a reflection on John 21:1-17 for the fifth Sunday of Easter
Do you love me? I can’t think of another gospel story in which Jesus repeats a question three times, even after he gets an answer. I also can’t think of another time when a disciple gets as exasperated with Jesus as Peter does this morning. Lord, You already know everything! You know that I love you! How many times are you going to make me say it?
It’s possible that one of the reasons Peter was so perplexed is that on the surface, “Feed my sheep,” sounds like a pretty simple instruction: if people are hungry, you feed them. Who doesn’t know this? Okay, so maybe it took the disciples a little while to get the hang of multiplying loaves and fishes. But surely by now, they know that even when there doesn’t seem to be enough, all they have to do is share what they have, and let God provide the rest. Surely by this time Jesus doesn’t need to tell the disciples three times that hungry people need to be fed.
I’m pretty sure that the Risen Christ is trying to give Peter a much more subtle instruction this morning–an urgent message about precisely what we need to do if we are going to continue Jesus’ work after he ascends to heaven in just a couple of weeks.
It seems to me that if we want to understand what Jesus has in mind when gives this instruction to feed his sheep, we need to ask ourselves what feeding sheep meant to Jesus. How did Jesus see his own ministry of feeding the ones to came to him?
One possibility is that Jesus might have seen his ministry as providing bread to physically hungry people. This would be a perfectly sensible and merciful thing to do. It also would have made Jesus a very popular guy. Remember that at the very start of his ministry, Jesus goes out to the desert for 40 days to listen for what exactly God is calling him to do. And while he’s out there listening, the devil himself shows up and tries to tempt Jesus with this very idea. Hey you, the devil says, Hey, Miracle Boy! Let’s see you turn this stone into a loaf of bread! The devil knows there are hungry people out there. The devil knows how tempting it is to make a magical career out of satisfying their material, physical needs. But you remember what Jesus famously says to the devil: “Man does not live by bread alone.”
Jesus knows that people are hungry. He certainly knows that there will be times when he will feed them the bread that they need. But he also knows that people need much more than bread, and that it’s his job to bring them that something more. The crowds who flocked to Jesus did not leave their homes and walk all those hot, dusty miles to get a loaf of bread. They left their homes and walked those long, hot miles because they were hungry for something else: those people were spiritually hungry. They were longing to feel the very presence of God right here in the body of this beautiful, broken world. And when they stepped into Jesus’ presence, they felt that presence of God in him. People brushed against Jesus’ cloak in a crowd; they climbed a tree to get a glimpse of his face—and just like that, they knew that they were held, now and forever, in the arms of God. And for the first time, they knew what it means to be truly loved, and truly alive.
I am the Bread of Life, Jesus says. Do you love me? he asks. Then I need you to be the same. I need you, too, embody the presence of God for a world that is spiritually starved. I need you to become, in your own body, spiritual food for a hungry world.
I want to be very clear here: for Jesus, and for us, this is not an either/or proposition—either you feed people’s bodies, OR you feed their souls. Jesus knew that he had to do both. And I believe he calls us to do the same. If Jesus were asking Peter simply to provide loaves and fishes, surely he wouldn’t have to say it three times! Surely, Jesus would never have to ask us three times to feed a hungry person bread! If Jesus were only asking us to feed hungry people bread, he’d only have to say it once for us to understand, and we’d do it in a heartbeat.
But if Jesus is asking for something more subtle, if Jesus is asking Peter, and us, to BECOME the bread of life; to become the kind of spiritual food that he IS—well, then, we might very well need to hear it a few times times before it starts to sink in.
I don’t know how about you, but if I were in Peter’s shoes this morning, I might be thinking that a good, old-fashioned loaves-and-fishes miracle is starting to sound pretty easy right about now.
Become spiritual food? Easy for Jesus to say. After all, he’s Emmanuel, God-with-Us. But what about the rest of us? How can Jesus possibly be asking US to become this kind of spiritual food for a world of hungry sheep?
