Last week I was asked why it seemed that, in the Bible, everyone who encountered the risen Christ didn’t recognize him? And I have to admit, all the people in the Bible seem a little dense about the whole Christ thing. Here again today, in our gospel reading, we have another example of the disciples not recognizing Christ.
Now, my usual answer to the question is that the disciples were not expecting to see a dead man walking around, so it took an encounter or two for them to recognize that it was Jesus. Let’s face it; we normally don’t expect the dead to be showing up at dinner, so why would we expect the disciples to be any different? I usually say that they are not recognizing Christ because they are not expecting to see him. And, in all honesty, this answer works for most of the situations, but it doesn’t work for today’s gospel reading. For the disciples in today’s gospel reading, this is the third encounter they have had with the living Christ, having Christ pop up at unexpected times should almost be old hat!
But again we have the pattern: Initially, the disciples don’t recognize Christ on the beach. They are going about their lives, doing the things they would normally do. And in the midst of all of this, Christ appears. And they don’t recognize him until something happens that opens their eyes to his presence. Then once something happens, they all recognize that it was Christ that was there all along.
We have a pattern that is starting to emerge here: First, the disciples are going about their life, doing whatever they are doing. Second, Christ appears in their midst and awakens their senses to the possibilities that are spread before them. And finally he commissions the disciples, sends them, out into the world. Now, not only do we have this three-part pattern of restoration and commissioning, but we have this three-part pattern enacted three times. I am guessing we are supposed to be paying attention to all of this!
Now one of the things that can help us to understand what is happening here is an understanding of what numbers represent in the Bible. The number we are dealing with here, is the number three. In the Bible, the number three can be just something simple like the amount that is more than two but less then four. It can be that simple. But it can also have some deeper, symbolic, meaning. The usual symbolic meaning of the number three is that of “wholeness” or “completeness.” When something appears in the Bible in a series of three, we need to think of a totality.
So we have a three-part pattern of restoration happening three times. I think we are supposed to be getting message here!
And if this were not enough to catch our attention, we have Peter’s encounter with Christ. In this encounter the pattern of three is most obvious. If we think back, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times. If we use the symbolism of three, we can say that Peter had denied Jesus in the fullest way possible. But Christ does not leave Peter in wallowing in his guilt, sadness, and separation. Christ draws Peter to him, feeds him, forgives him, and sends him out into the world. And this is not just a “go out and do something” kind of sending. Christ has a specific purpose; Christ sends Peter out to care for the people of the world. Not once, not twice, but three times Christ tells Peter to go out and feed His sheep.
This three-fold call is not just for Peter, this call is to all of us. And it is not just a call to some kind of abstract feeding. This is a call to real, actual, action. This is a call to be out among the flocks and bringing the food to them. Some of us were actively involved in bring food to Christ’s flock last week through providing soup and sandwiches at Crossroads, and that was a wonderful thing! But that is only the beginning! Christ tells Peter three times to feed his sheep. He tells Peter that in totality Peter is to be about feeding the flocks.
As Christians, we are not sent into the world as an afterthought. Our primary reason for being is to spread Christ’s love to those who need to feel it. Christ has called us in our baptism and feeds us and strengthens us through the Holy Eucharist and through this community of faith. This is why we are here. We are here to be the hands, the voice, the heart of Christ in the world. Then after we are gathered together, we are sent out to feed Christ’s sheep!
There is so much we can learn from this story! We see that Christ calls the disciples over to where the fire is prepared. Christ has already started to cook fish. Christ has begun to prepare food but asks the disciples to bring their fish too! We will be fed, but we are also asked to add our contribution. Christ will feed us but also asks that we put forth our gifts and talent into the feast. The disciples are given the gift of the catch (153 fish! I always wonder who stopped to count them!?!) and then asked them to give a part of that catch to the meal that Christ was preparing.
And after they had eaten, it was then that he questioned Peter. And it was in the process of this questioning that Christ forgives Peter, restores Peter, and sends him out into the world. And with the words, “Follow me,” the risen Christ commissions not only Peter but us all.
So, where are we supposed to be following Jesus? Where are the sheep we are supposed to feed? That is a tough question. Now there may be a few sheep that need to be fed sitting in this building, but I would probably guess that the majority of the sheep we are supposed to feed are outside of our building. The lambs we are to tend are those who may be sitting next to you, but they are also those who are driving by. The sheep we are sent to may never turn into our parking lot and may never set foot into our building, but these are the people that Christ tells Peter, and us, three times, to care for.
If we take this seriously, if we believe that we are sent to feed and care for Christ’s sheep in the world, how would that change our lives? How would that change us as a congregation? How would that change us as individuals? What things are we doing right and what things will we have to change?
Another question to think about is what are we doing that is NOT feeding Christ’s sheep? What are we doing that may be sending sheep away hungry?
One thing that I like about being new to a congregation is that I can ask questions like this and not be accused of having an agenda. I really am not sure of all the things that are happening here nor am I aware of the things that are not happening. So I can ask these questions as a way of sparking interest and conversation. The things that we are doing well, we need to keep on doing them, but so often with most congregations, there are a lot of things we could be doing that we aren’t. It is at these places, places where we see that there is more we can do, that we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to add our fish to the fire that Christ has prepared and are we willing to go out and feed Christ’s sheep?
I believe we see the risen Lord in the world, but do we recognize him? Do we see him in the eyes of the homeless? Do we see him in the face of the single-mother? Do we see Christ in the tattooed and pierced teen who has dropped out of school? Do we see Christ’s sheep in the executive who is just too busy for that God stuff? Do we see Christ’s sheep in the gay or lesbian who has been driven out of their childhood church and is now bitter to anything even remotely smacking of religion? Do we see Christ’s sheep in the person who feels as if their sins are just too great for ANYONE to forgive?
We know the story for the risen Christ. We claim to believe that Christ has risen from the dead. Are we willing to have Christ question us?
Christ looks at us and asks: “Do you love me?"
If we answer, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you," then be prepared for the next line! Christ himself will look us in the eye and say, “Feed my sheep!”