I remember the hot summer when we discovered ice cream sandwiches in the bottom of the cooler at the corner store. That cake-like chocolate graham crust with the sweet vanilla ice cream oozing out; we were mad for them after that first taste. But at ten cents apiece, they were expensive. Whether we rode our bikes, or played ball in the sun, or sat and played marbles in the shade, we talked and dreamed about those soft, cool, creamy sandwiches. Within a week we had tapped out our ready sources of money: mooching and scouring the fields for pop bottles worth 2 cents each. We were all looking for ways to afford just one more ice cream sandwich.
My dad worked nights. He would come home to join us for breakfast, and then sleep till late afternoon. As he got up from the breakfast table one morning, I heard the jingle of change in his pants. Something ugly stirred in my mind. That change was just what we needed, what I had to have. All day long I kept coming into the house and listening at his door: sleeping sounds, slow, even snoring. I cracked the door, and there hanging at the foot of the bed were those pants, that change, those ice cream sandwiches. Another appetite rose up in me—my chance to be the big man in the neighborhood. I slipped in and took a handful of change.
We ate like greedy pigs as we sat in the shade of the corner store. I told them it was birthday money I’d saved. My friends were so happy, and they were smiling at me. I felt satisfied before I ever ate the sandwich.
That went on every day for about two weeks and what a time it was. I had gotten good at slipping in and slipping out without a sound. Coins sweating already in my hand, I would run to my buddies and we headed to the store. They didn’t ask where I got the money anymore. One day there was no change in dad’s pocket so I felt for his wallet, hesitated a moment, then took out two whole dollars. I had been okay with taking the change, but those dollars made my face feel hot. Even before we began gorging ourselves on ice cream, my stomach felt sick. The importance and joy I had felt buying for my friends was gone that afternoon. I realized I was in pretty deep. If dad knew, he’d kill me, but worse, he’d have that look in his eye, that disappointment he would get when I’d miss catching a ball or get a bad grade. Now, I had stolen from my dad. I couldn’t face him, and didn’t know what to do. Early that afternoon, the sun high and hot, I grabbed my fishing pole and walked down the tracks to the reservoir, wishing my stomach would quit aching, and praying nobody would see me crying.
Sometimes we have sinned in our own eyes so deeply that we don’t know how to return to God. Our sin seems so big we simply can’t face Him. It’s not that we don’t love God. In fact, it is largely because we do that we can’t figure out how to tell Him about what we did. We betrayed His love. How do you handle the utter failure where we presumed loyalty? Well, of course we are unworthy whatever we do, we know that, but now we feel it, and just can’t lift our faces to His. So, we hide from Him. From ourselves. We go fishing maybe, like a little boy did, like even the great apostle Peter did. Driven by guilt at his actions during our Lord’s arrest and trial, the Peter who ran away now walked slowly into the shadowy world of self-rejection. He buried himself back in what he knew best—fishing. Peter’s situation offers instruction for us about this place of remorse and despair. Let’s start that night where Peter began his deep fall, and watch Peter as he came to be where most of us find ourselves one day.
Peter at Gethsemane
A late night chill fell wet with the early dew, and Peter huddled further into his cloak. Through that mist of half-sleep, he listened to occasional crackles from their smoldering fire. The day had been long, a feast day, and his belly was happily full; his body, exhausted. Peter lay in the flickering shadows of Gethsemane, held between the wooing of sleep and the pondering of riddles that kept him from it. Jesus was always speaking in riddles, and this night he had outdone himself. ‘This is my body, broken for you…my blood, shed for you…’ Peter played the words over and over; still they made no sense. Some distance away his beloved Rabbi also lay prone; but not in sleep—He was agonizing in prayer.
