[IMAGE: “The Tears of Saint Peter,” Jusepe de Ribera, 1612]
He was everything. I was nothing, and He made me something. My name is Cephas, or better “Peter”—that’s what Jesus calls me. I was, and I guess I still am a fisherman. My brother and I took over the business from my father. We live in Capernaum, a decent sized fishing village on the northern edge of Kinneret. Kinneret is a lake in Galilee; some people call it Lake Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee; but for the Jews, it’s Kinneret. The problem with being a fisherman is that I am not a very good fisherman. Not for fish anyway. I’ve never had a good nose as to where the fish might be. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t catch fish, just not a lot, and definitely not as much as my father. It’s hard feeding my family and paying my taxes when I barely catch enough to do either. It probably doesn’t help that I have an attitude. I am not a fan of Romans or hypocritical Jews. I don’t go to Sabbath worship enough, and I tend to have a temper, and get frustrated easily. If I’m on the water and not catching fish, I lose patience and head back into Capernaum, fish or no fish.
It was on one of those “no fish” days that I met the rabbi from Nazareth. If Capernaum was not exactly a thriving metropolis, like Bethsaida or Caesarea Philippi, then Nazareth was even less: more like a spot on the dusty road to Sepphoris. Nevertheless, the word was out; there was something special about this rabbi. Now mind you, I respect rabbis. But, I don’t go out of my way to seek their advice, or curry their favor. They teach Torah, which I have known since I was a young boy, but they don’t help you fish. Except, maybe this rabbi. My brother Andrew and I were fishing one day, and not catching. About to come in, this relatively normal looking rabbi brazenly looked right at me and told me to cast my net on the other side of the boat; as if he knew some secret I didn’t know! The audacity of this rabbi. Rather than be seen as disrespectful, I thought, “OK, one last time.” You probably have guessed the rest of the story. In the next five minutes I caught more fish than I had all month. I realized that I was in the presence of someone blessed. I had never encountered a rabbi like that one. If He was holy, I realized I was not! The rest is pretty much history.
Andrew and I put down our nets and followed him to where he was teaching. I’d never heard anything like it. Ever. His words were rich, pure, holy, peaceful, and joyful—all at the same time! It was only a matter of time before I realized that He was the answer. He had the words of life. His very presence was a healing presence. In a very mild, humble way, miracle after miracle was performed from His hands, His voice, His person; as if He was simply a conduit for G-d. Andrew, myself and 10 other men, as well as several women, followed Him. He called us as His disciples.
Quite honestly, it was tough for me at times. When I’m in, I’m all in. I am impatient. I spoke too soon, too often, and was only right about half of the time. But I love Him. More importantly, He loves me.
After several seasons, we realized that following Him was not always easy, and indeed, was becoming more and more difficult. More and more often he befriended the sinful people, and offended the religious people. Frankly, that was something I loved about Him. On the other hand, I realized he was alienating the establishment. We had some friends in the establishment, men like the Pharisee Nicodemus, or Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward. But far more were offended, and plotting against Him.
In our last trip with Jesus to Jerusalem, we truly thought that Jesus would miraculously overthrow the people in power—Jews and Romans alike—and establish God’s kingdom; but we didn’t understand. Of all the disciples, Judas of Kerioth and myself understood the least. When the temple authorities came to arrest Him, I grabbed a sword, and blindly swinging in anger, I cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear! Beyond all grief, I followed the temple authorities and Jesus. I waited to see what would happen in the courtyard of the high priest’s home with his servants. I trembled with fear. When one of the servants asked me if I was one of His disciples, I foolishly denied Him. Three times I denied Him(!!!), just as Jesus said I would. I was broken.
I was there when Jesus was brought before Pilate; I followed the angry, “black” parade to Golgotha; but I couldn’t stay. I was horrified and humiliated. I was scared. What had happened? My friend John, and his brother James stayed. I could not. I had no words, only tears. I walked, no, I slinked back to Jerusalem and the upper room where we had been the night before. I was too tired to think. I awoke on Sabbath, but went neither to the Temple nor to synagogue. The other disciples eventually joined me in silence. Jesus, the Lord was gone. We slept, we wept; we did not eat or talk. The next morning, the first day of the week, we woke to a new day; a new reality.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the place where Jesus was hastily buried to treat His body with the traditional burial spices. Within minutes, they came back to our room to tell us Jesus was not dead, but alive! I ran to the tomb as fast as I could possibly run, only to find the stone rolled away, and the burial cloths astray on the floor of the tomb. I walked away in wonder. What has happened? I did not understand. Was He dead? Had someone taken His body? Was he truly alive? How? Were the women in their right minds? And then I began to hear the stories. Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and disappeared before their eyes when they recognized Him at dinner. As we spoke about these things, marveling at what God was doing, He came to us. Through the door, all flesh and blood, He came to us. We saw, and touched His wounds. We knew Him and His Love.
Later, when we returned to Galilee, He revealed Himself to us at the Kinneret. I saw Him, I knew Him. He cooked for us, and ate with us. He unfolded the scriptures before us, and we finally understood. I was in awe, filled with wonder and love; yet still a bit ashamed of my denial of Him. Although I was ashamed of my own actions, I was overly burdened by the death of Judas. When Judas realized he had completely misunderstood Jesus’ message and mission, he took His own life. As my shame and this grief overtook me, Jesus reached out. “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus said. “Of course, I am your friend always Jesus,” I said. He asked me this three times, the same number of times I denied Him. It was brutal. I could not hold back the tears. I finally understood what He was saying. He was not chastening me, as much as He was restoring me to the task which He assigned me. It was to be a tough road. Loving people in Jesus’ name: leading them, feeding them. It was the work of a man who loved God, but who knew the road ahead was going to be difficult, and may not end well. But I was ready, finally. I would still have questions, and even doubts; but I never doubted again whether He loved me, or was with me. In that knowledge and presence, I became a true “fisher of men.”
Peter’s story is neither heroic, nor despicable. It is the story of every man and woman today. Frail and weak, yet with great potential, each of us stand before Jesus, needing Him to make us whole, and send us out.