Love, Obedience, and Chubby Sheep

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church



John 21:15-25


15When 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.” 16A 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.” 17He 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. 18Very 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.”

20Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” 24This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


Two guys are walking through the woods and come across this big deep hole.

“Wow…that looks deep.”

“Sure does… toss a few pebbles in there and see how deep it is.”

They pick up a few pebbles and throw them in and wait… no noise.

“Jeeez. That is REALLY deep… here.. throw one of these great big rocks down there. Those should make a noise.”

They pick up a couple football-sized rocks and toss them into the hole and wait… and wait.  Nothing.

They look at each other in amazement. One gets a determined look on his face and says, “Hey…over here in the weeds, there’s a railroad tie.  Help me carry it over here. When we toss THAT sucker in, it’s GOTTA make some noise.”

The two men drag the heavy tie over to the hole and heave it in. Not a sound comes from the hole.

Suddenly, out of the nearby woods, a sheep appears, running like the
wind. It rushes toward the two men, then right past them, running as fast as its legs will carry it. Suddenly it leaps in the air and into the hole.

The two men are astonished with what they’ve just seen…
Then, out of the woods comes a shepherd who spots the men and ambles over.

Hey… you two guys seen my sheep out here?

You bet we did! Craziest thing I ever seen! It came running like crazy and just jumped into this hole!

Nah, says the shepherd, That couldn’t have been MY sheep. My sheep was chained to a railroad tie.


            God’s people are often referred to as sheep in the Bible.  And as sheep we are called to follow the Good Shepherd, who is Jesus Christ.  However, we as sheep can tend to wander off, get lost, and stop following our shepherd.  And when we do this, we lose not only our way, but we can lose our love for the shepherd.

            Today I want to look at the scripture above and see that we sheep need to follow Jesus, we need to be obedient to him, willing to forgo the pleasures of this world if we are called to do so.  Because love for Christ and obedience to Christ are contingent upon each other.

Our scripture for today begins with the resurrected Jesus finishing breakfast with Peter and a small group of the disciples.  Remember that the disciples had been out fishing all night, and as the song says, they fished all night but caught no fishes.  Then the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore and he tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  And when they do they bring in a catch of 153 fish.

            So after all of this fishing and breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and he asks Peter in verse 15, Simon, do you love me more than these?  Simon answered by saying, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.  Then Jesus gives Peter a job to do; he tells him, “Feed my lambs.”

            Then Jesus asks him again, “Do you love me?”  And to this Peter replies, “yes, you know that I love you.”  Jesus tells him, “Tend my sheep.”

            Then Jesus asks Peter one more time, “Do you love me?”  And Peter is a little hurt by this.  Maybe he hadn’t convinced Jesus that he did indeed love him yet, because he keeps asking the same question over and over.  So Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything.  You know I love you.”  And Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

            Now at first glance, it sounds like Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him, to which Peter answers yes.  And it seems like Jesus replies each time to Peter’s love by giving him the same task; feed my sheep.  So why all of the repetition?  We all know that Peter can be a bit of a slow learner, but why does Jesus feel that it is necessary to repeat himself two more times?

            Many people have noted that in this scripture Peter is affirming his love for Christ three times and that this somehow offsets his three denials of knowing Christ the night he was handed over to the authorities.  But a close examination of this text reveals that Jesus does not simply repeat the question of Peter’s love and the commission to feed his sheep three times. 

            The Greek language, which is the language that the New Testament was originally written in, has a number of words that we simply translate as “love”.  For instance, eros is the passionate, lustful love.  Eros is not involved in this passage.  Philia is a brotherly or sisterly love of camaraderie.  That is where we get the name Philadelphia: philia and adelphos (brother) = The City of Brotherly Love.  Then there is the most powerful form of love, the self-denying, sacrificing love that Jesus exhibited for us on the cross.  This is agape love.

            So Jesus is asking Peter in verses 15 and 16 “Do you love (agape) me?”  And to both of those questions Peter answers “You know that I love (philia) you.”  Jesus is asking Peter if he is able to return the self-denying, sacrificial love exhibited for him on the cross by Jesus.  Jesus asks him, “Peter, do you love me so much that you would die for me?”  And each time Peter replies, “You know I love you like a brother.”  He stops short each time of making that commitment to being willing to die, willing to pour himself out for Jesus. 