The fire crackled again piercing the night with sparks. Peter stirred, and his thoughts went to his father Jonas. Even Jonas had been fooled by the myth of confident control that Peter nurtured about himself, eventually giving him the day to day responsibility for their fishing enterprise. For all appearances, Peter had been more than competent, and they now had two homes, a growing fleet, and servants. Still, Peter’s insecurity haunted him, forcing him to act all the more with the swaggering storminess that had become the convenient mask he wore. The men of course were fooled. He was making a name for himself that everyone except Peter believed. Until Jesus. "You are Simon, (a wavering reed) …you shall be Peter, (a rock)." Peter had instantly understood what Jesus meant, what Jesus knew about him. Peter begged Jesus to leave him be, it was plain what an awful sinner he was. But Jesus looked calmly at him until Peter turned away in anger, or maybe fear? Peter both loved and needed this strange man who saw his pretense.
Partly he felt he was drowning inside the man he played. The responsibility he carried for others weighed heavily on him. He had always felt responsible for others, and needed to care for them as much to feed his own needs as to meet theirs. Insecurity ate at him. The real fear was that he would fail others, and lose their respect. Yet he felt that obligation for others and it drove him to lead his crews and to follow Jesus to this very night. What a strange night.
He smiled as he heard a last crackle from the fire. Somewhere, he slipped from being lost in thought to being lost in sleep.
From the cloudy recesses he heard that voice, low and with urgency: “Simon? Simon! Are you asleep?”
“Am I?” he more thought than said.
Jesus sighed. “Could you not pray with me for even one hour?” His voice held that tinge of disappointment that Peter could not miss even in his foggy state. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Peter watched Jesus as He walked some distance away again for privacy, to continue in prayer. He sought to rise, to pray as the master had urged. John and James were making the snorts and groans of men sleeping fitfully. He would have to wake them, in just a moment he would, and together they would pray as Jesus urged. In a moment...
“Simon! James? John?” This time his voice was not low, and all three sat up, blinked at him and each other. None responded. What could they say? Peter shook himself, pawing at sleepy eyes.
“You still sleep and rest? The hour has come,” Jesus pointed just below, where torch-lights were coming towards them, “and here now comes my betrayer.”
Peter heard that resignation again, but something else too, an anticipation, an eagerness? He tried to shed the sleepiness from his body, from his mind, as he stood. Judas led the crowd, their hands filled with swords and clubs. He stared unbelieving; these were no Roman soldiers, but the High Priest’s private guards. Peter’s body began to flush. Something was very wrong. His jaw set hard. His hand instinctively felt for the hilt of his sword.
Judas kissed the master, greeting him. “Rabbi,” was all he said, a bit too loud, like one of those theater actors. Peter thought he saw something cross his master’s face. Pain? Maybe. Maybe just the dancing shadows of the torch light.
Jesus looked at Judas a moment, and then stepped away towards the crowd. “Who are you seeking?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” bellowed out from the crowd. Peter felt a rage building within, heightened by fear. He looked from the grim crowd to Jesus.
“I am he.” The steady voice rumbled, almost like thunder; his eyes blazed. A slight smile grew on Peter’s face as he saw the crowd fall away, some to the ground. He so admired Jesus. In that moment he sensed the power Jesus held, the courage, and Peter drew from it. He had seen Jesus in action before. Peter was committed to whatever happened next.
Peter was not the only one to be fingering his sword’s hilt. One of the other disciples asked eagerly, “Jesus, shall we fight? We have our swords.” With that, Peter felt his sword’s heft suddenly in hand. His heart raced. The guards had drawn closer; one was now within reach. With a deep breath Peter took full swing, aiming to crush the skull of the guard nearest him. Somehow his blade missed its mark, catching only the man’s ear. Blood spewed out, the guard recoiling in surprise. Peter drew back again, readying another strike. The crowd recovered and started forward.
“No more of this,” Jesus commanded. “Put your swords away!”
