What kind of a shepherd?

I am preaching tonight at the covenanting of a new minister for the Cole Harbour-Woodside United Church congregation. Even though I am on vacation the opportunity to share some things I have learned in 26 years of pastoral ministry was too great to pass up. The new minister has chosen John 21:15-19 as the text to frame tonight’s service:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

To prepare for this service I read two excellent commentaries on John’s Gospel, one by Michael Crosby, Do You Love Me? Jesus Questions The Church and the other by Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Both of these authors focus on the importance of intentional Christian community and what that means for the witness of the Jesus movement. I was drawn to these authors because that has been my increasing focus being a minister in a mainline church in the 21st century. Given the dramatic decrease in church attendance, the lack of resources, the fact that most of what the church has offered to the community over the last 50 years can be found in many secular institutions, what is the remaining mission of the church?

For Crosby, Howard-Brook and myself that remaining mission is a witnessing intentional community, a place where people committed to living lives based on the teaching of Jesus the Christ and form community that inspires each other and the broader community. To make that transition, from an institutional church with a defined hierarchy and dogma, where success is often based on numbers, piety and the survival of the institution itself to an intentional community of believers who define success on the quality of the community and authenticity of their witness is no easy feat.

Crosby says this text from John is a clear turning point in the life of the early church, where the church of Luke-Acts is growing and finding itself in need of hierarchy, stability and direction. Peter is the chosen vessel of this need and the author of John’s Gospel seeks to rescue Peter’s reputation from the first 20 chapters to this last one, giving Peter a central role in the Jesus movement as it goes forward. Remember that Peter is the one who denies Jesus three times, who cuts off the ear of the soldier arresting Jesus (an act Jesus does not approve of), who runs away when Jesus is crucified. In contrast Crosby reminds us of the Beloved Disciple who is portrayed as one who stays with, whose love is a witness to what Jesus has taught, who is not invested with institutional authority but who none-the-less inspires the disciples around him to love, to care, to be community. Crosby says of the Beloved Disciple, “he leads by imitation, not status.”

Howard-Brooks takes aim at the three fold questions Jesus asks Peter. The author says Jesus is asking “do you love me” with an understanding of love based on what we call agape love, that is self-giving love. Peter on the other hand is hearing these questions with an understanding of love based on what we call the love of friends, philia. To use the sheep and shepherd metaphor with Jesus as the shepherd the good shepherd is more than a friend of the sheep, s/he is willing to give her/his life for the sheep. That kind of love is different than what we typically would mean by the love of friends.

In a world of reciprocity, where take our measure of one another and give on the basis of what others have given to us, where we care for our own, where we look at others as either above or below us, the early church modelled a community where people loved one another and cared for one another based on their faith that Jesus was the Christ and that this love could and would transform us into a new creation, a new community, where we would all lay down our lives for one another, where we would all call one another sisters and brothers, where we would show the world what it means to be truly human.

How could someone not say yes to an opportunity to preach these liberating words?