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Sunday, July 20, 2003

It's late on Sunday night, and I'm sick as a dog, and I keep thinking about Peter. I blogged a little while back about how I found a lot to think about in Christ's pre-betrayal forgiveness of Peter, but since then I've been thinking about Peter's reaction to the risen Christ in John 21.

It was three days after the Crucifixion, and the disciples were standing around, not sure what to do, not sure what to feel. Christ had told them that he would come back, but they didn't quite understand it -- and who can blame them? No matter how hard Christ tried to explain that he would be coming back, it's still a hard pill to swallow. I imagine that Peter was laboring under the memory of his ignominious cowardice at the moment of crisis. Christ had predicted that very thing. Yet Christ had told him that he prayed that Peter would recover and provide support to his brothers. What support could he give? He, who betrayed the man he loved most in the world? Even though he had already been forgiven, what was the point of that forgiveness?

Peter sullenly muttered that he was going fishing, which was bitterly ironic in light of Christ's announcement that he would become a "fisher of men" at their first meeting. Yet, I suspect that it would have been a good opportunity for Peter to get some time to himself to reflect on what had happened, and on what Christ had said to him. Unfortunately, the disciples annouced that they were coming along too, uninvited. Sometimes you feel more alone in a crowd than when you're physically alone. The uninvited attendance of the others makes me think of two things. One, given that Peter was trying to deal with his own shame, the constant presence of the others probably reminded him of his inability to hide his shame from God. Two, it foreshadows the role that he would soon play as the leader, encourager, and nurturer of his brothers. The fact that everyone else wanted to hang around Peter in this time of confusion shows his natural leadership and important role in the future. So Peter and his unwanted guests went fishing.

It was a dark night, and a long one -- they caught nothing.

And then day broke.

From their position about a hundred yards off shore, they saw a man standing on the beach. He shouted "Children, you don't have any fish, do you?" This had to seem like a condescending and irritating statement to the men; they were tired and cranky after a long night of wasted time, they were scared of their future and what would become of them, and it must have been perfectly clear to this critic on the shore that they didn't have any fish. And who was he to call them "Children"? They shouted back "No," which was probably the minimum possible response; they weren't exactly interested in engaging in a conversation. But the man told them to throw their nets over the right side of the boat, and -- for whatever reason -- they decided to give it a try. I suspect that this reminded them of the first time that Christ met Peter and his business partners James and John, when he told them to throw out their nets one last time after they had already given up. Here again, they had the nerve to give it a try. (But can you imagine the embarrassment if they had come up empty, just because some passing weirdo told them to try again?) This time, as with the first, the nets were full to overflowing. (Side note: in the first miracle, the nets started to break. In the second miracle, the nets held -- which shows the perfection of the risen Christ.)

John was the first one to understand what had happened; he shouted "It's the Lord!" (He was the clever one, after all, and the one who would write the really emotional book.) But even though he was "the one whom Jesus loved," he stayed on the boat and helped the other disciples row to shore. Of course, like idiots, they held on to the huge catch of fish, which had to slow them down considerably. And how often do we try to hold on to earthly things that hold us back, at the very moment when Christ calls out to us?

But this is what has been buzzing in my fevered brain tonight: Peter -- the betrayer, the liar, the one who said he would go with Christ to death and then turned away at the first sign of trouble -- Peter wasn't content to be so slow, nor was he going to let himself be bogged down with the catch of fish that was completely unimportant now. He leaped straight out of the boat and flailed across the hundred yards to shore as fast as he could.

I am in awe of this unhesitating enthusiasm; the pure, childlike joy in his exultation. It reminds me of when we went to a pond with Bailiff, and the ecstasy with which she ran through the shallow water after the ducks that honked and slowly flew away. It was as if God had chosen to suspend the law of gravity so that Bailiff could transcend this world for one soft moment. Her pleasure demonstrated God's pleasure. And I'm starting to think that God sees us in that way, or wants to see us that way. We're so blind down here that we can't see what's really going on, can't see how the fibers of our choices twine and spin and break and make a patterned cloth, but we don't have to know any of that. It's not for us to know, any more than it was any of Bailiff's business how the laws of physics permitted such ecstasy. All we have to do is recognize our Master's face and run like mad towards him.

I am also stricken by the contrasts between this scene and the last time that Peter got out of a boat. During the storm, he was bolder than the rest of the disciples because he had the guts to ask permission to walk on water. But he was also so nervous that he asked permission first -- and when he realized that his faith didn't make logical sense, he started to sink. This time was different; there was no hesitation, no permission, no recognition of the limitations of this world. He tucked in his garment (so he wouldn't be naked, a big no-no when approaching the Divine under the Law) and let his heart take over.

A last thought. Christ later asked Peter three times whether Peter loved Him; each time, Peter said "You know that I love you" and Christ responded by urging him to his ministry of caring for the flock. But on the third time, Peter understood that Christ was echoing the three denials, and his feelings were hurt. Peter's response was the only sensible thing that he (or we) could say: "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you." Before, during the Last Supper, Peter had presumed to proclaim to Christ what the future would hold. He boldly announced to Christ that he would be brave and strong, and follow Christ to the grave. Christ slashed Peter's puffed ego by telling him that the future held things that were contrary to his every intention: he would betray the man that he loved.

This time, Peter was wise enough to answer correctly. The only response we can make to God is to open our hearts to him, and recognize that He already knows us, and indeed already knows what we will do and where we will go. All we can do is ask Christ to recognize the love we feel for him. Peter's openness demonstrated that his false bravado was gone, and that he understood his limitations as a man.

That was what prepared him to receive the very next piece of information. Christ told Peter that he would be crucified; that, in fact, Peter would get the chance to make good on his rash promise he made a few days earlier. He would follow Christ to the grave. And making matters worse, Christ explained to him that John would not have to suffer the same fate, which meant that Christ had chosen a particularly bitter and "unfair" burden for Peter to carry. But Peter was now ready to hear the words. If Christ had told him about the future before the Crucifixion, it would have matched Peter's own self-delusions and would not have made the right impact. Now, Peter understood that the task set for him by Christ was the very task in which he had already failed.

But this time Peter succeeded. He ministered the Gospel, he wrote to the believers in their time of greatest doubt and suffering, and then -- just as his Master told him he would -- he boldly gave his life for his faith. And I think that the reason that he succeeded this time, where he had failed before, was because he finally understood how weak and frail he was. He understood that his greatest asset was not his strong shoulders or his bold confidence. His greatest asset -- maybe his only asset -- was his willingness to open his heart and declare his love for the man he called Lord.

 11:10 PM

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