Feed my sheep

If you’ve been inside any stores since Christmas, you know that Valentine’s Day must be just around the corner. Heart-shaped candy boxes and bouquets of red rose fill the aisles, announcing that love is in the air!


But what kind of love are we talking about here? We throw around the word like it’s as valuable as a bent penny. We proclaim that we love Mexican food sometimes as passionately as we love our family. I’m the first to admit my profound appreciation for a delicious taco, but my kids and my husband would most likely appreciate a distinction between my feelings for that taco and my feelings for them.


Scripture give us a nice variety when it comes to the word love, but you have to do a little digging in the original languages. In the Old Testament, we have descriptive Hebrew words like Ahavah and Khesed. They describe types of affection which are deep and lasting and full of action. In the New Testament, we have Greek words to describe the various types of love: Agape (everlasting and sacrificial), Storge (familial love), Phileo(loving your friend as if he were your brother), and Eros (romantic love—the one getting most of the attention this month). Language is so fascinating, and this is one of those times when it must expand to encompass such a complex and grand subject as love.


Jesus acknowledges a few of the different kinds of love in John 21. This is the third time he’s appeared before his Disciples since his death and resurrection. Several of them went night fishing, but they caught nothing. Then Jesus shows up on the shore and instructs them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Just as you’d expect, the nets come up bursting with fish. They recognize Jesus, and Peter dives into the water to swim to Him. The others probably shook their heads at their friend’s impulsiveness as they rowed ashore.


Jesus cooked them breakfast, and then He took Peter aside to chat. Knowing how Peter felt about Jesus and knowing that he was surely still broken from his betrayal of Christ just before the Cross—three times denying that he knew Jesus—Peter’s heart must’ve been thrumming inside his chest. Would he be chastised? Would he be stripped of his position, no longer able to be part of the mission Christ had prepared them for?


John 21:15-17 (CSB)

When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love (phileo) you.”

“Feed my lambs,” he told him.

A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love (phileo) you.”

“Shepherd my sheep,” he told him.

He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”

Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.”

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said.


For each time Peter had betrayed Jesus in the past, he was given the chance to proclaim his love and devotion for his risen Savior by that seashore. Twice, Jesus asked Peter for his full commitment, but Peter wasn’t there yet. He kept playing the “let’s just be good friends” card instead. On the third attempt, Jesus met Peter where he was, but he still pushed him toward how to go beyond phileo and get to agape. Jesus knew what lie ahead for Peter, so He wanted him to be all in. Jesus showed Peter (and us) that when we don’t know the state of our own hearts, a good starting place is feeding His sheep—action over words. Real love.

All my strength

At my church, we’ve been studying the book of Deuteronomy. Last week, we heard a sermon from Deuteronomy 6, which contains one of my favorite verses, a passage I was taught to memorize at a very young age: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people to remember this commandment to love God, to teach it to their children, and to constantly talk and think about Him.


Sunday’s sermon made me want to study deeper into this passage. After all, this section is called the Shema, which means Listen, so I sat down to pay more attention to it. This scripture is central to the Jewish faith, so much so that Jesus quoted it in three of the Gospels, including Mark 12: “The most important command is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”


Of course, Jesus doesn’t misquote Deuteronomy (that’s impossible because He is God, the author of the whole book), so why does He add an extra word? Instead of three, Jesus lists four ways to devote ourselves to God: heart, soul, mind, and strength. I always assumed the original list meant for me to love God with my emotions, my spirit, and my physical body. And then Jesus just added my thoughts. While this is true, there’s a richer, more all-encompassing explanation waiting to be discovered.


Due to the complexities of language, it’s easy to misunderstand what strength means in the original text. Though the picture which pops into my mind is of a carnival-type Strong Man hoisting a dumbbell over his head, it’s not an accurate visual for this verse. Some versions translate strength as power, while others use the word might. But the original word means “muchness.” We’re given one word after another that commands us to love God with everything we’ve got. Although this is a giant and challenging task, it becomes more clear-cut because I can offer what I have, and this is a relief to someone who sometimes feels she lacks strength.


To be honest, I don’t feel especially strong unless I’m giving birth or moving furniture by myself. Other than that, I consider my abilities in the “Strength” category to hover around average, so what would He want with my often lame excuse for strength? We’re called to love God with the heart, soul, mind, and strength we’ve been given, but how? Well, fortunately, we have the example right in front of us: God loved us first. As the Book of Romans describes it, “God loved us when we were still sinners.” Dirty, old, always-messing-up sinners. If He could start loving me in spite of my weakness, then I can love him back while situated in the same flawed condition. I can never match His strength anyway, making my offering pretty inadequate, but he still wants my love.


I couldn’t say why Jesus added the word mind in his list after they asked him what the greatest command was, but He was in an earthly body at the time He spoke those words. He knew the limitations of this physical form, so He seemed to want to be clear. Love the Lord with all the “muchness” you’ve got at your disposal, and then love your neighbor. Jesus told them once we do this “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Thank goodness it doesn’t have to begin with my strength…It all starts with love!


I heard a story on the radio a few months ago about a woman named Maris Blechner. Her first son died just after childbirth, then she adopted a daughter. Ten months later, she delivered a son, and then she adopted another daughter a few years after that. Believe it or not, people would tactlessly tell Maris things like, “I suppose you love your biological child the best. Surely the one who shares your blood is your favorite.” At the time, she wasn’t able to form a reply to their insensitive remarks.


Her three surviving children all got married and had children of their own. In fact, they each gave birth to a daughter within a few months of each other. Maris would watch her granddaughters play together, and she saw how these cousins who shared no blood relations loved each other without reservation. They were family. The rest was just details.


After opening her own adoption agency in Queens, NY, Maris eventually formed an answer to those narrow-minded questions around adoption: “There’s no such thing as ‘as much as’ when it comes to love. Love isn’t measurable,” Maris would say. “You claim your child and it’s forever. We claim our adopted children exactly the same way birth parents claim their children.”


That word—claim—stuck with me long after hearing her answer. Besides being in a similar situation with both biological children and an adopted son, I can feel an extra measure of weight in that word. To be claimed by someone you love and trust, to be received by them wholeheartedly, is the most freeing experience. For instance, to know my husband claims me isn’t restraining to my freedom because I also claim him. And I don’t have to be anything particularly special, because this claim is forever.


If we can understand this unconditional form of love in human terms, it’s a little easier to begin to understand God’s love for us. We see it in 1 John 3.


“See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children—think of it—and we really are! But since most people don’t know God, naturally they don’t understand that we are his children. Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now, and we can’t even imagine what it is going to be like later on. But we do know this, that when he comes we will be like him, as a result of seeing him as he really is.” (TLB)


With the start of a new year, choose to live like you are claimed, like you are valuable enough for someone to call you His own. Whether you have felt this level of love before or not, know that you have a heavenly Father who claims you as his child.