Then the third time Jesus gives in a little bit and he asks Peter, “Do you love (philia) me?”  And our text tells us in verse 17 that Peter feels a little bad because Jesus asked the third time if Peter loved him.  But what we often miss is that Peter seems to feel bad because he realized that Jesus knew that he was not willing to make that strong commitment to him at that time; the commitment to follow him at all cost.  Peter lacked agape love.

But Jesus isn’t too worried about Peter.  Jesus knows that Peter is going to come around to that kind of love once again.  Jesus even goes on to describe the kind of death that Peter will endure on a cross of his own; led where he does not want to go with his hands stretched out, Peter too will be crucified (tradition tells us upside down).  Peter would indeed develop agape love for Christ once again.  And just like the first time these two met, Jesus invites Peter to once again, “Follow me.” (v. 19). 

We tend to be hard on Peter and the other disciples, but I wonder how many Christians love Jesus so much that we are willing to give up the things we cherish the most for him?  Money, family, comfort, social status, a good job.  These things can be quite important to us in our world today.

I love my new home, I love my family, I love the comfort of living in the United States where I can feel pretty confident that every time I go to the grocery store there will be bread and that every month I will have enough money to buy that bread.  And I wonder, if Jesus ever asked me to give up these things that I have come to love, would I?  Because if I am not willing to give these things up, then I have made them into an idol.  I have put them before my Lord and I do not have agape love for Christ.

As we look at the scriptures, we find that Jesus first called his disciples by inviting them to follow him.  Peter was a fisherman, Matthew a tax collector, and so on.  All of the twelve did something before they became disciples.  The Scriptures tell us that Jesus approached these men and he asked them to give up everything that they knew for a life that they didn’t know.  Peter had to leave his nets, Matthew his tax collection booth; all left their family and homes and became vagabond preachers, going from town to town declaring the kingdom of God had come near.

But we also know that there were others that Jesus would have liked to have had follow him that could not part with the things that they felt were so important.  Luke 9 tells us about three men, two who offered to follow Jesus and one who Jesus invited directly to follow him.  But each had something that they were not willing to give up to follow Jesus, home, family, and social systems became their stumbling block.  And we have the rich young ruler who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life and after assuring Jesus that he had kept the 10 Commandments, Jesus told him he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor.  Out of those four would-be disciples, how many were willing to sacrifice the things that they cared for in order to follow Christ?  Zero, none, notta, zip, zilch.  Obedience to Christ is costly, and not everyone is willing to pay that price.  And if you are not willing to be obedient to Christ, you do not have agape love for him.  Instead you are an idolater.

So we can see that though Peter was not able to come out and tell Jesus that he did have agape love for him, that he was not at the point where he could lay down his life for Christ, Jesus knew that he would get there.  Though Peter had valued his own life to the point that he denied Christ three times, he would come to a point where he loved Jesus with a love stronger than his fear of death.  And he would get there by serving Christ:  It is through his obedience that Peter would develop that kind of love.  That is why he gave him the three different jobs.

The first is to feed his lambs.  The connotation of the Greek here is for Peter to nurture those that are young in the faith.  Now that Peter has had a significant amount of training from Jesus, it is time that he begins to train others, to disciple those that are young in their faith.  Jesus’ first commandment is for Peter to train young believers.

The second is to tend to his sheep.  The word we translate as “tend” means something like to govern them, to look after them.  A shepherd must do more than feed sheep.  They must look after their well-being, their health, their safety, and so on.  Jesus’ second commandment is for Peter to care for those who need help.

Then finally, Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep.  Continue to disciple those that are mature in their faith so that they too can feed lambs, tend to sheep, and feed other sheep.  Pass on the knowledge and live it out.

As we look at the life of Peter, we find that he was willing to drop his nets and follow Jesus when he was first called as a disciple.  But following Jesus’ death, he decided to go back to his old occupation of fishing.  Now this resurrected Jesus is calling him again, telling him, “Follow me.”  Jesus is calling for the obedience of Peter to leave behind his nets and follow him once again.  And now his job as a follower of Jesus Christ is to feed lambs, tend sheep, and feed sheep.