Peter’s arm dropped. He watched in awe, as Jesus knelt down, picked up the ear, and went to the dazed man’s side. There, Jesus replaced the fallen ear on this guard who seemed intent to do Him harm! Peter stood with his own ears pounding in fury. That Jesus was saying something, he could more see than hear.
“Am I leading a rebellion,” Jesus said, turning back to the crowd, who stood frozen, looking at Jesus with bewilderment, “that you have come with clubs and swords to capture me?” His face glistened in the flickering light, wet with perspiration from his labors in prayer. “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me there?” He was speaking now with contempt. “But the writings of the prophets must be fulfilled.”
Peter was confused, angry, frustrated. He watched open-mouthed as Jesus gave himself to the pushing and shoving mob. And fear was gripping him, washing over him. Some of the disciples began to run. Peter’s heart left him. He ran. He ran, not far, but he ran, his chest heaving for air when he stopped and turned, his face filled with anguish. Now he prayed, but with angry arguments and accusations. Tears streamed down his face. He followed them, from a safe distance, transfixed. He tried to enter the High Priest’s house where Jesus was brought, but was prevented by the guards. He backed away, but his eyes searched for Jesus. Finally, he joined some that were huddled near a kindled fire in the courtyard. He could not diminish the chill growing within. Somewhere, a rooster crowed, the night nearly spent. ‘Where is God?’ was angrily on the lips of his heart. He clung to the edge of rage; rage at Rome, rage at the Pharisees, rage at himself.
Three times that night, Peter would deny that he had ever known Jesus, even taking an oath, and calling down curses on himself, that he had never so much as met this Nazarene. Another rooster crowed as the morning light rose on the horizon and Peter fell into the darkest hour of his life. He remembered the words of Jesus at the feast, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times.” He staggered as the thought came clear: Jesus knew this too! Peter wept, not cleansing tears. It was disgust that poured through his eyes.
Dad Bigger Than I Knew
Have you wept those bitter tears? Have you walked away from Him because of your sin? Some will walk back to God as the prodigal son did, and find open arms. But some find no course of action. Empty and unworthy, disgrace and despair curl like flames flickering around your heart. Just like He knew about Peter, God knew we were going to fail even when He called us to His side. But God will use our failure to teach us something that can be learned no other way. Although just a little boy, my dad taught me something about God that hot afternoon fishing in the old reservoir, something I needed to know, something perhaps your Father wants you to discover today for yourself.
As I sat hurting that day, knowing there was no way to get right with my dad, I saw him walking along the tracks. He was a big man who swaggered like a sailor in a rocking sea, his arms swinging to the sides as he went. But now he was walking slow and deliberate, looking somehow as heavy as I felt. I couldn’t run. I just sat there, watching him come to me, my pole motionless in my hands, barely breathing. I don’t remember being afraid. No, it was more feeling deeply sorrowful at hurting him. My eyes were watery when he came up. He just quietly sat alongside me and stared in the water with me.
After what seemed a very long time he asked, “How’re they bitin’ son?”
I couldn’t speak. I was too near crying. We sat quietly, a bird singing nearby, and I stuck out my chin as best I could, willing to take whatever beating he thought I needed, if he would only take me back.
In a moment I will never forget, he said, “Son, I’ve known since the first day you took the money. I watched every day out the window as you and your friends ate ice cream. I didn’t say anything, because I wanted to let you come and tell me yourself. It hurt me that you were stealing from me, but it hurt more you didn’t come and tell me. Son, you can always come to me when you’ve done wrong. I love you son.” And with that, his hand reached out, not to strike me, but to pull me to his chest, where I cried. As I cried, my dad told me he trusted me, and that everything he had would be mine some day. Because I couldn’t go to him, he came to me. It may be that God is coming to you. See how He came to Peter.
The True Shepherd Seeks Lost Sheep
A week passed. Peter had returned to his fishing with six other disciples. He had betrayed His Rabbi, the one he was sure was Messiah, and there was nothing else now to do. So they fished hard, trying to forget, to bury themselves in work. Then that morning came. Your morning is coming too.
