One of the most maddening aspects of life is when we have conflicting emotions and our less noble emotion trumps the other one. This was Peter’s case in his relationship with Jesus. He was passionately loyal to Jesus. This was genuine emotion. It was deeply felt emotion. But when push came to shove, the emotion of fear trumped his emotion of loyalty.
This was utterly demoralizing to Peter because he knew that in his heart of hearts, he absolutely did want to be loyal to Jesus. Yet there is no question whatsoever that his actual behavior displayed a deep lack of loyalty to his King.
It is against this backdrop of inner turmoil that Jesus queried Peter in John 21 about how much Peter loved Him. Now Peter knew the intensity of his heart, but he also knew that his actions had betrayed him, therefore he hedged on the issue of love.
There is much available teaching about the two different words for love in John 21. There is Jesus’ question about agape love. There is Peter’s response about phileo love. What is often missed in the story however, is the fact that Jesus was not trying to humiliate Peter. Jesus was trying to equip Peter.
John 21 is a three-step formula for learning how to have the kind of love that we want to have. In Jesus’ three responses to Peter, we see a sequence laid out. Peter was to learn how to feed the lambs, then how to shepherd the sheep, then how to feed the sheep. These are three distinctly different tasks and it is vital that we learn how to segue from one to another if we wish to have deep, enduring love.
Feeding the lambs is the most commonly known skill. The ewe eats the grass, digests it, and provides milk on demand for the lambs. This represents a great many of the teaching ministries that are available today. The expectation is that the listener puts forth the minimum of effort, because the food provided for them is a user-friendly package.
There is obviously a time and place for this, but there is also a time and place for weaning the lambs. The second command to Peter was to learn how to shepherd the sheep. Shepherding involves some diverse skills. On the one hand there is the need to protect the flock. On the other hand there is understanding and directing the seasons of a sheep’s life. This art form is also done reasonably well by a significant percentage of the leaders in the body of Christ.
The third step was to feed the sheep. Feeding the sheep involves taking them to a pasture where there is an abundance of good vegetation and allowing them to help themselves when they are hungry. Certain times of year, under adverse conditions, the shepherd may supplement their grazing, but in general, mature sheep are to feed themselves in the field that the shepherd provides.
This skill of forcing sheep to graze on their own is not often found in today’s churches. I ran across it recently in a most unusual place.
I have a friend named “Fred” who is pastoring a house church. I watched from a distance as he carefully planned the beginning and then laid the foundation for the group that he had gathered around him. I was impressed with what Fred shared with me.
Recently he invited me to attend their Sunday service because a man I highly respect was also going to be there. I was delighted to accept the invitation, both to see my friend, and to see Fred’s leadership style.
It became immediately evident that Fred was well past feeding the lambs. He informed me that his sheep were well-trained in a number of different teachings and I did not have to preface what I was going to say to them. I could jump right into the application.
I found out to my amusement later on during the day that the price of attending this house church is that everybody has to buy and bring their own chair! Fred was very clear that he did not start a church in order to have job security setting up chairs on Sunday.
During the conversation throughout the morning, I could clearly see that Fred also knew how to do the second level of leadership in John 21. I heard various comments indicating that not everything was done by him at his home. There were groups within the larger group. They each had different growth tracks and were encouraged to invest in themselves strategically. There was one fascinating story of one of the small groups that learned the art of honor from the larger group, and then executed it in their own group in a new way. Good stuff abounded.
But I was most amazed at his capacity to walk out the third level in John 21. When it came time for the worship service, the worship leader was introduced. I noticed that he was seated in the corner by the guitar and expected the same old, same old. Instead he turned to a particular Psalm and said that this Psalm would be the worship portion for the morning.
He pointed to a table where he had created two stations that illustrated portions of the Psalm. One was a tasting station and the other was a tactile station. People could get up from their seats whenever they wanted, if they wanted, and try those two stations to facilitate their worship.
He indicated that some people might want to process the Psalm with a friend so they could go outside. And then he announced that we had 30 to 45 min. to worship based on that Psalm. And that was all the worship leader did!
Here is a pastor who understands feeding sheep instead feeding lambs. Most people go to church on Sunday morning expecting the worship leader to have worked very hard to prepare a compelling package that would lift them out of their doldrums and into the presence of God.
This worship leader had learned from his pastor how to identify a good pasture for them to graze in, how to give them some minor props, then he made the sheep do all the grazing on their own. Each person was responsible for getting his own worship experience from that Psalm. The worship leader did not explain the Psalm at all.
I left profoundly impressed with Fred’s leadership ability and his understanding of the mature biblical model of raising up sheep that could graze for themselves.
What I was totally unprepared for was the expression of love that followed. But remember that Christ told Peter that if he would learn these three levels of life giving, the love that Peter craved would follow.
A week after I was there, I received a check in the mail from the church. May I be very clear? I had not preached. I had not gone there to minister. I was invited by the pastor to come share their church life because a mutual friend was going to be there. I had not even the slightest expectation of any financial dynamic from the visit.
The card that came with the check was from the pastor. He had not told his treasurer how much to give me. He simply instructed the treasurer to give out of love not out of duty.
I found that highly fascinating given the backdrop of the habitually unclean relationship between ministry and money here in the States. The following sequence is not original with me. It is been attributed to various people, so I don’t know who the original pundit was but it nicely captures the reality.
When Christianity began in Palestine, it was fellowship.
When it moved to Greece, it became a philosophy.
When it moved to Italy, it became an institution.
When it moved to Europe, it became a culture.
When it moved to America, it became a business.
The problem is that Christianity was designed to be a body.
And when a body becomes a business, it is called prostitution.
So today in America ministry is rarely separated from money. And if someone has an anointing or a message, it is quite easy to prostitute the gifts of God for a dollar bill.
When somebody goes to a church to preach, there is generally more discussion about the financial arrangements than there is about the spiritual preparation of the congregation or the content of the message to be delivered. And after the sermon is preached, the check that is given to the speaker is treated primarily as payment of an obligation incurred. It is a commercial exchange.
This is exactly what Fred wanted to avoid with his congregation. He did not want his treasurer to satisfy an obligation that the church has incurred with me (since there was none!). Rather he wanted his congregation to express the quality of the relationship between us.
They had each drunk from my well for years before the individuals became a congregation. I have cheered them on from the sidelines since they first began discussing forming a community of faith. There has never before been any financial exchange between us. But there has been a lot of love, honor and mutual support over the years.
So, they expressed their love (not their duty) with a gift.
Isn’t it fascinating how precisely the principles from John 21 played out? Fred has progressed over the years from feeding the lambs, to shepherding the sheep, to feeding the sheep. And simultaneously, his congregation has grown in their love for each other, their love for Christ, and their love for the larger community.
It’s not a coincidence. It’s a principle.
Copyright November 2010, by Arthur Burk
From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim