In the dark betrayal of night the hotheaded Galilean followed his friend. He would have died for him, with him, in a bloodfight, and even still his sword rested sheathed against his leg, ready. He had proved his loyalty, striking boldly at the guard, inviting the battle, and his master had only healed the wound. What was this way he was to walk? Words of peace rose here and there, churned by his inclination to rise up in rebellion against everything that was wrong. This was wrong. Surely now there was room to stand their ground.
He sat with the high priest’s servants in the palace, straining to hear what was going on, catching the sound of jeering. He was helpless to do anything and his sword mocked him mercilessly. He ached to do something.
The woman had been peering at him for some time, leaning over to her companion, whispering. Now she leaned forward and pointed at him: “You were with him.” Shocked, he stood and said gruffly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” before he wheeled into the night. This was no place to stand their ground, surrounded by no friends, with no position of strength or retreat. His pulse raced as he considered their options.
Another woman, standing in the shadows of the porch, came forward and confronted him. “You have been with him; you’re one of them.” Others turned to look at him, moving to block his exit, staring more closely. “I tell you: I am not; I swear it,” he replied, taking stock of who had weapons and whether he could overpower the servants already standing in the way. How could he get Jesus out of here?
They drew closer, menacing with the burning spite now licking at the palace, and began to accuse: “You were with him; you speak like a Galilean.” With a tremendous push, he shouldered his way from the porch, shaking off the servants who grabbed at his cloak, knocking over one of the women who screamed as he ran toward her, beyond the door to the open gallery, where the Lord turned to look directly at him.
“Three times,” he remembered Jesus say, and his breath caught as he remembered the Lord’s promise that not only would he be offended, he would deny. Out into the black night he ran, blinded by tears and fear and rage at his failure. His breathing slowed as he turned into the fourth darkened street, sword held close for protection. He leaned against the wall, his gaze moving back and forth, thoughts pounding through his mind. Slowly, he sank against the rough wall as he realized the magnitude of what he had done in the press of the night, and sobs racked his heavy frame.
In my mind’s eye, that’s how the night felt to Peter, as the Sanhedrin met to face the hated Messiah and Peter stood there helpless. I have often felt as I imagine he did, small in my realities when my heart swells great promises of devotion. I seldom remember that the true test is holding on, waiting, standing quietly firm instead of mounting some great defense, putting away my sword and my power and letting what may, come.
Today, however, I am enlivened with a tremendous hope, after a revelatory discussion with one of my sisters this weekend.
I now imagine myself on the sea of Galilee, watching a boat days later. Their minds heavy with the events of preceding days – seeing the dreadful cross, the empty tomb, the visit of the Lord, his hands and feet, the command to go forth, and the sudden void of their days – the master’s apostles struggled to make sense of their place in the work. Everything was changed; what were they to do?
Peter stood suddenly and announced, “I’m going fishing.” Several others stood immediately and said, “We’re coming too.”
With the toss and pull of the nets, they worked in silence, feeling the confidence of familiar labor ease away the confusion of the previous days. There were no fish, but it was no matter. For hours they continued to toil, pressing their frustration into throwing and pulling until they began to grow weary and quiet.
Across the water came a man’s clear voice, “Have you caught anything?” They yelled back, “No,” grateful for another fisherman across the brooding sea. “Cast over the right side and you will find.” Hungry for visible success after months of preaching and feeling lost in their lifework, they cast. The nets pulled immediately, heavy with the catch.
John caught Peter’s eye, and in stunned wonder said, “It is the Lord.” Peter reacted immediately, throwing on his coat and leaping into the sea, without a thought of walking on the water, hungry for the presence of his Lord. The others turned the ship, struggling with the haul of fish while Peter threw himself into pulling his body through the water.
There sat the Lord, a fire glowing with fish and bread, and while Peter joined them in bringing the heavy but unbroken net with its treasure, the Lord waited with his small, warm feast. They sat in the silence and ate, too many words to say any at all.
When they had finished, Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Do you love me, even more than they do?” Remembering his denial, Peter lowered his head and quietly said, “Yea Lord, thou knowest I love thee.” What could he answer? Had they denied him? What made him fit to lead?
“Then feed my lambs.”
The Lord looked quietly from one of them to another, his gaze finally resting again on Peter. He spoke again, “Peter, do you really love me?” A low, painful groan escaped Peter’s hands, clasped over his bowed face. “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Peter shook, sobbing quietly as the memories of that horrible night rose again before him. His failures, his impetuousness, his foolishness, his weakness – all these mocked him as he sat face to face with his Lord, with those he was now supposed to direct looking on.
“Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” Wrenched from within, a cry burst from Peter’s aching. “Lord, you know all things, and you know I love you.” His sorrow now flowed from him like blood from an open wound cut deep by the words of his betrayed master, no longer stemmed by pride or worry but raw and aching with the imperfection of his vows of devotion.
Long moments passed in silence, until slowly Peter looked up into the face of the Lord. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said simply. His eyes held Peter’s, and Peter understood. He was forgiven. Three times he had denied the Lord, and three times the Lord showed him that true allegiance was not in proving that he was faithful with a sword or even with a public martyrdom, but in going forward now and testifying. In wonder, he looked long into the Lord’s loving eyes and felt the wound knitting closed, empowered for the first time in a long time to do something. Resolved, the others looked on, Peter’s leadership validated by the Lord.
In my moments of failure, of imperfect testimony or outright denial, the Lord is less interested in my proof that I’ve changed, in my depth of sorrow for having failed and my penance legally offered, than he is in my commitment to help another by bearing pure testimony from my moment of realization forward.
That horrible night ended for Peter, no longer to be replayed, because the Lord directed Peter’s love for him to others. Move on, he admonishes. Be healed. Once, twice, three times the offer of redemption comes.
Feed his sheep.