Sunday, April 29, 2012

Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep

I’ve been hanging out on the beach with John, Peter, and the others, trying to understand what Jesus is up to.

I’ve seen the evidence of the resurrection, but I’m wondering: Now what? Should we all go fishing? Hang our hammocks between some trees and whistle Kumbaya?

After a wasted night out on the water, we hear him calling: “Throw your net on the other side.”

Do You Love Me? Feed My Sheep, Hanna Varghese,
2001, Malaysia
Seriously? It’s the same water on both sides of the boat.

But John says “It’s the Lord,” and Peter throws himself into the lake, and then there are fish, 153 of them (which makes me wonder – who’s counting? And why?)

And Jesus himself is cooking fish on the beach. There are lots of fish in this story. Not metaphorical fish, either. Fresh, fleshy fish. Char-grilled fish. And bread. Waiting to be eaten.

John’s gospel ends with the fish on the beach story, and Jesus’ questions for Peter: Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.

We jump quickly to the assumption that the instruction is metaphorical. Or rather, spiritual. Share some good spiritual food. Have a Bible study. Preach a sermon.

But maybe not. Jesus had just shown his own love for Peter, by feeding him. Real fish. Real bread.

John’s story reminds us of the earlier fish miracles: Jesus was teaching, the crowds gathered, and people were hungry. “Feed them,” Jesus said. The disciples were alarmed. Surely he was kidding? Or speaking metaphorically?

Apparently not. Five loaves and two fish were multiplied, and thousands were fed, with baskets of leftovers. Metaphorical? Those details about leftover fish sound way too specific. Someone was counting.

Hungry people don’t listen well. I learned that the hard way. For years I was part of a children’s outreach in a low-income neighborhood in Philly. One evening I watched a young teen slouch on the cracked cement steps, watching his friends play soccer. I asked why he didn’t go join them.

“Too hungry.”

I asked what he’d had for lunch (our program started at 5 PM).

Dumb question. Lunch, for hungry kids in the summer, is an interesting idea. And breakfast? None.

“So when did you eat last?”

Feed My Sheep, Kimberly Burgess, 2006, Illinois
He couldn’t remember. I broke out the snacks – against all rules – an hour early, and later that evening our team restructured our program to give snacks from the minute the kids arrived, and to make sure we were offering snacks that would at least partly fill a hungry teen.

But back on the beach with Jesus: isn’t it strange that this is how John chose to end his gospel? Not with a final sermon, but a meal. And instructions: “Feed my sheep.”

I’ve heard warnings, ad infinitum, against “the social gospel.” The priority of the church is the saving of souls, not the feeding of the hungry.

Which is how we know that when Jesus said “Feed my sheep” he was speaking of souls. Not hungry stomachs.

How are we so sure? We do this too much: divide the good news into spiritual and physical, not seeing that a divided gospel is no gospel at all.

Go back to that troubling passage in Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
From what I can tell, Jesus was talking about real food, real clothes. Real, visible activity on behalf of the hungry, poor, imprisoned. Social gospel stuff – as a prerequisite for his kingdom.

After listening and watching for over fifty years now, I’ve learned to recognize resurrection people by the way they handle this question of priority. Real food, or spiritual food? Social gospel, or verbal proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Faith, or works?

For the Least of These, Soichi Watanabe,
2004, Japan
Anyone who puts the two in opposition is playing the same game played by the expert of the law who came looking for Jesus’ approval:
“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Once we see that our neighborhood is as wide as the globe, that our own needs don’t come first, not even our need to be right, or comfortable, or safe, or to have others agree, then we can start the hard work of love, which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, working to supply clean water where children drink from filthy ditches, and yes, along the way, as we go, as we’re asked, as the Holy Spirit leads us, sharing what we know and have seen of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Irish theologian Peter Rollins has captured attention with his intentionally offensive assertion:
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.”
He goes on:
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. 
“However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
We affirm the resurrection when we feed the sheep. When we buy a bag of groceries for a family short of cash or bring a box of our favorite soups to the food pantry at church, When we advocate for the hungry with letters to our representatives. or spend time learning about food systems and small farmers and the causes of rising food prices and hunger in places where food was once plentiful.

James, Jesus’ brother, wrote:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2)
Resurrection people understand this amazing mystery: we are both physical and spiritual. The resurrection was a historical fact, a visible, material demonstration of an invisible, spiritual victory. Our faith is an internal reality, and an external, practical call to action. We need physical food and spiritual food, care of our bodies as well as care of our souls.

And love of God and neighbor, the inescapable commandment, is best shown with fish and bread, prayer and carefully chosen words, and time together on the beach, or breadline, or cracked cement stairs, anywhere hungry, waiting people gather, hoping for evidence of resurrection.

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eichenberg, 1953, New York

This is the fourth in a series about the resurrection:
Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community 
The Great Reserval: A Resurrection People 
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  
For comment on the social gospel and the good news of Christ from a non-American perspective, check out Vinoth Ramachandra’s Whose Gospel, Which Priority.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.