We believe in Jesus, don’t we?  We can’t get enough of Jesus…and that is a good thing.  We read books, we go to Bible studies, we come to church, we read the Scriptures, we pray, we pray, and we pray some more.  And all of this is great.  I believe that the more knowledge we can gain about Jesus the better.  But if that is all we ever do; learn, learn, learn, then we are missing the point.  Because Jesus doesn’t just want us to believe in him, he wants us to follow him.  He doesn’t just want us to learn about him, he wants us to put our faith in action.  And just because we have put our faith in action in the past doesn’t get us off the hook from following and serving him today.

Peter never stopped believing in Jesus, but he did stop serving him.  I bet that he and the other disciples continued to have conversations about Jesus, to study the scriptures, and to pray.  But Peter stopped living out his obedience to Jesus when he denied that he knew Jesus, and he continued to stray from Jesus’ commandments when he picked back up his fishing net.  Peter was called by Jesus to follow him, to be a disciple and when he stopped following Jesus, his love for Christ dwindled.  He could not even bring himself to say that he loved Jesus with an agape love.  All he could say was that he loved him like a brother.  Remember Peter in this status: broken, not able to tell Jesus that he loves him with an agape love.  We will come back to him in just a moment.

This past week, Sonya and I made the decision that it was time for us to join the YMCA.  We both spend a lot of time throughout the day sitting at a desk behind a computer.  And we both love our jobs, but our jobs are not very active. 

The problem with our inactive lifestyles is that we love to enjoy the fine cuisine that the Queen City has to offer.  We go out to eat at least once a week and we make a fair number of bountiful meals in our home as well.  And when you eat as much as I have been known to eat and you are relatively inactive, what happens?  You come down with chubby hubby syndrome.  The symptoms of chubby hubby syndrome include clothes that don’t fit, toes you can’t see or touch, and frequent and necessary breaks to catch your breath while climbing stairs.

I can’t stop eating and I hate dieting.  So in order to avoid chubby hubby syndrome, or to decrease its severity, I need to increase my physical work; I need to exercise.

And this is a problem with so many churches in the United States.  Like I said earlier, we are sheep, and we want to be fed.  We thirst for knowledge about Jesus, seeking him through multiple avenues of prayer and study.  And that is great.  But if we only want to be fed without going out and doing the work that Christ has called us to, we will become chubby sheep.  And as we see with Peter, when you become a chubby sheep, simply learning about Jesus without living out your faith, you risk the danger of losing your love for him as well.

I’ve experienced this first hand.  My first year of Seminary was challenging.  Not only intellectually, but spiritually.  I was learning more and more about the Bible, about Jesus, and about church history.  And I really enjoyed learning these things.  I was being fed a healthy diet of Jesus Christ and I couldn’t get enough.

But the problem was that while I was learning more and more about Jesus, I was knowing him less and less.  The more I knew about Jesus, the less I loved him.  Now I didn’t love him less because of the things I was learning, and by no means am I saying that learning about Jesus led to my loss of love for him.  But because all of my energy was going into learning about him and none was going toward serving him, my love dwindled.  I became a chubby sheep being fed, but not being active in living out my faith.

But the story doesn’t end there.  My love for Christ has been renewed and I believe that if Christ was asking me today if I love him with an agape love, if I was willing to give everything I hold dearly to follow him, I would say yes.  Because I stopped simply being fed and I began feeding others and tending to the flock.  Being obedient and serving Christ has helped me to grow back in love with him and has helped me to shed some of the unwanted pounds of the chubby sheep.

We are not all called to give up our homes, our families, money, national security, or our lives to follow Christ.  But the question is, would you be willing to do so if you were called to?  Do you love Jesus with an agape love that is so strong that you would lay down everything for him?  If not, maybe you are becoming a chubby sheep.  Maybe you have been sitting back and being fed for so long that you have forgotten to get your exercise by serving the Lord.

Obedience to and love for Jesus are so strongly connected that we cannot have one without the other; they are contingent upon one another.  If we fail to follow him daily in life, we will fall out of love with him.  If we fall out of love with him we will fail to follow him daily in life.  We are all called to feed lambs, tend to sheep, and feed sheep.  We are called to teach those young in the faith, to care for those who need cared for, and to continue to grow in our love for and knowledge of Christ.  Chubby sheep might be cute, but they are not faithful.

I encourage you today to continue to be fed by the word of God, seek to know him each and every day.  But if knowledge is all we ever search for, we will likely lose our love for Christ.  We must seek to know Christ and to follow him.  We must love and obey him.  How might we serve Christ this week?  How might we work off the extra pounds as chubby sheep?


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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