I thought it would help to be out on the water. I was wrong. A whole night of futile fishing has left me feeling more frustrated than sitting at home waiting for Jesus to appear. Hadn’t he told us to wait for him in Galilee? We did that. We waited. Then we waited some more. Last night I couldn’t bear it any longer. “I’m going fishing,” I announced, and wasn’t particularly pleased when everyone wanted to come along.
For a while it had soothed me, though. The lapping of the waves against the boat, the life-laden smell of water, the soft hills lit orange by the setting sun, and the steady breeze on my face, all reminded me of simpler days. I could almost forget the shattering events of the last few weeks. Jesus’ arrest. My denial, not just once but three times, before the cock’s reproachful crow. The way my heart flooded with awe, and a tendril of fear, when Jesus appeared to us again after his death. For that was the actual moment I realised I had done more than deny my best friend—I had denied the Son of God himself. Then, as the days and weeks passed, the growing realisation that life would not go back to the way it had been before, when it had been Jesus and us. That, even on the one or two occasions he was with us, things were different. He was different.
Light finally tinges the horison. I stand a while, rubbing warmth into my stiff, cold fingers and watching the black night change to the grainy grey of dawn. At the smell of woodsmoke, I look towards the shore. I can just make out the silhouette of a man, hunched over some glowing coals. The memory of another coal fire at dawn intrudes, but I push the unwelcome thought away. Bad enough that every cock-crow reminds me of it.
“Friends.” The man has risen to his feet and his voice carries over the still water. “Haven’t you any fish?”
The question twists inside me. What had Jesus called us once? Fishers of men. We’d never be that now, not without him by our side. We can’t even catch breakfast.
“Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” I hear laughter in the man’s voice.
“What’s he on about?” I glance at John. “How can he possibly see a shoal of fish in this light, and this far from the shore?” I peer over the boat, looking for tell-tale ripples of silver. Nothing.
“What have we got to lose, Simon?” Andrew grabs the net, and he and James pull it to the edge of the boat and hurl it into the water.
“Time,” I mutter, even as I recall Jesus once telling us to head to deep waters after a long, wasted night of fishing. I’d thought that a waste of time too but we’d ended up with a net full of…
“Fish!” Andrew shouts, and I see the water churning wildly to the right of the boat. “Lots of them!” He and James are leaning over the side, struggling to hold the net. The boat lurches to the right as the others go to their aid.
Only John is staring in the other direction—to the man on the shore—and his face suddenly breaks into a smile. “It is the Lord!”
Jesus? My eyes swivel back to the man. Of course! Who else could give us a catch like this after a futile night? I grab my cloak and pull it around me. Without a second thought I clamber to the rail and jump in.
As I hit the water, indignant voices rise above the splash but I don’t pay my friends any heed. I kick my way through the icy water, to the point where I can stand. Then I wade through the slimy strands on the sea-floor.
On the shore, I shake the water from my hair and beard, then wring as much of it as I can from my robe. Jesus watches, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
I feel a moment of unaccustomed shyness as I join him by the fire. I haven’t been alone with him since just after his resurrection. There’s so much I want to ask him, yet there’s so much I don’t want him to ask me. Why did you deny me Simon? Why did you break your promise to me? How could I have called you a rock, when you’re nothing more than shifting sand?
But Jesus asks none of these condemning questions. He merely prods at the fish steaming on the coals and turns the flat bread baking on a rock tucked into the fire. As we sit silently watching the boat draw nearer, a sense of calm finally envelops me. The aroma of the fish and bread promise food and fellowship, and the fire is keeping the worst of my cold at bay. More than that, simply sitting with Jesus stills some of my inner turmoil. I’d forgotten the effect his presence has on me.
As the boat nears the shore, Jesus calls, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”
“Simon, you deserter!” Andrew bellows. “Come give us a hand here.”
I laugh as I rise and wade back through the water to help them. “You just can’t cope without me, can you?”
When we have wrestled the net full of fish to shore, Jesus calls us to come and eat. We all grow quiet as we sit on the ground around him. Jesus takes the bread and breaks it. I drop my eyes to my hands as he passes me a piece, for his gaze holds a kindness I don’t deserve. Next, he passes the steaming fish around. I toss the hot chunk from hand to hand before swallowing it. Simple fish and bread—the staples of my life—have never tasted so good. We speak little, conscious as never before who we sit with.
When we have finished, Jesus rises and walks to the place where the water laps against the land. I follow him, uncertainly, for I wonder if he prefers to be alone. Yet, there’s so much I suddenly want to say to him, so much distance I wish to close. I was terrified that night. I wish I had been braver. Please can you forgive …
“Simon, son of John.” Jesus turns at the sound of my approach and this time his gaze hooks me and won’t let me go. “Do you love me more than these?”
His question is not one of condemnation, but it still thuds painfully into my heart. I’d always declared I loved him best, but I had grieved him the most.
“Yes, Lord.” I swallow away the lump in my throat. “You know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs,” he says, as he carries on walking slowly along the water’s edge.
I draw alongside him and he looks at me again. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Does he doubt me still? “Yes Lord.” I put all the affection I feel for him into the declaration. “You know that I love you.”
“Take care of my sheep,” he says solemnly.
He stops walking, reaches for me and—hand on my shoulder—asks again, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
The third time he doubts my love, I feel sorrow break inside me. Fleetingly, I wonder if it’s the same kind of pain Jesus felt when he heard the cock crow that fateful morning and knew my love and loyalty had failed him. I bow my head, knowing mere words can’t capture what I feel. My only hope is that he sees my heart.
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
His hand lifts from my shoulder to my chin, tenderly tipping my face upwards. His gaze, when I meet it, is filled with forgiveness and acceptance. Relief laps into me like a gentle wave into sand. Jesus has seen my heart! Three denials have been erased by three declarations of love.
He is still looking at me intently, and I have the strange sense that he is seeing not who I am, but who I am to become. Not Simon son of John, but rather Peter the rock, who he himself named.
“Feed my sheep,” he says softly. “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.”
The ache I hear in his voice warns me that the words are a prophecy I do not wish to see fulfilled. Yet some of my dread washes away as he gently speaks the words with which he first called me.
I turn when I hear the footfalls, annoyed to see John not far behind us. Was he listening to our conversation all this time? I’m only too aware that John was the sole disciple who stayed by the cross, comforting Jesus’ mother. The Lord didn’t have to ask him three times if he loved him, for John’s actions had proved his devotion. The old familiar rivalry rises up in me again, that sense of having to vie for Jesus’ approval.
“Lord, what about him?” I jerk my thumb backwards.
Jesus doesn’t even glance back. He knew all along John was there. His gaze doesn’t leave my face as he asks, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
I see the truth of it then. Jesus won’t let me escape by looking at another. The path he has for me is mine alone, and I need to obey him–step by step by challenging step.
Jesus nods at my insight and says softly, “You must follow me.” The words carry the authority of a command I cannot disobey and the tenderness of an invitation I cannot refuse.
Yes! I know then that I will go wherever he leads—caring for his lambs and sheep—even if the path takes me to danger and death, for he has called me Peter, the rock. I will not fail him again.
This story is based on John 21:1-23. It is one of a collection of short stories for a book entitled Questions: Jesus asked of my heart.
Other stories in the collection: