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In one of my favorite books, there is a story about a chipmunk who survives the great flood aboard Noah’s ark. The story is called, “How the Chipmunk Got His Stripes”, and it’s told from the perspective of one Jacob Chipmunk. Now, of course, Jacob’s story isn’t found in the Biblical account of the flood, but you’ll understand why I’m telling you about this little story in just a second.
In the story, the ark finally runs aground on Mt. Ararat. And Jacob Chipmunk finds that through his nervous chewing he has bored a hole clear through the ship to the outside world. And so, before the doors are opened, and the animals set loose, one lone chipmunk scampers down onto the soggy ground.
Jacob Chipmunk is, of course, ecstatic to be on land again. But he notices that there’s still a big huge ocean of water surrounding the ark. And he realizes that this little bit of beach property won’t be big enough for all the animals.
So, the hyperactive chipmunk devises a plan to dry up the world. He runs to the water’s edge, soaks his tail full of water, and then runs back up the beach to wring it out. He figures that with enough trips, he can drain the sea away.
Back and forth the little chipmunk races, until all of the sudden a huge hand reaches down and scoops him up into the bright blue sky. It is, of course, the hand of God. And in the story, God goes on to explain how silly it is that Jacob chipmunk should try to dry up the whole world with his little chipmunk tail. This was God’s job, and God would do it. And so with a deep and fathomless breath, God breathes out over the waters and does in an instant, what Jacob couldn’t have done in a million years.
Now, here’s the part I wanted to share with you. As God sets the little chipmunk down on the newly dried land, the author writes…
“Just before the hand was withdrawn, however, the tips of the fingers brushed once, lightly, along Jacob’s head and back, leaving a most profound and mysterious impression upon the little Chipmunk. For somehow it seemed, this mystic stroke, to be a combination of two things, two things impossibly different: In one way , it was like the long-ago memory of his own mother’s tongue, licking him; but also it was like the claws of a great bird of prey raking through his flesh.
The pain, however, was only for a moment, while the delicious sensation of the tenderest of caresses remained forever. And along with it came four beautiful white stripes, embedded in the Chipmunk’s fur, running the length of his body and set like a crown on the top of his head: the sign of being stroked by the Almighty’s love” (How the Chipmunk God His Stripes, by Mike Mason).
The tale of how the chipmunk got his stripes is fiction of course. But that description of the Lord’s touch is sometimes quite truth. Sometimes God deals with us in this way. Sometimes his touch is both sharp and painful, and yet at the same time full of compassion and tenderness.
With his Law God rakes through our conscience laying bare the reality of our sin and guilt. He says, “Love me above all. Honor my Name. Take time for me. Honor your parents. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet what isn’t yours to have.” And with his Law, God cuts deep down to our true motives, to our secrets sins. He reveals that in our arrogance and selfishness we have failed to live up to his standards time and time again.
And yet at the same time, through the message of Christ’s gift of forgiveness, God tenderly soothes and heals our deepest hurts. He restores our souls and cleanses our conscience through the fact that His Son suffered and died in our place, and now lives as our great Savior and King.
Yes, sometimes the touch of God is both painful, and utterly soothing.
In our Scripture reading for today, Jesus applies both Law and Gospel to the apostle Peter. And Peter feels both the deep cut of the Lord’s rebuke, and the tender healing of his forgiveness.
John 21:15-17 (NASB)
15 So 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, “Tend My lambs.”
16 He said to him again 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, “Shepherd My sheep.”
17 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 all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
This conversation between Peter and his Lord took place on a beach, on the Sea of Galilee. It took place after the crucifixion and after the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. John tells us this was the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples as a group. But our Lord’s words here, were directed not to the group, but to Simon Peter alone.
Jesus calls Peter by his given name, Simon. And he adds, “son of John”. I was curious about this. Why does Jesus adds this “last name” of sorts. So, I searched and found that Jesus only callsPeter the “son of John” on three occasions—all important ones. He called him “Simon, son of John” when they met for the first time, after Peter had confessed him as the Son of God, and on this occasion. It’s as if Jesus is adding weight to their interaction by calling Peter “Simon, son of John”. Kinda like when your mom or dad use your middle name.
I don’t know about you, but my mom would call me “Caleb John!” at two times. When I had done something particularly bad, or when she wished to express love. Perhaps Jesus was doing both when he called Peter, “Simon, son of John”.
Peter had indeed done something particularly bad. We remember. When pressed into a tight corner, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus—three separate times. He even called down curses on himself to prove that he didn’t know Jesus.
And Peter had done this just hours after swearing to Jesus that even if all the other disciples abandoned Jesus, Peter would remain true. Peter would die before denying Jesus. Or so he had claimed. Sadly, the reality played out much differently.
And so, Jesus begins this conversation by asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15 NASB). That is to say, do you still claim your love for me is so much stronger than the love of these others?
Peter is humbled by the directness of Jesus. In his reply, Peter doesn’t even use the same word for love that Jesus does. Instead, he affirms his love for Christ with different word for love. Peter is through comparing himself with others. Peter is done claiming great powers of love for himself.
