After his resurrection Jesus had a fascinating conversation with Peter by the Sea of Galilee. Much has been made of how Peter confessed his love for Jesus three times...once for each time he had denied him previously. But less has been said about what Jesus said to Peter at the end of each of these three exchanges... "feed my sheep", or some version of that.
So what's curious about that? Well, Peter isn't a shepherd!... he's a fisherman. When Jesus called Peter he was fishing. He said, "Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men." This was Peter's first identity. When he thought Jesus was dead forever, he went back to being a fisherman. Just before Jesus and Peter had this conversation he was fishing! So why is Jesus changing the metaphor on him and now asking him to be a shepherd?
Maybe it's because fishing isn't the best description of what Jesus was asking Peter to now do. After all, what do fishermen do with their fish? They kill them and eat them for breakfast! That's what Jesus, Peter, and the others had just done. And what do shepherds do with their sheep? They protect them, feed them, and guide them.
If you think about it, fishing really isn't the best image the kingdom of God. Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd but never The Good Fisherman. And I think there's a very good reason ... His heart is to protect us in this broken world, to rescue us when we get lost. You see, fishing is relatively easy, very transactional, all about numbers. You don't have to form a personal relationship with fish... you don't have to care for them. You don't name your fish. You just catch them, count them, and use them.
But shepherding requires a personal investment... the sheep all have a name, and when they're counted, it's not to see how big the catch is but if anyone is missing. And if one is missing, it really matters... and a shepherd looks far and wide to find and rescue it. The shepherd leads sheep into green pastures so they're well fed and beside quiet waters so they're refreshed, and protects them with his rod and staff when danger lurks. A shepherd's voice is known by the sheep, and they trust him and follow him. The difference between these two occupations is striking.
And so I wonder if it's time for the American Church to change that image also. We've been in "fishing mode" for a long time. Lots of people have walked down the aisle or prayed a sinner's prayer. And most of them... most of them!... no longer have any explicit relationship with Jesus. They're not transforming the world. The so-called conversion hasn't stuck. But we've counted them in our statistics, and we pretend that the Church is bigger and more world-changing than it really is.
So why not become shepherds instead? If Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we're invited to become like Him, then there's a shepherding mission for all of us. And what is that mission? Jesus Himself said it best, "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:34-35, NLT). I'm not saying that we quit evangelizing...but that the best invitation to the kingdom of God is the astounding love that God's People have for each other and the world. The distinguishing mark of his disciples is their love for each other. This should not be controversial, but in our idolatry of "bigger, better, faster" it somehow seems radical, doesn't it?