It had been cold and fruitless. They rowed in silence. Having fished all night, they were tired and hungry. Coming in to moor for the day, they were within a hundred yards of the shore when they heard a voice calling to them.
A man stood up beside a low fire, “Friends, have you any fish?”
“No,” one of them replied, all of them deep in somber thought.
“Throw your net on the right side of the boat. There you will find some,” and with that, the stranger crouched back down and resumed tending his fire.
When they did as he said, the net was filled to breaking, and they strained to haul in the catch. As John tugged at the lines, the similarity to another day hit him. He caught Peter’s eye and whispered excitedly, “It is the master!”
As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. -Ezekiel 34:12
Peter’s face came to life as he stood and squinted towards shore. Absentmindedly he let the net slip from his hands and grabbed his shirt, jumped into the water, and headed as fast as he could to shore. The other disciples followed with the boat, still struggling with the catch.
Jesus just sat there smiling, tending the few fish and some bread he had prepared. Peter sat slowly, staring, unable to speak, not knowing what to say if he could. Tears welled up, but he fought them back. The others arrived at the bank, some approaching, most just standing on the beach looking on.
“Bring some of the fish you’ve caught,” Jesus said, waiving them over without looking up. “You must be hungry, let’s have some breakfast.” None of the disciples needed to ask who this stranger was. Jesus prepared enough for all and passed around fish and bread to each. They ate in an uncomfortable silence, a silence punctuated by the sail's flapping in the wind and a floating gull's occasional screech overhead. The sun was streaming its way out of the sea now. The men glanced around, mostly looking at the stony soil as they ate, occasionally glancing from Peter to Jesus, and back. When they finished, there was an awkward stillness.
Jesus looked slowly at each disciple, warmed by knowing their bellies were filled. Self consciously, they nervously wiped their mouths on their sleeves, or their hands on their tunics, to break the tension. His eyes held them with patience. A gull swooped low nearby. Jesus’ eyes narrowed as he caught Peter’s. “Simon, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Master,” Peter’s throat was hoarse as he answered, “You know I care for you.” Peter, in his early zeal, like you and I, had often proclaimed his unwavering love and devotion. Now the words were too much to say.
Jesus looked at the dying fire. The wind gusted. Looking back up, he stared a moment at Peter, examining, weighing, and said quietly, “Feed my lambs.”
The men looked at Peter. Peter couldn’t move. No one breathed.
Jesus looked away again, at a few lonely gulls circling above the beach, and repeated, “Simon, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know how much I care for you.” A few tears came rolling out, like those great drops of rain that plop down just before a summer shower. The air had that same tinge of electricity. He never took his eyes off Jesus, though he could hardly see now.
Jesus studied Peter. “Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. Then he looked away. Moments passed in silence.
Those gentle eyes, that Peter knew should have been piercing, demanding, accusing, turned again to Peter, as He softly asked the third time, “Simon, do you even care for me?”
The tears rolled off his cheek and down his shirt. Some of the men looked down, fighting their own emptions. Peter could bear no more, his three denials haunting him all the more in Jesus’ three questions. But to ask now, if he even cared for Jesus! What had he done? Who is this Rabbi that comes back from the dead? “Master,” Peter replied as an unexpected calm poured over him, “you know all things.”
Jesus smiled at Peter, a smile welcoming one from a far journey back home. He rose, his eyes telling Peter to come, and he began walking. Peter walked alongside, as Jesus said again, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus spoke as they walked, perhaps about the frequent foolishness of sheep and the unchanging care afforded them by shepherds. I think Jesus took Peter aside to give him privacy as that summer rain fell hard from his eyes, cleansing a wounded soul. Jesus stopped, turned, and taking Peter by the shoulders, said again, as at the first, “Follow me.”
And, what is Jesus saying to you?
(by Art Mealer, 919.606.3627, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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