‘Feed my sheep …’ by the Sea of Galilee: A spiritual exercise for the 4th Sunday after Easter

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Tour group from Rock Island by the Sea of Galilee where tradition says Jesus appeared to St. Peter and apostles after Easter. Photos by Debi Edmund-Ellertsen.

This month’s spiritual direction assignment is based on a Jesuit meditation exercise that consists of imagining yourself in one of the Gospel stories and thinking it over. I first came across it in one of Fr. James Martin’s books, and it combines two of my interests, theology and history. I began with one of the few passages in the gospel according to St. John that speak to me — the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee between Easter and Pentecost.

The most succinct description I found of the exercise was in a review of Fr. Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage (in U.S. Catholic magazine): The book, it says, is based on “St. Ignatius of Loyola’s call to meditate on the gospels by immersing oneself in the scene — [for example:] How did the loaves and fishes taste? How hot was it at noon when Jesus met the Samaritan woman?” And so on. Hey, I thought, I can do that.

Fr. Martin says, in another article, “this kind of prayer plunges you right into your favorite gospel passage. There you are in the middle of it, noticing things that you never noticed before—about Jesus, about the apostles, about the people he touched, about first-century Palestine, and about yourself. And once that happens, you may never again hear that gospel story in the same way.”

Another Jesuit guide, on the Marquette University website, suggests you can close your eyes and “reconstruct the scene,” even a “movie-like scenario,” in your imagination: “See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone?”

My specific assignment, tailored to one of the themes I’d been discussing with my spiritual director, was to use Fr. Martin’s technique to “Engage the personal God of the New Testament — “feed my sheep” — that’s a God who needs help. Not a God of ultimate power over everything. That’s true, but also a God who needs help.”

One last piece of background: The scene from John’s gospel, where Jesus tells St. Peter by the Sea of Galilee to “feed my sheep,” got into the assignment by serendipity — it happened to be the lectionary reading for the fourth Sunday after Easter, the day before I talked with my spiritual director, and it came up in our discussion.

Running late, as always, I didn’t get started till the next Sunday.

We had to get up early for choir practice and the 9:30 service at Peace Lutheran, and we left right after the anthem to go up for a family gathering in northern Illinois. So I didn’t have time to read the news and get distracted like I do so often — too often.

And I had time to think in the car.

The story of Jesus and Peter is found in the last chapter of the gospel according to St. John. I’ve always had difficulty with John — his remarks about “the Jews” strike me as borderline anti-Semitism, and he often gets preachy and theologizes in a way I can’t relate to — but this story was the pericope for the fifth Sunday after Easter, so I was stuck with it. And it speaks to me, partly because I like to interpret scripture as a call to action and partly because I’ve been there.

At least I’ve visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where according to tradition it took place, and the adjacent Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes a few kilometers from Capernaum, where Jesus made his headquarters during his ministry in Galilee. In fact, that’s one reason I’m attracted to Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Martin visited many of the same shrines Debi and I did in 2012 when we joined a tour group from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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Franciscan Church of the Primacy of St. Peter next to Sea of Galilee.

At any rate, I can visualize John’s story. It occurs between the first Easter and Pentecost (April or May by our calendar), when some of Jesus’ disciples returned, at least briefly, to Galilee. Among them were St. Peter and St. John. At Peter’s suggestion, they go fishing:

John 21:4 (NRSV) Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

Now, if I’m going to immerse myself in the scene, I’m not going to be one of the disciples. There are seven of them, and they’re all named in John’s gospel. (This story, by the way, doesn’t appear in the synoptic gospels.) No room for me there.

So I’m going to be a bystander, maybe another fisherman they recruited to help make up the crew when they set out from Capernaum. It fits. I’ve never been a joiner, anyway, so for this meditation I’m going to be on the sidelines, observing and helping out when asked. As with so many others in Capernaum, it’s Kfar Nahum to me, since I’d speak Aramaic with a smattering of Greek. Like most everybody else in Galilee, I’ve heard Jesus, or Yeshua, preach. I’ve heard about his death at the hands of the Romans, too, just a few weeks ago.

