“Tend my sheep”

On Sunday, April 14, 2013, many of us will hear the text of John 21:1-19. Jesus and Peter dialogue after breakfast, verses 15-19:

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.” [NRSV]

Earlier this week we remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hear what he has to say about ‘shepherding.’ I believe Peter lived into this understanding.

Jesus, the good shepherd (John 10:11), has nothing to do with shepherd idylls and pastoral poetry. All such ideas spoil the text. “I am” makes it clear that the subject is not shepherds and their work in general but Jesus Christ alone. I am the good shepherd—not a good shepherd, which might mean that Jesus is comparing himself with other good shepherds and learning from them what a good shepherd is. What a good shepherd is can be learned only from the good shepherd, beside whom there is no other, from the standpoint of this “I”—from the standpoint of Jesus. No other pastoral office in the church of Jesus Christ sets beside the good shepherd a second and third shepherd; rather, it lets Jesus alone be the good shepherd of the church. He is the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). It is his pastoral office in which the “pastors” participate, or else they spoil the office and the flock. That this is a question of the good shepherd himself, and not of one shepherd among many, becomes immediately clear in the unusual activity that he ascribes to himself. He speaks not of pastoring, watering, and helping. Rather, “The (again, note the article!) good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). So Jesus calls himself the good shepherd because he dies for his sheep.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2007-09-04). I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions (p. 178). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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