Jesus and Peter – Feed My Sheep

Jesus and Peter – Feed My Sheep

John 21:1-17

Some of my nicest memories are associated with the smell of woodsmoke:
visiting the  Arminel Mountain Lodge in the tiny village of Hogsback
back in the late 1970s.
Linda and I would go there to escape the city,
spending days hiking high in the alpine forests and evenings at the fire,
breathing in that icy mountain air fragrant with the smell of woodsmoke
from various cottage chimneys.
Who doesn’t love the smell of a good fire?
But there’s also bad associations: …last summer,
that shroud of smoke over everything
as our Okanagan world was being consumed by wildfires

It seems some of our best and worst memories
are triggered by the smell of fire-smoke.

We’ll come back to that later.


Today’s reading begins with the words ‘afterwards’ or ‘some time later’ depending on your translation. It describes events of about a week after Jesus’ second appearance to the disciples. They were near the Sea of Galilee and, we can imagine, thoroughly discombobulated by the events of these past weeks. Fisher Peter decides that they should all go back to what they knew best before meeting Jesus, go fishing.

There are 4 thoughts from this that I’d like to highlight for us today:

Firstly, notice how Jesus came to them as they were fishing. He takes the initiative!

Just like back when he first called them, broke into their world to catch their attention. His initiative. Isn’t that still always how the risen Christ works – by breaking into our awareness – as opposed to waiting for us to come looking for him? Christ comes to us/ insinuating himself into our awareness. Just think of the most sacred experiences of our lives and how usually it isn’t us who needed to initiate them: our appreciating a beautiful sunset perhaps, or experiencing the wonder of childbirth, remember falling in love? 

The question we can always be asking is how are we perhaps missing the risen Christ who is still very present – and coming to us?

Secondly, as they chose to go back to what they knew previously – but this time without Christ – they caught nothing. What had they expected? Were they hoping things were going to be just as they had been before they met him? It seems that that’s not possible. Once we have glimpsed something of Christ’s awesome and ubiquitous presence in our lives, NOTHING is ever the same. We can’t go back. To go back is in fact to be moving AWAY from where our most real life is being revealed!

Thirdly, there’s that detail of the miraculous catch of 153 fish. While no-one is too certain what that means, the explanation I like best is that it was then understood that 153 was the known number of fishes species. Some suggest they represent what one writer describes as – “the whole universe of fish”. I like that especially because, remember, as Jesus originally called them back in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels[i], he had said that from now on their work as his followers was to be about catching people!  It seems that Christ is teaching that there is room in our nets for every kind of person in creation, and even creation itself…a whole universe, without the net breaking – a pretty radical all-inclusivity…

As Christ followers, I think it’s fair to say that this text represents a summing up of what we can expect of Christ, and also of what Christ expects of us. It tells us that our rising awareness of Christ is something that, thank God, we don’t have to generate.

He is everywhere and he comes to us. It’s what scholars call a ‘sacramental’ view of reality.

It’s what Jesus enacted at the Last Supper where, by taking the physical elements of bread and wine, he spoke of himself as somehow actually being within them: this is my body!

The most we can do, it seems, is to allow ourselves to be open to it – be God-expectant as Psalm 14 says! As we do so, so we may become increasingly aware of the risen Christ’s everywhere presence, so we become aware of all the wholeness and healing hope that an awareness of Christ’s presence  always represents, and are motivated to act on it – live it!

That is what Christ expects from us. Following Jesus Christ is not just about us becoming ‘fans’ who worship him as something outside of ourselves. It’s about embracing the way of Christ as a living reality to be engaged with, allowing whatever his presence draws out from us to happen… Ourselves straining toward living out all what the risen Christ represents…

This is about our very best, God-created selves coming to sense and to connect with everyone and everything as their very best, God-created selves. It’s about us pushing through all the worst of one another, working very hard at engaging and dismantling everything that that gets in the way of us doing that – all of what we call sin!

Isn’t that what the ministry of Jesus Christ is about – and what he meant by telling Peter – or telling us through Peter – to ‘feed his sheep?’

But most of the time, we don’t! We get it wrong. We get stuck in our own ego-centric agendas and end up feeding just ourselves! I think of that awful imagery of Ezekiel 34 where the spiritual leaders of Israel are damned for eating the sheep they were to feed…

Who are the sheep that Christ would have us be feeding, the sheep that YOU have been given to feed? Are you? Are we?

Just like Peter at that fire… We all so easily deny Christ by focussing instead on just what we think is good for feeding ourselves and our own vulnerable and insatiable, egos.

All of which brings me back to that imagery of woodsmoke as a memory device, and to our last point today. The only two verses in John’s Gospel – in fact, in all of the New Testament –  that specifically mentions a coal fire are in 18:18 and 21: 9, describing Peter’s 3 times denial and his 3 times commissioning. It’s as if John is using the very distinctive smell of smoke from a coal fire to ensure that we link these two events!

The wonderfully liberating point, then, is that while it’s true that we find it difficult NOT to deny Christ – so difficult to connect/ stand up for/ recognise/ and live into the risen everywhere Christ-reality – that it doesn’t stop Christ from continue to offer us every opportunity to do so! God’s love for us and Christ’s working through us is – thankfully – not stopped by our willingness to deny him!

Our prayer, Dear God, is to thank you.
Thank you that even as you continued to have faith in Peter
and those disciples to be all you intended for them to be
despite their cowardice and fear,
so thank you that you continue to have faith in us as your church.
May we own what we need to live into that faith
and to honour the reality of our sacred commissioning.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

[i] Matthew 4:19, Luke 5:10


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