Sermon 5.5.19 Following the Good Shepherd

Scripture Lesson:  John 21:1-19                                                                                                Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Apparently, scholars pretty much agree that the post crucifixion story that we heard this morning from the gospel of John was an add on.  It is thought that at one time the gospel ended earlier and that this story, and some other stories, were added on.  They were added because it was felt that they were needed by the faith community for whom the gospel was written.  I think this story also speaks to our needs today.  

I think if someone were creating this gospel today, they very well might choose to end it after the catch of fish and breakfast.  The disciples have gone fishing and caught nothing.  They are tired and frustrated.  This figure calls from the shore and tells them to cast the nets on the other side  of the boat and the catch is enormous.  This guy is great!  He can help you grow your business!  

That would almost be an Horatio Alger story.  Someone disadvantaged gets a little help and then through hard work becomes a huge business success.  

And the story goes on.  Not only is there an immense catch of fish, threatening to overturn the boat, but breakfast is waiting.  They get to shore and the fire is made and the fish is cooking.  It’s a free breakfast.  Wow!  This is a deal.  Not just a real meal, or a happy meal, or a square meal, but a FREE meal.  In today’s world, this could definitely be put across in a marketing plan to get more followers.  If someone was writing this gospel today they could very well end the gospel right there with a business coup and free food.  Now that is really good news!  

But the gospel writer or editor of the first century did not end there but went on; went on to give us a true Jesus ending.  An ending that reinforces what Jesus’ followers need to know and remember – then and now.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.  It’s a triply reinforced commitment to service; to other centered living, to the wellbeing of the vulnerable, to remembering those who are forgotten, to caring for those who are suffering.  It’s a call to compassion.  And, evidently, it is important enough to be repeated three times, yes, to balance Peter’s three denials, but also a nod to our tendency to forget things that may not be to our liking.  

This teaching shows Jesus’ concern for our well-being and wholeness.  Jesus knows that to be whole and healthy and joyful, yes, we need food for the body and other practical material necessities.  But there is no wholeness, no true peace, no well-being without tending to the spirit as well.  And we feed our spirits, we tend our souls, we nurture our highest good, in other centered living, in service to others.  

Scientists today have proven that a troubled spirit contributes to a troubled body.  Stress and anxiety are known to have bodily repercussions effecting things like blood pressure and the immune system that fights off sickness and disease.  Scientists have also documented that doing good and helping others has positive physical effects on the body.  

So full health, wholeness, and joy involve the body and the spirit.  Jesus can’t just give the disciples fish and send them on their way.  He loves them too much for that.  He must remind them of their calling to serve.  Too often the teaching of the church has focussed on what people will get from following Jesus and ignored what they need to give.  The blessings that Jesus teaches about come through giving.  This is reinforced again and again in the gospels and this is how John’s gospel draws to a close.  With a reinforcement of that vision of service.  That is the last thing, the thing that needs to be remembered.  

Maybe you heard the news story earlier this week about the two sixth grade students who were plotting to carry out a mass shooting at an elementary school in Tennessee.  One of the parents in our congregation drew my attention to the story.  The two students had drawn a map of the school and planned to hide weapons in the locker room.  The intent was to proceed with the killings on the last day of school and then for the two sixth graders to kill themselves.

Yes, this is horrific and disturbing.  And what may be even worse is that we are becoming to numb to such stories because they have become so common.  Here is my reaction when I hear of these terrible things.  Usually, my first thought, unbidden, is “people need the church.”  It’s my first reaction.  People need the church.  People need a solid community of shared values in which to deal with such horrors.  They need a community of support to face this kind of trauma, and re-trauma, and post-trauma.  People need meaningful relationships with caring honest people, a community of love and support and hope.  Oh, how we need hope!  People also need a community of common morals, values, and behavior based on reverence for life.  This is what we have at church.  Church can help us not only deal with these horrors but create communities and societies where these things are far less likely to happen.  Yes, church has this potential.  To be the catalyst for transforming society.  

I think the increase in violence and horrific acts and behavior in our society and the decrease in religious participation are related.  Our society needs what the church has to offer, what we have found here at Lakewood, and what thousands of people find in their churches and faith communities across the country.  

Yet many people in our country and community today have no idea what there is at church.  They are simply ignorant.  They don’t know that church is a community of belonging, support, and shared concern for the common good.  They don’t know that church is a place to learn and grow and pursue your highest good.  They don’t know that often what is lacking in their lives is a commitment to service because this is not engendered in society as a whole.  And without the teaching, feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, we cannot be whole and live abundantly.  

I think many people have the idea that church is about having a certain belief system based on some special personal revelation.  And they don’t feel like they have had that lightening bolt spiritual experience so they think that church is not for them.  Church can be that.  But often church is about a slow, mysterious unfolding through our life’s journey that is transforming us into our best selves.  We find that when we tend and care and feed and help others, we come into our fullest wellbeing and joy.  Church is always to be a place to be encouraged to serve and a place to expect compassion and support.  Many people today simply do not know that.  

Albert Schweitzer, the famous physician, musician, and theologian sparked the early 20th century quest for the historical Jesus.  He tells us:  “He [Jesus] comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not.  He speaks to us the same word:  ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they will pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”  [Quoted in Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C, from Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403]    Schweitzer tells us that in our obedience we find Jesus.  In our service and other centered living which liberates us from the tyranny of the self, we come to know Jesus.  As we receive the goodness and generosity of others, we come to know Jesus.  

People are desperately in need of the orientation for living that Jesus teaches.  There is a hunger for this in our land.  We see the evidence in the lack of moral fiber, the lack of commitment to community values, in the greed and power abuse and violence around us.  It’s in everything from the shootings at schools and religious services to the congressional hearings and regressive, immoral actions of the Florida legislature to the movies and entertainment we consume.   The need for the church is evident in the crazy, sick headlines that assault us continuously.     

Ok.  But there’s a good chance many people don’t go to church because they don’t know what goes on at church or what it’s about and no one has ever invited them.  So, people need church but how are people going to find their way to church?  To a community of support and compassion?  How are they going to know that this is a place of spiritual healing and wholeness?  Friends, we have to tell them.  Yes, tell them.  The church can produce swank ads and flyers and billboards but what is most effective in drawing people to church is – word of mouth.  I know that it can be uncomfortable to bring up church with coworkers, new neighbors, strangers, friends, but our society needs us to get over this and find ways to invite people to this space of healing and growth.  

And if you would like some pointers about doing this, I encourage you to speak with the elders of this congregation because they are stars at inviting new people to church!

To be well, as individuals and a society, yes, our material needs must be met but so must our spiritual needs.  In many ways, we are not doing very well at either in today’s world.  The church is so very needed.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.  

We close with words from a song I heard recently at a folk festival:

There’s no retirement in the service of the master:                                                           There’s no end to the things that he can do.                                                                                   If you live your life in service to another,                                                                               Every day will bring blessings anew.  


A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Unfortunately, we have not been successful in finding an attribution for the song quoted at the end of the sermon.  If you have any information about it, please contact the church.  Thank you!

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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