The sun is just beginning to peep over the horizon, lighting the sky with soft pastels to awaken the world to a fresh new day. But what do I care? All night we worked, waiting and watching, hoping for at least a small catch; yet nothing; nothing to prove for the nights work and no food to eat or to trade. My body is sleeked with sweat, despite the chill of morning, and my stomach growls, ready for a good meal, although where we’ll get food, I don’t know.
As my companions row to shore, I watch the water passing by, bitter thoughts crossing my mind: frustration, confusion, bitterness…shame. I look to shore and see a man there, the rising sun behind him making it impossible to distinguish his features. He calls out in a clear voice to us, “children, do you have any fish?” Who is he? A trades man? A beggar looking for someone with a large enough catch that they will spare? He won’t find that here.
“No” I growl at him, my frustration heard in my words and visible in my dark look, though I doubt he can see at this distance.
“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” Does this man know nothing of fishing, yet he has the audacity to tell us what to do? Is it not obvious that we have been working all night and yet caught nothing? All the same, I look towards my companions, catching John’s eye. He simply shrugs and follows this man’s instructions; he will humor him.
Aggravated, I turn my back to both my companions and the man at shore, facing out to look over the sea, across its seemingly endless breadth. I hear a cry from my companions and turn around to see them struggling to hold onto the net which is now teaming with a multitude of fish.
“It is the Lord!” cries John as he gazes in wonder at the catch. Stunned, I look again towards shore and can now make out the man’s features as he has moved closer to the water.
“Rabi” I breathe, frustration and annoyance replaced by wonder and awe. Without hesitation or thought, I tear off my outer garment and jump into the water. My body embraces the cold yet refreshing bath and my muscles kick into gear, my whole mind and will set on reaching the shore where Jesus is.
Reaching the bank, I walk towards him, soaked and dripping, breathing heavily. He has made a fire and a place for us to rest and eat. The others are just pulling the boat onto land, the net still full of the catch. Not looking up from the flames, Jesus says “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” Getting aboard, I grab the large net and with all my strength bring it onto shore and we count them. 153.
One hundred and fifty three fish we caught, with just one toss and not one tear in the net. Amazed, we stand there, unable to take in what has just happened in front of us.
“Come and have breakfast” Jesus says, lifting his eyes and looking at us, as if daring us to question his identity or power. Joining him on the sand, we eat the bread and fish he has prepared for us, savoring its delicious taste and enjoying the soft warmth the rising sun brings.
Once we have finished, we begin to talk. There are so many questions to ask, so many things that are beginning to make sense and things to plan and prepare for. He is back. He really, truly is back. Although this is the third time we’ve seen him, it is as if our minds are unable to grasp the truth and reality of this miracle. He is back. Jerusalem shall be restored, all shall be made well. The excitement around the fire seems to heighten and I see the gleam in my companion’s eyes as we talk about things we hope and dream for.
Then his eyes are piercing into mine, and it’s as if he is looking deep into my mind. I flinch back, startled by the fear I find in my own mind.
“Simon, son of John” he says softly to me, although everyone is looking at us now. “Do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” My reply is immediate and automatic, although I know it is true.
“Feed my lambs.” His look is intense, purposeful and certain. His lambs? What lambs does he mean? And what does he mean by ‘more than these’? More than what? The food we are eating? These friends of mine who have been by my side for these past two years now, following and listening to Jesus? As the conversation picks up again and I hear their laughter, it seems as if I am far away, outside of my body and mind, lost in memories.
I remember the moment I first encountered him, where he told me to leave everything I knew and loved, my whole life, and told me to come be a fisher of men. I remember when he asked us, his disciples, who we thought he was and the sureness I felt when I said he was the Messiah, the savior of Israel. I also remember the look in his eyes as he rebuked me, telling me to get behind him and stop hindering him. Or around the table when he said in front of everyone that I would deny him three times. But that final moment, after having just denied him, when he looked right into my eyes, right into my very soul, seeing it bare and laid before him. That look of anguish and loss will never leave my mind. But what scared me most in that moment was the love I saw in his eyes. Behind the hurt and pain, I saw the depth of his love he had for me; and that…that was truly unbearable. It was that look that had haunted and tortured me, day and night, unable to get it out of my mind. Even now, with him before me, even now when he was asking for that love in return.
“Simon, son of John” comes his voice, interrupting my thoughts again. Startled, I look at him, wondering if maybe he had heard those thoughts. Sometimes it seems as if he could read people’s minds.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”
Sheep? Jesus often speaks in parables and riddles, but this truly makes no sense. What sheep am I to tend? What lambs are there to feed? And why does he seem so uncertain about my love for him? Can he not understand the pain and regret I have been carrying around since that evil night? Does he not see this utter self-loathing and hatred that has consumed my mind and heart, taking me to places of darkness that I have never experienced before? Does he not realize that seeing his broken, bleeding and bruised body upon that cross brought me to such a level of unthinkable shame and regret that for the next three days I could not even sleep or eat, but was awake, those memories burned into my mind, unable to stop myself from replaying them over and over? Does he not understand that since we heard from Mary that the grave was open my heart has been in such a state of fragile hope that at any moment that hope could vanish?
When I saw that empty grave, saw the linen that should be covering the body, it was as if a small light sparked in my soul and was awoken, giving me just the tiniest hope to keep going. Then when he appeared to us as we were gathered around the table, the feeling of longing consumed my very heart and mind. It was as if the life line had been thrown to me from the boat, but my hands were unable to take hold. Because, try as I might, the memories of that night I am unable to escape from. The memory of denying my Lord, rejecting the friendship and relationship that has been my very life for two years, those memories bring so much shame, it’s as if I will never again find fullness in this life.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” A third time this question is spoken into my ear. But this time I cannot answer. If he truly is the Christ, does he not see the pain and anguish he is bringing to me? Can he not see my shame, my weakness and my disbelief? Panicked, I look at him. His eyes are steady and deep; deeper than any other eyes I have seen before. In desperation I cry, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
He pauses, touches my hand and speaks softly, “feed my sheep.”
Feed them, tend them, nurture them, as if they are young lambs, unable to care for themselves; his sheep, his children. Just what he said when he called to us from the shore. He wanted me to take care of them, he was trusting me with this task. I, Simeon Peter, who had denied him three times on the night he was tortured and killed. This love, it can’t be real. This trust and adoration, why is it directed to me? Did he ask me three times whether I loved him, not because he doubted, but to show me that I am more than my mistakes? Yes, I denied him three times. But I also assured him of my love three times.
Standing up, Jesus once more looks me in the eyes and says, “follow me.”
Rising also, I meet his gaze and am ready to follow my Lord.