The Passionate DisciplePosted March 28th, 2012
(Based on the Gospel of John, chapters 13 and 18-21)
by Bert Williams
Peter was filled with anticipation. He sensed that something big was not far over the horizon. Though he couldn’t say just how it would happen, Peter was confident that Jesus was soon to claim his place as Messiah, bringing an end to the humiliation of God’s chosen people.
For centuries the journey of Israel had been a trail of tears. Promises made to Abraham had long gone mostly unfulfilled. The Egyptian enslavement was a humiliating horror—generation after generation—but only the first of many. The glory days of David and Solomon had given way far too quickly to wicked and inept Hebrew kings creating serial catastrophes. The Assyrians and the Babylonians; the Medes and the Persians. The subjugation seemed endless. It had been wave upon wave of misery. Now it was the heavy boot of the Roman soldier that brought oppression at every turn.
But the Messiah was now present among them. It had required merely the subtlest of suggestions on Jesus’ part to organize a triumphal entry through the streets of Jerusalem. It was an event celebrated by crowds overcome with spontaneous joy. Shortly thereafter, Jesus had claimed the temple itself, overwhelming scribes and priests by his very presence. Crowds, swelling through the porticos, acclaimed his miraculous acts.
When confronted by Jewish authorities about his intentions, Jesus silenced them, flicking away their verbal attacks with effortless irony. It was clear: Jesus would have whatever He wished.
Now, Jesus and the disciples are sitting in a fine room that has been arranged through curious, if not miraculous, means. Peter is certain that something momentous is at hand.
But Jesus’ words this night are spare and ambiguous. Why does He speak of betrayal? Why does He speak of stumbling, of scattered sheep, of denial? And there is the awkwardness about the basins and who should be washing soiled feet.
Still, as they leave the upper room the cool night air reinvigorates Peter. Jesus has always been unpredictable. It is one of those qualities that has always attracted Peter to Jesus.
Jesus’ chosen route takes them toward the spot where He often goes this time of the evening—to the garden, a favorite place of prayer. But though it is not an unexpected destination, the garden visit is not comforting. Something is different. An inexplicable burden seems to hang over Jesus.
“Please pray,” Jesus says. But, though the disciples mean well, they fall asleep.
An hour later He awakens them. “Please—pray,” he says again. And again, they sleep.
Jesus wakes them yet again as flickering torch light casts long shadows through the trees. It is soldiers—and Judas! Clearly, this is not an honor guard.
Peter—utterly confused, but determined to do something—grabs a sword and flails it downward, intending to split open a man’s head. Instead, he slices off an ear.
In response, Jesus performs an undeniable miracle, but not one Peter could have expected. Jesus reattaches the man’s ear with a deft touch, then allows the soldiers to seize His wrists, bind them, and jerk Him along the
path toward the city.
The disciples, in utter fear and confusion, evaporate into the night. Peter finds himself following Jesus—perhaps with his friend John—at a distance.
“Hey, I know you,” says a girl who is a servant to the high priest. Peter is warming himself by a courtyard fire. “You were with that guy when He ran all the buyers and sellers out of the temple. Hey, that was amazing!”
“Huh? Oh, no, that couldn’t have been me. Big crowd there that day, you know. I mean, I’ve heard it was a big crowd. Somebody told me it was a big crowd.”
“Hey, you! You know that guy up there, right? I’ve seen you with Him. Yeah, it was up there on the hillside when He made all that food outa’ nothing’. Man, that was some day! Tasty food, too.”
“No, no. Not me, man. Must be somebody else. Not me.”
“Hey, look, you are one of that guy’s group. I’ve heard Him speak, and you even talk like Him. Besides, I know I’ve seen you with Him.”
“I do not know that man,” Peter says with all the blustering certainty he can gather up. He utters an oath—as much unlike Jesus’ speech as he is able to muster.
A rooster crows. Startled, Peter now remembers that Jesus has predicted these denials—and that crowing rooster. Peter flees from the courtyard—from the sight of Jesus—dashing headlong into the darkness.
Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath, is usually a day of hope and good cheer for Jewish people in Jerusalem—especially on the weekend of Passover. But for Peter, this Friday is a day of utter mental mayhem. Never has one 24-hour period careened so wildly from unbridled joyful expectancy to utterly sordid catastrophe.
Jesus, whom Peter had believed to be the Messiah, has been crucified and buried.
It is too much to fathom. Peter feels his sanity slipping away. He contemplates suicide. He cannot sleep.
Somehow he cannot kill himself—he is not sure why.
The night seems endless. Peter wonders if the sun will ever rise again. He wonders if he wants the sun to rise again. But the eastern sky does brighten and the golden arc cuts through the Palestinian horizon for yet another day.
All day, Peter wanders in a daze, barely clinging to the edge of sanity. He finds himself in the Judean wilderness, following goat trails, climbing to promontories and then blankly staring out over barren wastes. He has brought no food or water but he wanders most of the day—void of all hope.
In the evening, Peter returns to Jerusalem, and comes upon his friend John. They scarcely speak, but John seems not to have the mental strength to be angry at Peter. The denial seems hardly to matter now. Jesus is gone. Together, they endure another restless, tortured night.
On the First Day of the Week
The next day, Peter and John find themselves wandering toward the garden tomb, when, without warning, Mary Magdalene is in their faces.
“They’ve taken Him away!” Mary cries out. “Where? Where have they taken him?” Mary is frantic.
John and Peter begin running toward the tomb. Peter cannot keep up with John, but as John runs ahead, Peter looks past him and is appalled that the tomb appears abandoned. Soldiers are nowhere to be seen. The entrance stands agape.
