Feeding the Body and the Soul
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Reading: John 21:15-20
This summer in New York City a friend took me to a rather fancy restaurant. It was one of those places where, when you're presented with the menu, it is as if you are being given the keys to the kingdom. The waiter presented this extremely large menu as if it was a sacrament. Then we had to decide what we were going to have from this exceedingly large and very heavy menu. On the left were all the meals it’s known for, and they looked delicious, I must say, even with Latin and French thrown in for good measure. On the other side was what was called the lifestyle menu, where you choose from a variety of different things that were low carbohydrate, low sodium, low fat, gluten-free, etc. So I said to the waiter, “Excuse me, if I eat from the left side, will I die soon? And if I eat from the other side, will I live longer?
He says, “I'm sorry, Sir, we don’t make any guarantees at this restaurant.”
I went with the lighter fare and chose things that were healthy lifestyle-worthy. It was a very interesting meal. It was indeed low in everything, including taste, but what I really felt good about was how righteous I was after I had eaten it. Two hours later, back in my room, however, I had hunger pains, but that’s another story.
I felt good about doing something that I thought was light and was not really that much of a commitment. I think it is fair to say that in the realm of religion, spirituality, and faith, we encounter a similar sort of menu. There are many people I know who are challenged by what seems to be two sides to the menu. On the one hand, accepting a religious tradition with its theological formulations, its history, its traditions, and its symbols. On the other hand, there is what I like to call designer religion, lifestyle religion, where people pick and choose what they do and don’t like. A dash of mysticism, a soupcon of superstition, a smidge of paganism, a pinch of eroticism. You know, just a bunch of different things that then you put together to form your own religion lite so everyone feels comfortable, because they know that what’s on that side of the menu, they can understand and control it.
It is a popular way of looking at life, and I appreciate people who are seeking, wanting to know and understand life and to experience it. I kind of admire it. But there is also a matter of the rejection of what’s on the other side of the menu. That is the part that concerns me, because I'm not sure people realise how rich, incredibly healthy and supportive, how founded and grounded a religious tradition is that has foundation to it.
I know that in our Western culture there is this migration away from established religion and traditions. We’re no longer – and I'm thinking here especially of Christianity – the mother of art, as we once were. In other words, the focal point of most art. I don’t think that we’re seen as being the centre of healing and nursing and care, which historically was the case. I don’t think that the notion of universities and education, the growth and development of thought, is necessarily linked to the faith traditions who made that education so important, and who founded so many schools and colleges.
There is this consensus around Christianity helping to enrich and protect, guide and nurture human life, being questioned in the West. You can understand how throughout history, there have been anomalies, mistakes and problems that have been associated with it. And I don’t believe that the Christian faith is a homogeneous thing. There is within it, as we know, many different strands, themes, and traditions.
I love a cartoon I saw in a magazine a few years ago. Two boys were talking to one another, and one boy said to the other, “Would you like to come to my church this Sunday?”
The other boy replied, “No thank you, I already belong to another abomination.” It is how some people think of it. Nevertheless, throughout the core of Christianity is a core of faith, and not just the faith of an individual and what an individual chooses to believe, but THE faith. The core of that faith is rooted in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in the glory and the honour of God the Father, and in the experience of God the Holy Spirit.
I want to look at that today, because I think in this smorgasbord, this menu where there are so many different choices, it is worth looking again. For those who are seeking and searching, look at what is at the heart and the essence of the faith, the Christian faith. Look at it. I want to do it through the lens of today’s passage from the Gospel of Saint John. Because in an encounter between Jesus and Peter, we find inspiration as to why we should think that our faith – the faith – should be on the menu.
The story is very simple: Peter was one of the foundational Christian disciples. He was at the centre of so many things that took place in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But there came a very important moment, before Jesus’ crucifixion, where Peter’s faith was tested. Three times Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, and on three different times, he denied knowing Him. Now, he didn’t betray Jesus – that was Judas – but he did deny him three times. Eventually, as we know, Jesus was crucified, and you can imagine how Peter must have felt in the aftermath of the crucifixion. When he needed to affirm his faith, he denied Christ three times. But after the crucifixion and the resurrection, when Jesus appears to His disciples, imagine Peter’s reaction!
Jesus’s approach was most beautiful. He sits down, has a meal with the disciples – it is fish, they were fisher people He gives Peter another opportunity to look at his own faith. Jesus, in a loving way, comes to Peter and says, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”
Peter has an opportunity to redeem himself, and he does; he says, “Lord, you know that I love you.”
Then Jesus says these incredible words: “Feed my lambs.”
He does it again, and he a third time, and in these three reinstatements after the three denials before the crucifixion, Jesus puts Peter right again. Where Peter had lost his faith, or certainly had challenged and questioned, Jesus, out of love and grace, comes to him.
What does he then command Peter to do? And this is the crux of the matter. He tells him that he must feed the lambs – that’s the first phrase. John Calvin, in writing on this passage, got it right, I believe. He said that what Jesus was getting at, was to feed the lambs, meaning those already around him, his followers. They are the ones that Peter should feed. In other words, take care of the other disciples, be the lead disciple that I called you to be, feed the lambs, take care of them, make sure that they're all right.
It seems to me that this is a mandate not only for Peter, but for every subsequent Christian and church that has followed. The need to feed the lambs, and in feeding the lambs, nurture them in order that the faith might continue, might be powerful and meaningful. So often we become concerned with all the superficial things around the faith, that we don’t think about the feeding of the lambs.
I love a story I read about a farmer. The farmer could be anywhere in the world. This farmer goes to a conference on how to take care of the church and how to attract new people. He listens to all the theories, and there are many, and there are some good ideas and some bad ideas. Finally, he’s asked what he thinks and says, “Well, farmers don’t go around asking how to get the cattle to come into the barn, we simply provide the best feed possible, and they come.” In other words, take care of the feeding of the animals and they will come. I think that is exactly what Jesus had in mind with Peter; take care of the flock.
