It is another morning, this time far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Uncertain of what the future held, we had gravitated back to the comfortable familiarity of Galilee. Once here, not knowing what else to do, it had not been long before we were back in our boats.
We spent the whole of last night trawling the lake, and came up with nothing to show for it. And then, just as we were drawing in the nets and preparing to come in, he called out from the shore and told us to try the other side of the boat. Now, the bulging net lies on the ground beside the boat, and we have just finished a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. A breakfast cooked and served to us by him.
Having got up to begin cleaning away the remains of breakfast, I find myself alone with him, a few yards away from the others. This is the third time I’ve seen him since he rose, but the first time we’ve been face to face. Although I am close enough that I could reach out my hand and touch him, something holds me back – there is a distance between us that cannot be bridged by mere touch. There is no doubt in my mind that this Jesus who stands before me now is the very same man I saw die a criminal’s death; God has raised him to new life, just as he said would happen. Which means I cannot escape the conclusion that everything he said about himself is true, that he really is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man who is Son of God. This – though it defies all logic and human experience – this I can accept, for there are no alternatives that remotely explain the facts.
But there is something I cannot accept, something I cannot bring myself to consider. Whatever this risen king has in store, whatever the next chapter in this strange story might be, I cannot see how I could possibly deserve a place in it. I am glad he is alive, I am glad to know he is the chosen one of God, but I know I have surely disqualified myself from any further role in his plans. He may have triumphed over the grave, but I am left undone by my pride, my cowardice and my sin, forever condemned to look on from the sidelines. What further use could he have for me, now that I’ve shown him and everyone else that all my gallant words were nothing but empty rhetoric?
He looks over at the others, then back at me. “Simon”, he says, and his use of the name my father gave me somehow cuts through my pretence, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” I shuffle my feet, wanting to look away, but his eyes will not release me. I try to sound as earnest as I can: “Yes, Master, you know I love you”. “Feed my lambs”, comes the reply.
I stand there awkwardly, trying to make some sense of this last comment, when he again looks me in the eye and asks, “Simon, do you love me?” A sudden stab of anger and pain rises up inside me: the anger of his not believing me and the pain of knowing that I am a liar, that I denied him when he needed me most; how can I expect him to believe me now? Yet, still wanting to play the part and save face, I repeat my answer: “Yes, Master, you know I love you”. This time, he tells me to feed his sheep.
By now I am teetering on the edge of a precipice, my emotions threatening to wrest control from me. I am desperately trying to mask my inner turmoil, concentrating on hiding the trembling in my hands. But he has seen it, and he reaches out and gently takes my hand in his. As he once more looks me in the eyes, everything else fades and the whole world is reduced to this moment, this place, the two of us. “Simon”, he asks again, his voice tender, and it is as though his eyes reach deep into my soul, “Simon, do you love me?”
Before I can answer, the wall I have built around my emotions begins to crack, and I feel the hot sting of tears on my cheek. “Master”, I reply, and this time my eyes are pleading with his, I am begging him to believe me, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You have to know that I love you”.
Without warning, it all comes flooding back, everything I did that fateful night, and with it my anger, my fear and my wretchedness. I remember my hurt and my offence when he told me I would deny him, and I feel the burning shame of my failure. Then suddenly, with bell-like clarity, I hear again the words he spoke to me at the table earlier that same evening: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail. So when you’ve repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”
“Feed my sheep”, he says again, gently squeezing my hand. And in that moment, something passes between us and I know that he foresaw even this, that he knew all along that I, his strongest supporter and staunchest ally, would fail him utterly. It dawns on me that, just as I denied him three times, I have now told him three times that I love him; it is as though he was determined to prove to me that the final word about me was not spoken on that dreadful night.
We remain there a few moments longer, and as we talk, I realise that the chasm between us has gone and I have nothing to hide. He does not have to tell me I am forgiven; I simply know that my guilt has been washed away, buried with him in that cold tomb and left there when he rose again. And I understand for the first time this freedom of which he has so often spoken: the freedom of knowing that none of this depends on me, that it has all been done and taken care of in spite of me, and that I no longer have to run from him, from God, from others, or from myself.
I breathe in the cool, fresh morning air as we walk back to the others. A new day has begun.
[ Image: Sean MacEntee ]