I want to suggest to you this morning that this, in fact, is the question of our lives. If you were going to ponder just one question for the rest of your life, it might be this: What particular kind of food am I created to be for a hungry world?
I can’t answer that for you. But I can tell you that the particular kind of spiritual food that you are will never be repeated. And that if you fail to bring that gift to the world, then the ones who need particular spiritual food that you are will go hungry.
What I can tell you is that there are three things each of us must do if we are to become the kind of spiritual food that I believe Jesus is asking us to become.
The first thing we have to do is learn how to feel, and to name, our own soul’s deepest hunger. We live in a culture that does not specialize in the care and feeding of souls. In fact, we live in a culture that encourages us at every turn to ignore our spiritual hunger—our hunger for the felt presence of God. In fact, we live in a culture that encourages us to try and fill that longing for God with other things–with food, with alcohol, with money, with accomplishments and entertainment and frantic activity of every kind. It takes courage, and time, and often help, to name what it is that would make our souls come alive. Part of the reason this is so tricky is that the care and feeding of souls is never a one-size-fits all proposition. If it were that easy, we could just open up a big bag of Purina Sheep Chow and start giving it out! But nobody—not me, not any of the self-help gurus or television holy people–can tell you what particular food will feed your unique, irreplaceable soul. And we cannot feed the world’s spiritual hunger unless we learn to recognize, and name, that hunger in ourselves.
The second thing we need to do, once we have named what our soul is hungry for, is to actually let ourselves receive the spiritual food we need. This may sound obvious — if you’re hungry, you eat. But I wonder if you have ever gotten a glimpse—maybe just for a moment—of what your soul is deeply hungry for, and then, in the next instant, rushed away to get busy with something else. Maybe because it hurts too much to feel your soul’s hunger. Maybe because you have no idea how you will feed that hunger, or where you will find the time? What would it take to feed your soul what it really longs for? Is it silence? Is it rest? Is it an hour in the ocean at the break of dawn? God will not force these gifts on us. Your soul will crave them. And God will offer them. But no one will force us to take them. And I don’t believe it is possible to feed anybody’s sheep if you are starving your own soul.
The third thing we are called to do–once we have named our soul’s hunger and once we have fed it–is to show up and be the food Jesus calls us to be. You might think that even after naming and feeding your soul’s hunger, you still wouldn’t have any idea how to feed anyone else’s. But this is not true. If you are deeply nourishing your own soul with the particular spiritual food it needs, I promise that you will naturally be transformed. In your very being you will become that food–the very bread of life for other hungry souls. I can’t explain how this works; you can call it coincidence, or synchronicity, or God. But you can test it out for yourself: when you are feeding the authentic hunger of your own soul, you will begin to find, and you will begin to feed, the ones who are most in need of the particular food that only you can be.
If you ask me, this looks a lot like a plan for salvation. A plan so crazy, and so joyful, that we would never come up with it ourselves. It’s God’s own plan to save the starving soul of this world.
However, if you refuse to nourish your own, precious soul, then all the people who need the particular kind of spiritual food that you are created to be—those people will go hungry.
It takes work, and sometimes painful work, to listen this deeply; to feel, and to name, your own soul’s hunger. It can be especially painful if you’ve been ignoring your soul for a while, because it hurts when your soul starts to come back to life. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Right here, in this very room, you have a community — a spiritual community — that is deep enough and safe enough that we can listen together for the real hunger of our souls. I believe this is exactly what the church was created for. And I want you to know that my door is open, this season and always, if you want help to listen, and to name, your soul’s deepest hunger. If you want help to discover the spiritual food you were made to be, and to bring to a hungry world.
That’s the call that comes to us this morning. Maybe you can hear it: an urgent call from that long-ago lake.
You, too, are made to be the bread of life, Jesus says. Consecrated, broken open in joy, and given to feed a hungry world. Thanks be to God