By Paul Koch –
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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.” (John 21:17)
On more than one occasion, I have used that verse above when participating in the ordination or installation of a brother in the ministry. There is that time during the service when the gathered clergy are asked to offer a word of comfort, blessing, or assurance, and I’ve always liked that section at the end of John’s gospel for such a purpose. It gets to the heart of what it is to be a pastor. It is simple and straight forward: Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
I have been attempting to do that myself for over thirteen years. I think I work hard to be diligent in feeding the sheep entrusted to my care. I continue to study. I meet with other pastors to sharpen my translation skills and examine my preaching techniques. I try to be aware of the struggles among my flock. I want to know them and what they are facing in their lives so that I might be better equipped to feed them—to not make them too fat or too skinny, but to have God’s law and Gospel both kill and make alive so that they might endure until the resurrection of the dead.
But as simple as that charge is, as clear as that word rings in my ears, it is not always that easy to feed the sheep.
To be honest, I don’t always care for the sheep as I should. I want to, or at least I think I do. But I get worn down and discouraged at times. It never fails to happen, that right when I think we’ve really made some great progress, we’ve put some bad habits and some knee-jerk reactions behind us, that’s just when we slip right back into them. Not unlike a dog returning to its own vomit, sheep seem to have an incredible capacity to go back to what they were comfortable doing even if it is destructive to the flock. When that happens, I see my work and accomplishments, all crumpled up and thrown in the trash heap. And I begin to really dislike the sheep. I begin to blame them and retreat to my study to stew in my righteous indignation.
At this point, the advice of the expert feeders of flocks comes flooding in. I start looking to those who I respect or those I think have it all figured out. I turn to the ones with the really large flocks and begin to pine for what they have. I begin to think that I would be more successful if I modeled my actions after theirs; I would be more confident and my sheep wouldn’t drive me nuts.
Pastors can spend hours upon hours scouring the web for better strategies for flock management and feeding structures and better scheduling for feeding times. We can become obsessed with thinking that, if we simply made this or that tweak, we would finally solve the problem and not have to back track so often. We can get caught up in the buzzwords that promising young mission plants are using as well as the corporate lingo of the mega churches and begin to find hope and confidence in our incarnational and entrepreneurial strategic application of apostolic empowerment, or some such thing.
And we will find some success. There is much to learn from those who are successful. There is a lot of good that can come from being able to step back and examine our own failures, victories, strengths, and weaknesses. However, a time will still come when those who are called to feed the sheep will find it difficult to do so, not because they don’t know what to do, but because they are not sure that they want to do it anymore.
The only hope here, the only strength that I have found in such a moment, is not found in new models or strategic plans but in being fed myself. To be awakened by the external Word of God, to feel the sting of the Law and taste the refreshing sweetness of the Gospel is the remedy of the reluctant feeder. In other words, I am reminded that I too am a sheep in need of feeding. That just as I am called to hand over the goods to the flock before me, so I need to receive the goods myself. I too need to die and be brought back to life.
Fed by the gifts of Christ, I am reminded that it was never about me to begin with. My work, my effort, my ideas, may end up again and again in the trash heap. But Christ will still feed his own. He will set me again to the task before me, strengthened by his love and filled with his Word I am again directed toward the flock.
For it’s time to feed the sheep.