As soon as we’ve sung the anthem, Debi and I duck out of church during the offertory and hit the road. We switch drivers at Lincoln, and I settle back in the passenger seat as we head up I-155. It’s a bright spring morning, fluffy cumulus clouds off to the north, a Handel oratorio playing on the car radio, and I put myself in the scene …

In my imagination it’s right at the break of day on the Sea of Galilee, still dark, a pre-dawn twilight with a little bit of gray just beginning to show over the hills behind us.

It’s late spring now, between Passover and the feast of Shavuot, which the Greeks call Pentecost, and we can tell it’s going to be a real scorcher even though it’s still cool out on the water. Simon bar Yonah, who goes by Cephas now — Peter, if you want to use the Greek — and several of the guys who followed Yeshua down to Jerusalem showed up in Kfar Nahum the other day. They’re pretty subdued, and they aren’t real talkative. But the word’s getting around town that the Romans executed Yeshua like a common criminal or, worse yet, a revolutionary. And his disciples, at least some of them, decided they’d better get out of town and now they’re filtering back home where it’s safer.

They’re discouraged. They’re sad and nervous. They’re on the lookout for Roman soldiers. We’ve already got a garrison in town, and they’re afraid that other soldiers might follow them up from Jerusalem. But they’re also saying quietly, among themselves, they’d seen Yeshua in Jerusalem. I asked Cephas what he meant by that, and he said he didn’t know, they just knew it was Yeshua. Changed the subject and said let’s try our luck at fishing tonight.

So, to make a long story short, we’re out on the lake fishing.

It’s almost morning, and we haven’t had a bit of luck all night. Anyway, we see this guy on the shore to the northwest, where those sulfur springs at Tabgha empty in to the lake and the fishing so good.

It’s still kind of misty out, and we don’t see him clearly. But the guy says to cast our net on the other side of the boat. We do, and there’s all kinds of fish over there. It’s all we can do to haul in the net. In the meantime, Peter cries out, “It’s Yeshua,” and jumps out of the boat.

It’s getting light now as we make toward shore, sun peeking up over the hills, behind us on the other side of the lake, and, yes, it’s Yeshua all right. He’s supposed to be dead, but here he is. I saw him a couple, three times when he was preaching in the synagogue at Kfar Nahum and the hillside by the seven springs, right up the hill from here, now that I think about it, where he fed all those people with a little basket of fish and bread.

So, yes, I know what Yeshua looks like, and I know what a miracle looks like. Then everything starts moving fast.

“I saw him first,” says Yohanan, but I’m not paying attention because we’re struggling to get all those fish in the boat without breaking the net. Give it a rest, I’m thinking. Every one of you guys doesn’t always have to be first. When we get to shore, Yohanan busies himself by counting the fish. (I think he’s collecting material for a book.) There are 153, he announces. Look at all those fish! A sign! Yohanan’s big on signs and portents.

Well, yes, a sign.

And the sun’s coming up now, too, light breaking over the hills and highlighting the grass up by the springs. There are plenty of signs all around, if you know what to look for:

21:9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Now there’s your miracle!

Fish and bread, just like that day up there with the 5,000 people on the hillside by the seven springs. C’mon up and eat, he says. I’m not one of the 12 who followed Yeshua after he left Kfar Nahum, but I figure when he says “c’mon,” it means come on and it includes everybody — and I join them.

And, all of a sudden, it’s full daylight. Smell of woodsmoke and the taste of fish. A glorious morning. A daily miracle in these parts.

But more than that …

(And so it goes. As we take I-474 around Peoria, it’s clouding over and the public radio station in Champaign, which had finished the Handel and been playing Bach the last few miles, is breaking up. So we switch to WCDD Peoria, “continuous country” at 107.9, and drive on. It starts raining as we exit left onto I-74 toward Moline and Rock Island. In my mind, though, it’s still a sunlit morning on the Sea of Galilee …)

We’ve finished breakfast now. We’re relaxing now, feeling good about life, thinking about old times when Yeshua was preaching the word here. Bread and fish. Fishes and loaves. Feeding the 5,000 right up the hill. That time Cephas didn’t have money to pay his taxes, but then he found a shekel in a fish’s mouth. Another miracle …

But the real miracle comes next. The mood darkens, and it’s like nothing I would have ever imagined.