How do we take care of the flock? How do we feed the flock? Not only with fellowship, which is an important thing, but most of all with word and sacrament. One of the ways we attract people and bring them closer to God, is through the Word of God, and that that Word of God comes through the sermon, the worship, the reading and study of Scripture, and the fellowship groups where people gather. It comes by looking at even other things that have been written in the world and asking whether those things are in keeping with the Word of God.
We look first at the Word of God and see the world through the lens of it, rather than seeing the Word of God through the lens of the world. That’s how we feed people. That’s how we get them to wrestle with life, and all the vicissitudes of human existence, by reflecting on it in the light of the Word of God. That’s how you feed people. That’s how you nourish people. That’s why what we do here, and what churches throughout the world do, is feed people with the Word. But the Word is not enough; you need to feed with the sacrament, you need to feed with the sign of the presence of Christ.
This morning is Worldwide Communion Sunday, where people of the faith throughout the world gather to remember one thing and one thing only: The sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Lord. We do it through the breaking of bread, through the drinking of wine. Why? Because this is what Jesus instructed his disciples to do in the Upper Room; “Do this,” he says, “in remembrance of me.”
This morning when you receive the gift of bread, pray for yourself. Pray for the lambs. Pray for the things that need to be strengthened by the power of God’s spirit. Pray for those things and come and take that bread.
Jesus doesn’t stop with the sacrament or with the disciples. He says to Peter on the second and the third time after asking him, “Do you love me?” The first time it’s the love of God, now it’s the love of one’s neighbour, one’s brother and sister. He says to him that you want to tend and feed the sheep. And feeding the sheep is not necessarily the lambs, but the sheep. And who are the sheep? Humanity. He was calling Peter out of the confines of his own little life. It’s not just about having a meal in a boat with the Lord, it’s reaching out to the very world itself, going out to the sheep of the world.
Jesus knew that for someone like Peter, this was not going to be easy, and it isn't easy; it’s not easy to feed the sheep with the Word of God, or with the sacraments. It’s not easy to feed them with fellowship, or truth. It’s not easy to feed them physically when they're hungry, to take care of the poor and the dispossessed. It is not easy to do this. Jesus knew that there would be people who would speak ill of Peter, who would make fun of him and put him down. He knew that he would face rejection once he said, “I love you, Jesus, and I will go and feed your sheep.” He knew that Peter was going to have to pay the price, and implicitly and explicitly in this text it states that in so doing, Jesus was letting Peter know the suffering to come.
There is a cost to discipleship. It’s not an easy thing. Anyone who tells you it’s an easy thing, is not telling you the truth. It’s one of the reasons why people shy away from it. It requires commitment, obedience, commitment to the soul, and most of all, a love of the world that is self-giving. But underneath all of this was Jesus himself – and Peter would know this – had already paid the cost. Jesus had already taken care of Peter.
I was reading in an old car magazine, a story about how Rolls Royce Motor Cars – I know it’s a car thing – became the very powerful company that it did. I don’t know if you know this story, but Rolls Royce had a great reputation, and particularly a few years ago, where it was the pre-eminent automobile. An Englishman had a Rolls Royce and he decided he was going to spend some time in the United States. Realising the United States didn’t have the particular model that he had in the United Kingdom, and not wanting to give up his car for six months, he decided to ship the Rolls Royce over so he could drive it around. He drove all over the United States and one day his car broke down in a farming district in Idaho. He thought, “Oh dear, now what am I going to do? I don’t think there’s a Rolls Royce dealership around the corner.” He got on the phone and called Solihull where they made the Rolls Royce, and said, “Look, my car has broken down, what do you think I should do?”
The manager came on and said, “Don’t worry Sir, we’ll have a mechanic there for you in forty eight hours, just stay where you are with the car and we will take care of you.”
Forty-eight hours later a mechanic, with the parts, came, fixed the Rolls Royce and returned to the United Kingdom. When he returned to the United Kingdom he realized he never received a bill from Rolls Royce. He feels bad, as if somehow he’s missed it, so he phones Rolls Royce in their headquarters and says, “Excuse me, but my car broke down in Idaho and you came and fixed it. I'm just wondering if there’s a bill outstanding that I should pay?
The manager of Rolls Royce said, “Sir, I must inform you that Rolls Royce cars do not break down therefore you will not be receiving a bill for having fixed a car that didn't brake in the first place. Rolls Royce cars do not have breakdowns. There is no bill.”
Taken care of. Peter knew he’d been taken care of. Christ had taken care of him, that’s all Peter needed to know.
If we live as Christians with that conviction, and if we live in that hope and that belief, then we have no fear of committing ourselves to the world. Being passionate about the things that need to be fixed, and the people who need to be healed, the hungry that need to be fed, and the thirsty who have no water, and the Earth tended. These are the things that should animate us and move us as followers of Christ, all the time knowing that at the very heart of it all, Christ is alongside us.
The wonderful writer, Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, said this, and it really hit me this week. “The Christian revelation of God lies here. No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe, who does not understand that He permitted His Son to die on the cross, to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is.”
That’s not just a right answer to a theological question; it is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me with never-failing readiness to take my hand, to walk on through life from wherever I might find myself at the time.
This is what Peter knew, this is what Peter experienced. Christ was with him as he had to feed the lambs and the sheep. With us, my friends, he does the same.
As you take the cup this morning, think of the needs of the world. Think of a hungry world that needs to be fed in so many ways. Pray a prayer that the world is in God’s hands. It seems to me that’s a pretty good menu for body and soul. Amen.