The Food of Love

The Food of Love

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2024

The Food of Love

Homily for Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:11-18

My kids’ favorite restaurant in Providence is an Italian one on Federal Hill.  The kids don’t like it because it has a “hip”vibe or because it serves trendy food; rather, they like it because, though  the recipes are traditional, the food is excellent,the plates are heaping, the restaurant is family-owned (with one of the family often there as the host or hostess), and the décor looks kind of like a 1980’s living room.  Even though they don’t have an Italian grandmother, the kids say, “It feels as though we’re eating at our Italian grandmother’s house!”  The restaurant’s website even says, “Italian food… prepared with love.”  And I want to get back to food and love, but first, today’s lesson from St. John’s Gospel.

Of the many “sheep” references in St. John’s Gospel – from John the Baptist in chapter 1 pointing to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29) to the evangelist at the crucifixion in chapter 19 comparing the crucified Christ to the Passover lamb: “Not a bone of him shall be broken,” John writes (quoting Exodus) (19:36, see also Ex 12:46) –[of the many “sheep” references in St. John’s Gospel] none are better-known and more extensive than the references in chapter 10, from which today’s Gospel comes:  “Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…’”

No “sheep” references are better known and more extensive than the verses in chapter 10, yet the depth and richness of chapter 10 would be incomplete without the context of John’s other “sheep”references.  To help add color and“texture” to today’s passage from John chapter 10, this morning I will set today’s verses from John 10 alongside John’s “sheep” references in the Gospel’s final chapter, chapter 21.  

You may recall that in John chapter21, after Jesus served several of the disciples breakfast from a charcoal fire on the beach, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  (and I quote)…

[Peter] said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  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.” 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.”  (21:15-17)

John makes clear in chapter21 that Jesus the Good Shepherd is concerned about love and about feeding,which in John are closely connected.  Let me explain…

The image of God as a shepherd who feeds his people is well-established in the Old Testament.  Consider, for example, Ezekiel chapter 34:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them into their own land, and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.  I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (Ez 34:13-14)

Ezekiel’s words echo those of the Psalmist:

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters…
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…

One of the roles of Jesus the Good shepherd is to feed his flock.  In John chapter21, Jesus entrusts Peter to take on Jesus’ shepherding role and to feed his sheep when Jesus is no longer present.  But before Jesus’ tells Peter to “Feed my sheep,” Jesus asks if Peter loves him:  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter cannot feed Jesus’ sheep if he does not first love.

But in needing to love before he can feed, Peter is not like an Italian grandmother who, because she loves her grandchildren feeds them.  Rather, to say that Peter needs to love before he can feed means that Peter is to feed Jesus’ sheep with love, to actually feed them the food that is love.  Jesus’ sheep need to eat, and we “sheep” are at our best when we take into ourselves and metabolize love.  And not just any love:  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Jesus asked. Peter is to feed Jesus’ sheep with Jesus’ love.

For John, the love of Jesus is the food that we, Jesus’ “sheep,” are to eat.  Because being fed with and eating Jesus’ love may seem abstract, John offers two concrete things we can do to “eat”Jesus’ love.  The first is more obvious:  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them,” Jesus said (6:56) in a reference to the Eucharist.  The second is less obvious, which is:  keeping Jesus’ commandments.  For John, to love Jesus is to do God’s will and to keep his commandments:  “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said (14:15).  Or again, “Those who love me will keep my word” (14:23).  And for John, doing God’s will is like eating:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work,” Jesus said (4:34). Or again, “I am the bread of life… I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (6:35,38).   For John, we are fed with and “eat” Jesus’ love both in the Eucharist, and also by doing God’s will and keeping Jesus’ commandments.

In a similar vein, the author of Deuteronomy wrote that “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).  In traditional Christian exegesis, “word” here means not only the scriptures and God’s commandments, but “word” means also “the Word,” or Logos, who is Jesus.  Which is to say that we human beings live not on bread alone, but on love.  Especially Jesus’ love.

I will leave us with a quote from the former Pope, Benedict XVI, about love and food and what it is we need to truly flourish:

We know what sheep live on, but what do human beings live on?  The Fathers saw Ezekiel’s reference to the mountain country of Israel and the shady and well-watered pastures on its uplands as an image of the heights of Holy Scripture, of the life-giving food of God’s word. Although this is not the historical sense of the text, in the end the Fathers saw correctly and, above all, they understood Jesus himself correctly. We live on truth and on being loved: on being loved by truth.  We need God, the God who draws close to us, interprets for us the meaning of life, and thus points us toward the path of life. Of course we need bread, we need food for the body, but ultimately what we need most is the Word, love, God’s self. Whoever gives us that [- and it is Jesus the Good Shepherd who gives us that -] gives us “life in abundance” (John 10:10).   (From Jesus of Nazareth:. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p 279)


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