The Bible is chalk full of threefold exhortations. From Matthew’s obsession with three’s to Samson’s triple-whammy buffoonery, a wise reader of the Bible will pick up on and pay careful attention to this literary device. Repetition in writing or speaking is necessary both because humans are dense and because it is a time-tested rhetorical technique that works.
But this post isn’t about Delilah or the Sermon on the Mount. I have my eye on the resurrected Jesus and his most stubborn disciple.
“Do you love me?” x 3
Fast-forward to the final scene in the fourfold gospel book.
If I have a “life verse” then this is it, John 21:15-17:
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.
There is complexity in this text: the “Jesus is the Good Shepherd” background, the ἀγαπᾷς (“love”) and φιλῶ (“love”) interplay, Isaianic fulfillment, and all the “Peter is the pope” business. But I intend on ignoring all of that complexity for one, simple point:
Pastoring is Negative Work
In the final chapter of C. S. Lewis’ masterful The Four Loves, he begins the chapter describing how the task of cultivating love is like the task of gardening. Within this simple illustration, Lewis observes that the role of gardener is primarily a negative vocation. He writes:
It is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cut its own lawns. A garden is a good thing but that is not the sort of goodness it has. It will remain a garden, as distinct from a wilderness, only if someone does all these things to it. Its real glory is of quite a different kind. The very fact that it needs constant weeding and pruning bears witness to that glory…
When God planted a garden He set a man over it and set the man under Himself. When He planted the garden of our nature and caused the flowering, fruiting loves to grow there, He set our will to “dress” them. Compared with them it is dry and cold. And unless His grace comes down, like the rain and the sunshine, we shall use this tool to little purpose. But its laborious— and largely negative— services are indispensable. If they were needed when the garden was still Paradisal, how much more now when the soil has gone sour and the worst weeds seem to thrive on it best? But heaven forbid we should work in the spirit of prigs and Stoics. While we hack and prune we know very well that what we are hacking and pruning is big with a splendour and vitality which our rational will could never of itself have supplied. To liberate that splendour, to let it become fully what it is trying to be, to have tall trees instead of scrubby tangles, and sweet apples instead of crabs, is part of our purpose.
Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves (pp. 116-118).
How does this relate to Jesus’ inquiry of Peter above: “Do you love me?”
This is Jesus’ simple, threefold answer: do the dirty work. Shepherding isn’t sad and Stoical work, although some days it might feel this way. Rather, the glory of the innumerable flock of God gathered by God from all nations, with the (by comparison) very tiny contribution of his under-shepherds, together are cultivating a beautiful garden amidst a wild and ruthless world.
Here is your job description, pastor:
- Feed my lambs.
Feeding or herding lambs and sheep is the constant task of a shepherd. Feeding sheep involves directing the hearts and minds of our people towards the green pastures of God’s grass, his word, the greenery which he produces to feed us. Pastors don’t make the grass, they just point to it. And even if you manage to miraculously herd your flock beside the still waters, you will likely have to “make them lie down;” sheep are great a wandering and little else.
- Tend my sheep.
I am not well-versed on the specific tasks of a shepherd… but let me give it a shot. (1) Be on guard for wolves and lions from without. You might even have to kill one with your bare hands. (2) Be vigilant and watch for wolves (who look like sheep on the outside) from within. Find ’em. Get rid of them. (3) Bandage broken legs, keep your dirty sheep as clean as possible, make sure they drink from living water (not stagnant pools), and keep extra special attention on the little ones.
- Feed my sheep.
Repeat these steps again today. And tomorrow. And the next. And the next. Repeat this good work until that day, when you come before your Shepherd, with your scars, calloused hands, and bruised body, and you lie down and finally rest in him.
You’re a Bad Shepherd
In all the busyness of shepherding, we must remember that we are not the Good Shepherd. In fact, most of the time, we’re pretty bad shepherds.
So be humble, proclaim the excellencies of Christ (not yourself), and then repeat after me:
“I am not the Savior, Christ is.”
“I do not create the meal plan, Christ is the meal.”
“I am a sheep too. Jesus feed me. Nourish my weary soul. Fill me up again today.”
If you love Jesus then this is what you signed up for. The work of a shepherd is not safe, but it is good.