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Feed My Lambs — The Tender Courage of the Christian Ministry

The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a list of recognized job descriptions, and that list has been undergoing a lot of change in recent years. Some jobs have disappeared entirely. There is little call for lamplighters and ice cutters today, and those jobs actually disappeared long ago. More recently threatened jobs include telephone operators and typewriter repairmen. They will soon join lamplighters and ice cutters on the list of jobs that exist no longer.

Just about anyone watching the job market knows that very few jobs or professions can be taken for granted. Many will disappear, others will wax and wane. Technology accounts for some of these losses, but others are lost simply because no one any longer sees a need to employ a person for such a purpose.

With all that in mind, we arrive today at a ceremony of commencement. We are not here by accident or happenstance. We have gathered to celebrate the awarding of degrees and the completion of degree programs and to set loose a new generation of Christian ministers, ready for deployment to God’s glory. They sure look impressive in their academic regalia. They are unusually bright, fervently committed, and well prepared.

But, what job will they fulfill? What calling demanded the years of preparation, study, labor, and learning that these degrees imply?

To answer that question, look with me to the last chapter of the Gospel of John:

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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
(John 21:15-19 ESV)

An exegesis of this passage reveals several vital insights and themes. Simon Peter — the disciple who just days earlier had denied the Lord three times, even as the Lord had foretold — is now restored through the asking of a question three times. Jesus asks him, “Do you love me more than these?” “Do you love me?” “Do you Love me?”

The three-fold repetition of the question must have been excruciating for Peter, who affirms his love for Christ with an emphatic declaration that Christ, who knows everything (and who knew that Peter would deny him) knows that he loves him. We are told that Peter was grieved that he was asked a third time, but he was asked — and Christ did know that Peter loved him. Jesus then told Peter that his love for Christ would mean his martyrdom, a martyrdom that would glorify God. And Jesus knew that Peter would indeed be the rock in his martyrdom — never again denying his faith and following Christ to the very end.

But the time for Peter’s martyrdom is not yet come. There is work for Peter to do, and it is work that Peter almost surely never envisioned himself doing. Peter is now called to be a shepherd and to feed the flock of God.

“Feed my lambs,” Christ commanded him. “Feed my sheep.” Three times Peter is asked, and three times he is commanded. The great calling for which he is restored is to feed sheep.

Simon Peter, you will recall, was a fisherman, not a shepherd by training. He was used to nets and boats and water. Now he is called to feed sheep. These are very different tasks. The fisherman does not stay up at night, protecting his fish from slaughter. He does not lovingly tend the fish, knowing that they will surely perish without a fisherman. As a matter of fact, the fish should rightly fear the fisherman, who hardly takes their personal welfare to heart.

The shepherd has a completely different calling. Specialists in the science of animal husbandry point out that sheep cannot survive without a shepherd. Take away all the shepherds, and the sheep will surely perish. They will be lost, starved, and torn apart by predators. The lamb, as we know it, is a species that survives only by human intervention. And Christ’s Church is described, not coincidentally, as sheep who need a shepherd.

In John chapter 10, Christ reveals himself as the shepherd of the sheep. “I am the good shepherd,” Christ declared. “I know my own and my own know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)

As the Good Shepherd, Christ tenderly cares for his sheep, tends his flock, and guarantees their survival. Unlike the bad shepherds of Ezekiel 34, Christ feeds his sheep. More than that, he lays his life down for his sheep, suffering as a substitutionary sacrifice for sheep. As Isaiah declares, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6 ESV)

But we often underestimate the role of Christ as the Good Shepherd. We tend to think of shepherding in entirely pastoral terms, when it is a profession of spiritual warfare. Shepherds tend to their flock, but they must also slay predators. As a shepherd boy, King David killed bears and lions.  When David was a boy he declared to King Saul, “Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”  (1 Samuel 17:36 ESV) Thus, David the shepherd was also David the mighty warrior, as Goliath was soon to find out.

The Messiah who sits on David’s throne is also a shepherd, and a shepherd rightly to be both trusted and feared. As the Prophet Micah declared: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” (Micah 5:4 ESV)

King Jesus the Good Shepherd will tend his flock and destroy its enemies. The church dwells secure, for our Good Shepherd is a great king, whose greatness extends to the ends of the earth and the cosmos, who “shepherds his flock in the strength of the Lord.”

To Peter, Christ gave the command to “feed my sheep.” Three times the command is repeated. Three times the commission is extended. Three times Peter receives the pastoral calling.

We are gathered here today precisely because Christ commanded Peter to feed his sheep. And it is not just Peter who received this calling. In the New Testament the pastoral calling, the teaching office of the church, is repeatedly affirmed in these same terms. Ministers are called and charged to feed the sheep, to tend the flock of God, and to guard the sheep entrusted to our care.

Jesus Christ, the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord, is the Good Shepherd of his sheep, those he has purchased with his own blood. And he has called and commissioned under-shepherds to feed his flock, to guard and to tend and to love.

Without doubt, teaching is central to this calling. The under-shepherd is called to teach and preach the Word of God so that the flock of God is fed. Nourishment is found only in the food that comes from the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Those we see cross this platform and graduate today are called to serve the church, and those called as pastors bear the glorious charge to preach the Word, in season and out of season. They are to teach and preach the inerrant and infallible Word of God so that the church progresses in maturity from a diet of mere milk to the substance of real meat.

A close look at John 21 reveals that Jesus first commands Peter to “feed my lambs.” The next two times Christ commands Peter to “feed my sheep.” Is a meaningful distinction to be found here?

Both John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon believed that the reference to lambs in the first imperative refers to children, or to those who are children in the faith. Both Wesley and Spurgeon pointed to the calling of the pastor to teach children, forming them in the faith and confronting them with the gospel.

We celebrate today the call of God in the lives of those who graduate today, and in the lives and ministries of the thousands who have preceded them across this platform — who even now serve Christ and tend his flock to the uttermost parts of the world.

The degrees to be conferred and the diplomas to be awarded today are meaningful in their own right. But they are infinitely more meaningful in the light of what God will do through these graduates as they minister, evangelize, send, go, lead, pray, preach, teach, and take the gospel wherever they go.

Just as was Peter, so are they. They are without their own strength and they are not up to their calling. But Christ makes them strong and Christ fulfills their calling. They go with our prayers, our hopes, and our affections.

They are called to the tenderest of callings — to feed lambs. They are called to the most pastoral of vocations — to tend a flock. But they are also called to the most courageous of assignments — to protect the flock from its enemies and to wage spiritual warfare in the name of the Good Shepherd, who “shepherds his flock in the strength of the Lord.”

The world is not looking for lamplighters and ice cutters anymore. Typewriter repairmen are headed to the same destiny. Oddly enough, there seem to be few notices on the walls of our leading universities calling for those willing to sign up as shepherds.

Those notices are found only within the church, but within the church they are found in abundance. The church desperately needs under-shepherds who are called and prepared to tend the flock of God. We see the answer to that call in the graduates arrayed before us today. Who can but stand back in wonder at that?

May they be good and tender shepherds, faithful and loving preachers, merciful and gracious teachers, courageous and fierce defenders.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Oh Lord God, may you feed and build and tend your flock through these graduates, we pray. May You deploy them to your glory, fling them to the ends of the earth by your power, and bring them safely home by your promise. May they faithfully feed and lead the flock of their assignment, we pray. We commend them to you, to your Christ, and to your flock of blood-bought sheep. In the name of that great shepherd of the sheep, even Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.