21:15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

And I’m left with enough to think about for a long, long time.

Part of it I get right away. There’s always been friction between Yohanan and Cephas — Simon Peter in Yohanan’s Greekified manner of speaking — but Yeshua isn’t having any of it. He singles out Cephas, and calls him by his right name. Simon bar Yonah. He’s speaking directly to Cephas, but I feel like he’s speaking to me, too. To all of us.

That part’s easy. But the next part, I’m going to have to think about it. Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep …

I think Yeshua wants all of us to feed those sheep. Certainly the ones he called before, the ones that went with him down to Jerusalem. Even Yohanan. Even me, I guess. Have to think about that one, too.

Now fish, I know …

It’s how we make our living in Kfar Nahum, you have to know how to think like a fish. In fact, that’s why we were out fishing off Tabgha this morning, where those springs flow into the lake. The fish love it there.

But sheep? I don’t know much about them. I guess you have to feed them, but don’t they eat grass? You lead them to green pastures, that’s what the psalm of David says. By still waters.

Feed my sheep, I’ll sure have to think about that.

But, you know what, that’s the thing I like about Yeshua. He leaves you thinking, he doesn’t lay it out for you bam bam bam, all cut and dried. He makes you think. Those stories of his, they stay with you. Like the guy who invited everybody to the banquet, and nobody came. They keep you thinking.

Well, that’s only one of the things I love about the guy. What I really, really love the most, he’s all about feeding. Well, healing and feeding. But aren’t they the same thing?

And he wants us to feed …

Sheep?

Why, I guess so. Sheep are silly, useless creatures, but Yeshua’s all about feeding. He even fed us this morning. I guess he found the fish for us this morning, too, silly and useless as we are …

(We switch drivers again at the Kickapoo-Edwards interchange west of Peoria, but I continue thinking as I take the wheel across Peoria and Knox counties. As we’re driving past Galesburg, we must be directly under those fluffy white cumulus clouds we’d been seeing off in the distance. It’s pelting down rain, and I lose my train of thought. The country music station fades out, and I pick up WVIK in Rock Island. It’s some kind of late Romantic thing I can’t identify. Classical elevator music, as far as I’m concerned. I start thinking back over the exercise.)

There’s more to the story in the bible. Jesus, all serious now, says to Simon Peter when he’s old, someone will “will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go,” and he says he wants John “to remain alive until I return.” That was way above my pay grade when I was imagining myself in the gospel account, and it’s way above my pay grade thinking about it as I drive up I-74. More jockeying for place among the apostles, I guess. But what’s this about Peter being led where he doesn’t want to go? Does that apply to everyone who follows where Jesus commands him to go? Something else to think about.

But Jesus also told Peter, not once but three times, “Follow me.”

Now that much I understand.

I also understand my meditation on John 21 barely scratched the surface of the text. When I started it, I didn’t realize the traditional setting of this post-Easter miracle was virtually in the same place as the miracle of loaves and fishes. (Well, down the hill a few meters.) I had a hazy notion that the stories of Jesus feeding people with bread and fish were related to to the Eucharist, but that was only one of any number of signs and miracles I’ve read about. I’ve never much cared for signs, portents, dreams and miracles, anyway. The miracles that speak to me come with ordinary daily living.

It turns out I’ve visited the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, too. It’s a pretty little Franciscan chapel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see picture below). But it was one of several holy sites we visited that day, and I was more interested in the geology — the dark basalt stone so common in the area — than the theology. So now I have a whole new level of associations to go with my memories of Galilee.

But I’ll have to think about them, too, for a long, long time. In the meantime, it’s all a reminder that God appears, at least to me, in the perfectly ordinary.

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“Table of Christ” in Franciscan chapel, Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. On this stone, according to tradition, Jesus laid out the breakfast of bread and fish for his disciples after the resurrection.

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