And with the first stroke of rebuke delivered, Jesus follows that blow with tenderness. He says to Peter, “Tend by lambs” (John 21:15 NASB). He means, of course, be a keeper of my people. An overseer of those who trust in me. And in this gracious assignment, Jesus expresses both his love and his forgiveness. For Jesus only calls those who have tasted his forgiveness to be purveyors of it.
Peter’s days of self-centered boasting were at an end. His life would now be one of serving his Savior, and serving his Savior’s people.
But the rebuke was not at an end. And the deepest cut was yet to come.
Like the right hook that follows the left jab, Jesus’ next question hits Peter squarely in his pride. Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16 NASB). This time Jesus doesn’t ask if Peter love him MORE than the others do. This time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him at all.
It is all that Peter can do to reply. And he again uses a lesser word for love than Jesus does. Peter repeats his claim with the same simple words that he used the first time, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You” (John 21:16 NASB).
And with the second stroke of rebuke delivered, Jesus follows his blow with more tenderness. He says to Peter, “Shepherd My Sheep” (John 21:16 NASB). Note those words well. These are JESUS’ sheep that Peter is to shepherd. It is not PETER’s flock. He’s not the boss. He is but the under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd. And again, by repeating this gracious assignment, Jesus is expressing his forgiveness to Peter. For as odd as it may sound, in the Savior’s flock, all the under-shepherds are themselves sheep. They are stumbling, bumbling sheep, whom the Good Shepherd has claimed for eternity by his precious blood shed on the cross.
This remarkable assignment from the Lord could have rekindled Peter’s pride. Think about it like this, if the resurrected Jesus appeared to YOU and said, “I want YOU to be a shepherd of My sheep” wouldn’t a tiny bit of you think, “Me? Well I guess I do have some suitable qualities. I mean, you thought of me for the job, right?” Pride dies hard, doesn’t it?
The reality is that none of us have anything to offer God that has not already been given to us by his hand. We cannot claim even a scrap of goodness apart from the Lord’s working in us through his Word.
As the Bible says,
“…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3 NASB).
“…it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NKJV).
And so Jesus asks Peter a third, and final question. One final cut, and the deepest of all. One final blow to knock Peter’s sinful pride to the ground. Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (John 21:17 NASB). But this time Jesus exchanges his word of high love, for Peter’s lower word for love. In essence, Jesus says, “Peter, do you really love me, like you keep saying you do?”
And all that Peter can do is cling to the truth. He does love Jesus. And he knows that Jesus must know that, for Jesus knows all things. He is the divine Son of God, who after suffering and dying on the cross for the sins of all people, took up the full use of his divine powers once again. And so Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You” (John 21:17 NASB).
And one more time, Jesus follows the blow of rebuke, with the tender embrace of forgiveness. He repeats the task he has given to Peter, his redeemed servant. He says, “Tend My Sheep” (John 21:17 NASB).
Three denials from Peter. Three questions from the Lord. Three blows of rebuke, which cut deep. And three assurances that Peter was truly, and completely forgiven. That is what we find here in this little exchange on the shores of Galilee’s lake.
It’s easy to put ourselves in Peter’s shoes, isn’t it? Through arrogance and selfishness we too have failed to love God by the things we say and do.
And if we actually pick up the Bible to see what God has to say about it, we find that God has some rather serious words to say about our behavior. The Bible says…
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV).
“…the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23 NKJV).
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;” (Isaiah 53:6 NKJV).
But you know how those passages end, don’t you?
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 NIV).
“…the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NKJV).
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 NKJV).
The raking claws of God’s Law are followed by the tender caress of his undeserved love and forgiveness. And on the heels of this complete forgiveness comes an assignment.
No, we are not all called to be apostles like Peter. No, we are not all called to teach Bible Class on Sunday or proclaim the Gospel from a pulpit in church. But we are all called to shepherd God’s flock. For the shepherds are the sheep. The forgiven are the called.
And the calls is simple. Our Savior died for all. They need to know it. And the sheep that are in the fold already, they need to stay safely in the fold. And we need to tend them. You and me.
We need to keep each other from danger. Diligently watching each other with love. Being present in the lives of our fellow Christians. Praying for one another. Applying the rebuke of the Law when needed, and the tender embrace of the Gospel.
We need to keep each other well pastured and watered. Continually speaking the Word of the Almighty God to one another. With an email. With a post. With a phone call. With a text. And yes, even IN PERSON.
We need to bind up the wounds of our fellow sheep and nurse them to health with the powerful Word of God. Patiently bearing each other’s burdens. Exercising the compassion and wisdom that our divine Savior teaches.
When God asked Cain where his brother was, the world’s first murderer replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9 NKJV).
Help us Holy Spirit, that this would NEVER be our response to the grace and mercy we have received in Christ. Let our response instead be, “I AM my brother’s keeper. I will go and find him. I will call him with your Word. Your power will do the work, but I will be your humble instrument. I will tend your sheep.”
Through God’s Law and Gospel, Peter was made a redeemed sinner, and a shepherd of his fellow sheep. God’s cutting Law, and healing Gospel has done the same for us. We are redeemed. Let us now be about the business of tending the Good Shepherd’s flock, together.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds, in Christ Jesus.