Their recent failures had to be still fresh wounds. Peter was probably replaying the scene- his three denials- over and over again. Each “I do not know this man” stabbing him again and again.
How could he deny his friend?
“I never knew him” looping over and over and over again.
The other disciples, sitting in the boat with Peter, were reflecting on their own failure to stand strong. In the garden, those last, precious moments with Jesus, they spent asleep. Asleep. They failed the last request Jesus made of them, and when everything fell to pieces in the darkness of the garden, when they watched as one of their own number betrayed Jesus with a friend’s kiss, they ran. They all ran. The sound of their footsteps and heavy breathing haunting their hearts.
Here they were, sitting in a boat, fishing, dropping that net in the water the same way they had countless times before…before Jesus called them into a life of another kind. That call must have felt like a lifetime ago.
One had to wonder if they sat there silently. Listening to the lapping of the water against the side of the boat. The flapping of the sails. The cries of the seagulls. Wondering if the pain would ever subside.
They failed him. How could they have failed him? After all he’d done for them.
Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law.
Jesus had entrusted his own Mother to the care of John.
He was as much a part of their family as any blood relative.
And, as if things weren’t bad enough, the disciples had been fishing for hours and they hadn’t caught a thing. Nothing. Nada. It’s as if they couldn’t even fish anymore. I mean, that was the one thing they had to fall back, and even that proved to be out of their reach. If this wasn’t poetic justice, they didn’t know what was.
Sometime, though, in those early morning hours, as the dew began to collect on the ground, the disciples heard a call from the shore. A man, someone they didn’t recognize, called out asking the age old question between fishermen; “caught anything?”
No,” they reply. Dejection dripping from their words.
“Try the other side. The right side.” the man suggests.
Why not. What could it hurt? And so the disciples do as the man suggests, and the net immediately fills with fish. More than they could haul into the boat.
It was then they knew.
It was him.
Was it really him?
I mean, could it actually be him? Was he really back?
John was the first to understand the magnitude of what just happened. It was Him.
Simon Peter, always the one acting in emotion, jumps into the water, swimming the hundred or so yards to shore.
The disciples, wrestling their miraculous catch, and steering their boat, make their way back to the shore.
When they arrive, the Messiah is cooking them breakfast. Because, of course he is. His last act, in the upper room a few days prior, was the act of washing their feet. An act of loving service. And his first act after the resurrection is to serve them breakfast.
He never changes, does he?
Having arrived at the shore, the disciples count the fish (153!!!), and sit around the fire warming themselves, enjoying the meal prepared for them. As they eat, they cast between themselves the same knowing and confused look. They were all thinking the same thing, but none were actually able to muster the courage put those thoughts into words, and turn those words into a question…the question which was plaguing them all: “Who was this man?”
They couldn’t ask, because they all knew the answer, even if they couldn't quite comprehend it.
This was the Lord.
Sometime after they finished their breakfast, Jesus breaks the silence and speaks.
“Peter,” he says, “do you love (agapaō) me?”
Of course, he asks Peter. Of course, he knows what Peter has done.
“Yes, Lord, you know I love (phileō) you”
“Then tend my lambs.”
“Peter,” Jesus asks again, “do you love (agapaō) me?”
Each word is weighty. Permanent.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileō) you.”
“Then shepherd my sheep.”
Love. Agape love. Peter couldn’t get himself to say it. He couldn’t grandly declare his love the way he had been willing in the past. Peter had always been a proud man. A strong man. A determined man.
In this moment, however, peter was bearing the weight of his denial. No longer could he rely on his own strength to carry him through the night. No longer could he forcefully advance the Kingdom of God. He was blameless no longer. His cowardice had been on full display, and any reasonable man would know him to be unsuitable to carry the Kingdom banner.
No. His strength had failed him, and everyone in that circle knew it.
“Peter,” Jesus breaks in again, “do you love (phileō) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know I love (phileō) you.”
“Then tend my sheep.”
And it was then Peter and every other disciple in that circle knew that Peter had been reconciled back to Christ. For in the darkness of that courtyard Peter had denied Jesus three times, and in the breaking light of morning, three times, Peter had declared his love for Jesus.
And in response, three times, Jesus invites Peter back into the fold- into the sacred life of the shepherd.
Care for my sheep. Love them. Tend to them. Nurture them and walk beside them.
Of course this made sense, for this has always been the way of Jesus. He reminded Peter often that the first would be last, that weakness was strength, and that the kingdom was for the brokenhearted, but it wasn’t until this moment, until this invitation back into the fold, we see Peter understanding the kingdom in a new way.
A most beautiful way.