think the area where many people struggle is in identifying what relevance the Resurrection has for their life today. What does the Resurrection mean for how I should govern my life in the here and now?


I reckon that Jesus answers this question, in part, through His dialogue with Peter, recorded in John chapter 21. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about love. In the latter days of His ministry, Jesus gave His followers a new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you ought to love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Keep in mind that at the time of giving this command, the supreme demonstration of His love—that is, the cross—had yet to take place.


But now, having demonstrated His love for His followers on the cross, we detect Jesus is challenging our commitment to love as He engages Peter in conversation on this subject.


As a fellow follower of Jesus, I submit to you that the words spoken to Peter two thousand years ago apply to us today. We are being called here to love as Jesus loves.


That’s not easy. I hope that I am not universalizing my own experience when I say that our perpetual busyness is likely the greatest obstacle to our loving Jesus as we ought.


Our busyness, in part, is a function of the number of choices we have available to us. In this great country, in this great city of Toronto, there seems to be no limit to the number of things we can fill our calendar with.


There are social clubs for us to join, exhibits for us to visit, sporting events and musical events for us to attend and, of course, we have a myriad of restaurants for our dining pleasure. Many of you are busy with your career. Some of you have hobbies that occupy a significant amount of your time. Some of you are busy scurrying around as you transport your children to a myriad of different activities.


            So what is the difficulty? The difficulty is that, for many of us, our relationship with Jesus has become meshed into our massive list of choices. For some, attending church services and participating in the life of a local congregation has become as optional as choosing to go for brunch, as optional as choosing to watch TV, as optional as choosing to play golf. I fear that we have lost sight of the non-optional nature of our devotion to Christ.


No doubt, if someone were to ask us, we would not hesitate to declare our affection for Christ. When we attend services, we enthusiastically sing about our love for Christ. We’re certainly not faking it—we’re genuinely happy to be here. But on a day-to-day basis, I wonder: Do our choices and our priorities match our claim to love Jesus Christ?


That’s essentially the level that Jesus was challenging Peter on. We recall that Peter had been out of step with Jesus on a few occasions, and we recall that Peter publicly denied Jesus three times. And yet, mercifully, Jesus does not give up on Peter—although He does challenge him to demonstrate anew his allegiance.


Again, I reckon that it is prudent to place ourselves within this account. We, like Peter, have failed Christ in the past. We have not followed Christ as we ought to have, and yet, the mercy of Christ is nonetheless extended to us. And like Peter’s experience, the mercy that is extended to us is not cheap mercy. The challenge Jesus puts to Peter, He puts to you and I.


John writes that “when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?' Peter replied, 'Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.' Jesus said to Peter, 'Tend My lambs.' Jesus said to Peter a second time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love Me?' Peter replied, 'Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.' Jesus said to Peter, "Shepherd My sheep.' Jesus said to Peter the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love Me?' Peter was grieved because He said to him a third time, "Do you love Me?' And Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.' Jesus said to Peter, 'Tend My sheep.'”(21:15-17).


This is a fascinating discourse that cannot be fully appreciated in our English translation. The Greek word Jesus uses for love is a different word than the one Peter uses. Jesus uses the word, agape, while Peter uses the word, phileo. In the King James Version, agape is usually translated as “charity”, which describes the character of this love.  The word phileo simply means "to be a friend".


Jesus begins by saying, “Peter do you agape Me?”—“do you love Me?” Peter's response is “Lord; You know that I phileo You”—“You know that I like You a lot.”


Jesus asks again, “Peter do you agape Me?”—“do you love Me?” Again, Peter's response is the same, “Lord; You know that I phileo You”—“You know that I like You a lot.”


But, the third time Jesus asks a different question, the third time He asks, “Peter do you phileo Me?”—that is, Jesus questions Peter’s claim to have phileo love.


This helps us to understand Peter's grieved response.  As we read the English version, we think Peter is grieved because he was asked the same question three times. But, in the Greek we see that the third question was altogether different. Peter is grieved because "Jesus said to him the third time, 'Do you phileo Me?" Peter is grieved because Jesus even questioned his commitment to like Him a lot.


What does the Resurrection of Jesus mean for you and I today? Again, I think we know what it means historically, and I think we know what it means ultimately—but what relevance does the Resurrection of Christ hold for you and I today?


We learn from this passage of Scripture, that the Resurrection of Jesus requires something from us. As the celebration of His Resurrection begins to wane, and as the feast on the beach subsides, Jesus brings Peter a challenge, “Tend My sheep . . . Shepherd My Sheep . . . Tend My sheep.


Taken in isolation, we might struggle to know exactly what tending Christ’s sheep entails. But, in context, we remember that this instruction is given in response to a claim to love Jesus.


We conclude, therefore, that those who claim to love Jesus should love like Jesus loves. Our love, like Jesus’ love, should have a charitable character. Following Jesus’ example, we should love without regard to merit. Our love, like Jesus’ love, should even pursue those who are estranged from us.


It seems to me that the Resurrected Jesus could have challenged Peter on a number of different fronts. He could have exhorted him to believe more firmly, pray more fervently, or He could have exhorted him speak more boldly, but instead, Jesus challenges Peter to raise his commitment to loving Him and loving others.


By way of encouragement, I want you to remember that Jesus is in the habit of extending mercy to those who have strayed.


Peter had messed up. Peter publicly denied ever knowing Jesus. For a time, Peter lived apart from Jesus. No doubt, there have been times when we have lived apart from Christ—be encouraged—Jesus pursued and restored Peter to where he needed to be.


And by way of exhortation, I want you to remember that Jesus is in the habit of challenging those who have benefited from His mercy.


To bear the name of Christ requires that we live the name of Christ. And to receive the love of Christ requires that we reciprocate that love as we interact with one another. Amen.