I am writing to you from Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee where twenty-five of us are on a pilgrimage in Israel. This beautiful freshwater lake goes by other names in the Bible: Lake Tiberias and Lake Gennesaret. Much of Jesus’ ministry took place around this lake. This morning was our first morning on the lakeshore and the sunrise over the lake was stunning.
Among the places we visited was a small chapel built on the shore of the lake to remember what may have been the most important event in the life of Simon Peter. Peter and some of the other disciples had been fishing all night. The past week had been the most tumultuous time of their lives–far worse than any storm they had endured on the lake. Jesus–their rabbi, their friend, their Lord–had been arrested, tried in a poor mockery of a trial, humiliated, abused, and cruelly killed on a cross. They had had the strange and wonderful experience of the resurrected Christ, yet they did not know what the future would hold. They still didn’t know what they would do with their lives. So, it’s only natural that they would revert to the familiar. Peter declared, “I’m going fishing.” The other fishermen-turned-disciples chimed in, “We’re going with you.” That’s how they ended up where they were, having fished all night and caught nothing. During the quiet night on the lake, coming up with an empty net time and time again, they must have thought back to another time when they had fished all night and caught nothing. On that occasion, a stranger on the shore had told them where to cast the net and they had pulled in a catch that became one of their fishing tales told time and time again. That stranger was Jesus and when he called them to follow they had dropped their nets and left their boats and followed him. Three years. So much water under the bridge.
Each one had his own experience of grief and his own regrets. For Simon Peter, this was worse. Jesus had said that the disciples would all scatter when he was arrested and Peter had protested: “others may desert you, but I never will.” Jesus replied, “In fact, Simon Peter, before the rooster crows in the morning you will deny me three times.” What a painful memory. Standing by a charcoal fire warming himself in the courtyard of Caiaphas, the High Priest, he had, in fact, denied even knowing Jesus. To make matters worse, he had done it three times–the third time with a curse. How could he ever be forgiven? How could he ever forgive himself?
The sun was beginning to rise on the lake and the boat was as empty as their hearts. They spotted a stranger on the shore. He asked them about their catch and when they said they had caught nothing, the stranger on the shore told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. When they cast the net and brought it up again, it was so full of fish that they thought the net might break–153 fish in that one catch. They recognized that the stranger was the risen Christ.
Although they were one hundred yards from the shore, Peter couldn’t wait. He jumped into the water and made his way to the shore. What did he find when he arrived? There was the risen Christ, sitting by a charcoal fire. The sun was just coming up and roosters were crowing all over the countryside. The sight and smell of the charcoal fire, the feel of the cool morning air, the sound of the roosters crowing. It certainly would have taken him back to that terrible moment when he had denied Jesus three times. I think Jesus set up this multi-sensory experience just for Simon Peter–not to cause him pain, but to provide him with a new beginning. He had denied him three times, but now Jesus asked him three times, calling him by name, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” Three times he was able to answer, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
“Then, feed my sheep,” Jesus replied.
It was for Simon Peter a new beginning with a new purpose. He would serve Christ and would be the leader of the early church, a shepherd caring for the sheep.
We had a brief time of worship in the chapel there, remembering that One who cared so much for Simon Peter that he arranged for an experience that would give Simon a new beginning and a new purpose. This is the same risen Lord who today offers us the same.
Grace and Peace,