So Many Fish and Sheep

Sermon Preached on May 5, 2019 – Third Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

So Many Fish and Sheep

Reading the Gospel text this week, I had a strong memory of telling this story to the children of Good Shepherd School. The children in weekly chapel ranged in age from 18 months to 5 years old, and I used little paper people, shaped like gingerbread cookies to illustrate the stories.

For these Easter stories of the Risen Jesus the challenge for me was how to depict the Risen Jesus – the same but resurrected, a new creation? I wound up cutting out a sun shape, and putting that behind paper Jesus, so the sun’s rays radiated out from his gingerbread shaped body. The kids seemed to understand – there was the paper Jesus they knew, and now he was changed, he was more somehow.

Those chapel Mondays after Easter, the kids knew it was him the moment he appeared: in the garden; in the locked room; or in this morning’s story – on the beach. They recognized the Risen Jesus immediately.

But not so with the disciples. In his resurrection appearances time and again, the disciples don’t realize the person before them as Jesus, at least not at first. And what the Gospel writer John wants us to notice is when. When do they realize that this is Jesus? In the garden, it’s when Mary hears his voice calling her name. In the locked room, it’s when the disciples see his wounds. And today they realize it is Jesus when they are comforted, when they’re emptiness is filled. When they no longer feel desperate but begin to lean into abundance.

Rather than say – see the abundance of God’s love in the presence of Christ, John shows it. God’s abundance equals 153 actual fish, you can count them. That’s a lot of fish. That’s something the disciples could understand, and get their arms around, literally. The disciples recognize Jesus when they experience him – when the resurrection becomes real for them.

The reason I immediately connect the children of Good Shepherd to this Gospel story is because I can remember cutting out little paper fish, lots and lots of blue, green, and even silver paper fish; and a little fishing net that I filled to bursting with these fish. An abundance of fish, they poured out of the net and around the paper disciples. “Real” paper fish if you will. That we could see and touch, oh so many fish.

John anchors the Risen Jesus in the particulars of ordinary life. And it’s in these concrete, ordinary things, like fish, that John shows us what extraordinary love looks like. For real.

When Jesus shows up – embodying God’s love – everything changes. And it changes in concrete, ordinary, ‘count them as they slip and slide through your hands’ kinds of ways. This is what extraordinary love looks like – for real. This is what God’s abundance is like, this is what grace upon grace looks like – how it feels. It is real and particular, taking on the realities of our particular lives. Like little paper fish, and children in chapel.

But if we consider the entirety of today’s Gospel text, maybe I should have been making paper sheep instead of fish.

Because as lovely as this scene on the beach seems with Jesus and the disciples, the story doesn’t end there for a reason. Jesus is here with them because these disciples have failed in every possible way we could imagine. After all they experienced while following Jesus during his ministry – the teaching, the healing, the signs and wonders; after the crucifixion and his resurrection; remember they’ve seen the Risen Jesus twice before now; they decide to go back to their lives before, as fishermen, as if none of that had happened.

But everything has changed – absolutely everything. God has overturned death itself, and they are witnesses, followers of Jesus, who are supposed to carry forth his mission in the world. Which is why after breakfast, we have this three-part call to Peter.

Jesus asks Simon Peter – “Do you love me more than these?” More than all this that you knew before? Then, Jesus says, “feed my lambs.”

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First – Feed: Each week when we gather around the altar, we say that everyone is welcome at God’s table. This text is the scriptural foundation for our open table. The Risen Jesus commissioning Peter, to feed, tend and follow. Feed first. Be a good shepherd to the sheep. Meet their needs and care for them. In a highly secular culture – it’s appropriate for a parish to have an open communion table, it’s scripturally based, and theologically sound. When we welcome everyone to God’s table, we are responding to the call of the Risen Jesus, to feed his lambs, to be good shepherds.

A second time, Jesus asks Peter, do you love me? Simon Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.

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Second – Tend: Last week I visited Channing at Dickinson, spending time with her, hanging out on campus, and spending some time on the college farm, where she takes care of the sheep. The photos you see are from the farm of Channing and Wobbles, the lamb she has hand-fed and raised, and will be bringing to her grandmother’s farm in Maine at the end of the semester.

Having just been on campus with my daughter, I can’t help but think of those killed in the campus shooting at UNC Charlotte, knowing that it could happen on any campus. When we parents visit a college campus, we’re old school, still thinking about campus safety as it was when we might have attended: like lighting at night, and safe neighborhoods around the campus. But our children have grown up in this new armed reality; they’ve participated in armed shooter drills, they live alert to text message warnings, and campus lockdowns are their new normal. I have to tell you, as cute as little Wobbles is, I’m much more concerned with the well-being of the other lamb in the photo here – my own.

wobbles and channing

One of the two God gave me particularly to raise and love, to tend and feed. How do we protect these, our lambs? And all those in the generations we’ve been given to tend? Surely there’s more we can do for them – than just hope for the best? They deserve better tending than this. There must be a way through the intractable dispute over gun violence in our country. Some small shift in our perspective that will lift us out of heartache into hope; allow us to speak civilly and hear one another and work together to find a way to abundant life for all.

Jesus said to Peter a third time, “Do you love me? And Peter said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” … After this Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

Third – Follow: Step in as a good shepherd on my behalf. I believe in you, though you have denied this role recently, I know you can be the disciple I need, the one the world needs, to step into the life of the shepherd.¹ Care for my sheep. Love them. Tend to them. Nurture them and walk beside them.² Protect and defend them when necessary. Search for the lost, go forth and care for those sheep who are not yet of this fold, be a good shepherd. For whom are you called to step in as shepherd? To guide, care for, nurture, feed, protect, comfort… generally look out for?

Before you look around and think that others are more qualified – remember that Peter was originally a fisherman. I suspect that the sudden shift from fish to sheep is not an accident. Jesus is showing Simon Peter that he’s not a fisherman but a disciple, an apostle now. One who will step in for Jesus, becoming the Good Shepherd.

Perhaps you think you aren’t ‘apostle – turned shepherd’ material? And yet, just as everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone is included in the beloved community, everyone is worthy of this mission, even those who might not seem it at first glance.
Two primary shepherds of the church, Peter and Paul, had less than stellar track records, (you wouldn’t hire them!) Peter denied being a disciple (three times). Saul was a persecutor of the early church, before his experience on the Damascus Road, when he becomes Paul.

We are more than enough to be shepherds, even good shepherds; to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to walk in the Way. There’s no ducking out because we claim to be average. God knows us better than that. Gear up, shepherds. It’s a complicated and dangerous world out there, and there’s an awful lot of sheep in need. We got tending and feeding to do. I’m glad we’re in this together.

1 Karoline Lewis, ‘Do You Love Me?’ April 28, 2019 5:55 PM,
2 A Plain Account, John 21:1-19, April 4, 2016,