For all the “Catholic” ways I think, worship, and speak, I still read the Bible like an Evangelical. And I’m fine with that; I believe that fidelity to the Bible is essential to true Christian faith and practice, and the greatest strength of the Evangelical tradition is its focus on the Bible. Of course even that can be excessive at times, but it’s a valuable balance to other streams of Christianity. Now, when I say that I read “like an Evangelical,” I mean in particular that I read through the lens of the evangel – the Gospel. In general this is an excellent way to engage with Scripture, but it does occasionally miss out on other things, such as ascetics/spiritual disciplines, the ordering of Church life, and sacramentals.
As such, it is often difficult for many Evangelicals to see where and how the Bible supports the “Catholic” idea of having a clergy who are in charge of administering sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. As a logical conclusion of this, many Protestant churches and movements have been stepping away from the “tradition” of having their ministers/pastors lead communion and letting non-ordained ministers do it. This is especially true in house churches and similar groups who generally have no ordained ministry (and often reject the very concept).
But today, without even reading a related passage, Jesus’ final words to Peter popped into my head – “Feed my sheep” (which is also the title of this blog post). It occurred to me that, as a good Evangelical, I’ve always understood this in a generic sense where “feed” means “look after.” In fact, there are three things Jesus says to Peter here: “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep” and “feed my sheep.” Now, there is a concept of “the rule of three” wherein the same statement is said three times in different ways, not to express a list but to express one single thing. However, the different ways in which the one idea is expressed are still valid images of what the main idea includes. So although most Evangelicals read this as “look after the Church as a shepherd/pastor,” the concept of feeding the people is a prevalant image.
So what does ‘feeding’ mean in this case? The Evangelical will typically say that it refers to giving good teaching and guidance based on the Word of God. This is a good answer, and is a responsible way to interpret it figuratively. But what if we try to take it literally? What kind of food, then, would Jesus be talking about? Luckily for us, there is an entire chapter of the same Gospel book dedicated to the topic of God feeding his people. In it, Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people and then goes on to teach about “the bread of life” which is his body, which people must eat in order to have life in them.
It seems reasonable to me that if Jesus talks about a food that must be eaten in order to attain to eternal life, he’d make sure there was a clear means by which this food can be given out. Today, it occurred to me that this is part of what happened when Jesus “reinstated” Peter at the end of John’s Gospel book. He made him a distributor of the bread of life. So the idea of only the ordained ministers being the presiders over the Eucharist was instituted by Jesus, recorded in Scripture. It’s not a power play by the clerical elites to subjugate the laypeople. It’s not a matter of authority at all, really. It’s a matter of shepherding – making sure the whole Church is properly looked-after while Jesus is with his Father until he returns to join us on earth.