As John slows and bends to peer inside, Peter rushes past, then abruptly stops, breathing heavily, in front of the stone shelf where Jesus’ body had rested. The grave clothes are lying there, stretched out on the shelf. The cloth that had been around Jesus’ head is lying neatly folded off to the side.
Again, Peter’s mind is overwhelmed. He tries to catch his breath and his thoughts. What is this? What is he looking at? Has the body been stolen? Did Joseph, the owner of the tomb, have second thoughts about its use? Did the soldiers cart the body off somewhere else? But, but, . . . the grave clothes are still here! And where are the soldiers?
John slowly enters the tomb, and, after looking in wide-eyed wonder, he has a simple incredible explanation. In the gospel account that he wrote decades later, John says simply that he “went in also; and he saw and believed.”
Believed what? It is not entirely clear. The implication seems to be that it was at this moment that John believed Jesus was no longer dead. Peter’s grasp of that reality is less clear. John writes that “as yet they did not
know the Scripture, the He must rise again from the dead.” So, apparently John believes, but probably Peter doesn’t.
At this point, curiously, Peter and John leave the garden and go home. That’s all Scripture says: they simply go home. So, did John actually get it that Jesus had come back to life? He seems so casual; he just goes home. Whatever the case, it is clear that Mary still does not fathom the incredible reality. Near the tomb, she finds herself in conversation with angels, though perhaps she does not know they are angels.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” an angel asks.
“Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him,” she replies.
Then another person comes up behind her. Mary takes him to be the caretaker of the garden.
“Why are you weeping?” He asks.
“Sir,” Mary says, “if you have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
The “Gardener” replies, simply, “Mary.”
What a difference one word can make. With those two syllables, Mary’s experience is transformed from unutterable grief to incredulous, tearful joy.
“Teacher!” she exclaims. “Teacher.”
Later that day, Mary tells a group of disciples about her experience. Clearly, she now believes Jesus is alive. About the other disciples, we can still be less than certain. Perhaps they believe her. Maybe not yet.
We do know they are still fearful. John recalls, “The same day at evening, . . . when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
He then proceeds to show them the wounds in his hands and his side, and we are assured, finally, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”
But Peter. Poor Peter. His emotions are seriously messed up. How can he hope to remain a part of this group after what he has done? How is he any better than Judas? In his mind, he is no better. He and Judas have both been traitors—denying Jesus in his hour of greatest need. Judas is now dead, and Peter—Peter thinks he really should be dead as well. He deserves nothing better.
But to Peter’s amazement, Jesus seems to include him as He speaks with the group of disciples about the future. “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” Jesus tells them. But maybe Jesus is just being kind, and not wanting to cause Peter embarrassment at this particular moment, Jesus’ thoughtfulness is welcome, but Peter remains unsure of what this really means.
Then late one afternoon not long after this meeting, Peter and a group of the disciples are together, and Peter says to the others, “I am going fishing.”
“We are going with you,” they reply. Soon they are gathering together the necessary supplies for a night on the lake.
It’s not long until the shafts of oars are knocking against wooden gunwales, and the oar blades are spinning tiny watery vortexes into the lake’s moonlit surface. As the disciples pull away from shore, the warm evening breeze catches the boat’s sail, and the comfort of the familiar routine descends upon the men whose emotions have recently been so pummeled by unimaginable storms.
Spending an entire night on the lake with nothing to show for it is also a familiar routine for these men, and on this particular night it happens yet again. Finally, as the eastern sky brightens signaling the end to hours of hard work, the disciples approach the shore, the boat riding high in the water.
The men discover that Jesus is standing at the waters’ edge.
“Catch anything,” He asks.
“No,” they reply.
“Well then,” Jesus says, “cast your net once more on the right side.”
No sooner said than done, and suddenly the net is so laden with flopping, squirming fish that it cannot be hauled into the boat. Perhaps in the early-dawn light Peter has not recognized Jesus, but now Jesus’ identity is unmistakable. Plunging into the water, Peter swims, then splashes through the shallows, and is soon standing, dripping wet, at Jesus’ side.
Breakfast, and a conversation
A breakfast of fish and toast sits waiting over a crackling fire. Before long, all the fishermen are gathered around the fire pit.
“Come and eat breakfast,” Jesus says.
Then, as they begin eating, just for Peter’s benefit, Jesus initiates a remarkable conversation.
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” Jesus gestures toward the boat and the nets.
“Yes Lord; You know that I love You,” Peter responds.
Then “feed my lambs,” Jesus replies.
Jesus returns to the question: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; You know that I love you.”
Then “tend my sheep,” Jesus replies.
One more time Jesus poses the question, and this sets Peter’s stomach churning. Does Jesus not believe his answer? Peter knows it is understandable if Jesus doesn’t believe Him. His recent failure is vivid and desperately painful in Peter’s mind.
However, Jesus’ next response takes him aback. “ ‘I tell you for certain,’ ” Jesus says, gazing into Peter’s eyes, “ ‘when you were a young man, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will hold out your hands. Then others will wrap your belt around you and lead you where you don’t want to go.’ Jesus said this to tell how Peter would die and bring honor to God. Then he said to Peter, ‘Follow me!’” (John 21:18-19, CEV).
It was an affirmation that Peter could never have hoped for and would never forget. Was Peter deserving? No. Did Peter live his life flawlessly from that moment on? Certainly not. But Peter had experienced the undeserved kindness—the simple, profound grace—of Jesus. That experience would power his life forward until the day, decades later, of his own martyrdom on a Roman cross.