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Stories of the Cross and Empty Tomb (Part 4)

Peter's Story

That boat, that lake, that night – oh, how I remember. I was there with my friends, my brothers, fellow followers of Jesus. There we’d been all night – not stormy, but calm. Dead calm. Hoping for fish. Catching nothing. A fruitless, worthless, becalmed, waste of time in the midst of Lake Galilee.

And then, with soft morning light spilling through the sky, suddenly (unexpectedly!) we were overwhelmed with fish in our net, almost splitting, so full that we, the seven of us, were absolutely unable to even begin to haul it over the gunwale. We dragged it behind the boat instead.

The difference between night and morning? We’d followed instruction shouted to us from the stranger, standing there on the shore, his advice unasked for, intervening, shouted from the beach: “Friends, haven’t you any fish? Try throwing your net on the right side of the boat – you’ll find some!”

So, out went the net. In filled the fish. Our net full to overflowing!

Now John leaned over to me, prodding me in the ribs, clapping me on the back, joyfully breathing: “It’s the Lord!”

The Lord? Yes – of course! Again! Who else could it be on that morning at Galilee other than Jesus himself, large as life, risen from death, standing on that beach, knowing where the fish are.

Alive! And this now the third time of his appearing. Though I myself had seen him also one time more.

Let me go back and tell the tale. Simple, really.

Jesus was dead. I saw it – from a distance, I saw it. That spear-thrust to his side, as he hung on the cross, spilled forth a flow of blood and water. Dead.

Jesus was buried. At least so we heard. By then all of us had left that horrific scene, all gone into hiding, fearing for our lives, grieving his. We nursed our grief. We quaked with shock.

And me? I had much more than simple shock and grief to nurse. I had that pounding guilt as well. For on the night before the cross, the night he was betrayed into the hands of men, I, his loyal follower, warming myself at a fire in the High Priest’s courtyard, denied up and down three times that I’d ever even met the man. I don’t know him. I don’t know him. I don’t know him.

Oh, I was there later when the hammer drove one nail into his hand (thud) and drove a second into the other (thud) and drove a third through both ankles twisted round together (thud). But I, myself, by the fire, had already hammered nails – deliberately, carelessly, easily – once (thud), twice (thud), three times (thud), with piercing pain; nails of denial and disloyalty.

On the Sabbath day, day after his death, I had no rest. Guilt rested on me, settling down hard, pushing me under. The sound of hammer on nails reverberated in my skull.

But worse yet, worse even than the resounding guilt: I simply missed his presence. Oh, how I missed him.

One time, long before, when the crowds were deserting him in droves, he turned and asked us whether we, too, would leave. Incredulous, I responded: “Lord, where ever would we go? – you’re the One, the only One, who has the words of eternal life!”

After the cross, where ever could I go? Oh, I missed him! That death – a gaping wound. By the fire I’d sworn, three times, “I don’t know the man!” But my pain forever belied the fact. Oh, I had known him so well, been known so well, been loved so well. My loss, unbearable.

In the early morning of Sunday, that first day of the week, tossing in fitful sleep, I came fully awake to the sound of Mary of Magdala pounding on the door, sobbing out distressing news: “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she cried, “and we don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Both John and I bristled at the hearing. Without another thought we left the safety of that upper room behind, passing quickly through the city’s narrow streets, then running out through the gates in the direction of the tomb. John, younger as he was, outran me. When I got there, he was already peering in at the tomb’s open mouth, the stone rolled away. There he stood, hesitating. But nothing could hold me back. Arriving at the threshold, I went straight in. Eagerly I strained my eyes; slowly they adjusted, sight coming clear. There before me was the stone bench on which the Master’s body should have been laid. But his body wasn’t there. Instead, crumpled and still, lay the burial clothes in which he’d been wrapped! So neatly laid out – the burial cloth for his head, all folded up by itself at the top, separate from the rest. All of it so odd. What grave robber would ever have done such a thing? For what purpose would he have done it? The sight filled my eyes. I turned and left, puzzling over what had really happened there.

Mystery was persistent that day. Unrelenting. At first, dark and troubling – how could it have been otherwise? But then, in the midst of that afternoon, in the most startling of moments, beyond any expectation, the mystery transformed, emerging from the cocoon like a butterfly, bright and blazingly glorious. For I met him, face to face.

By that evening, wonder, for me, was full-blown. Hardly could I believe it. I stumbled back into that upper room with the rest of Jesus’ companions, shut up behind closed doors.

Impetuous as I am, I could barely get the words out. “I ... I ... I’ve seen him,” I said, “this afternoon ... by myself ... just him and me.”It’s all I could say. It’s all I could ever say.

And then the news began to flow. It seems Mary, having roused John and me that morning, had gone back to the tomb herself. There, that very morning, before me, she had seen Jesus himself fully alive, face to face. She cried and held him and staggered with wonder.

Now, in that upper room, as the evening progressed, and the wonder tightened, suddenly there was a pounding at the door once again. Friends burst in who had been on their way to the little town of Emmaus, some distance outside the city. They’d actually walked with him on the road, they said, not even recognizing who he was, thinking him a stranger, yet eagerly soaking up his words as he opened the Scriptures and told them that Messiah was destined to suffer and be rejected and executed, and then to rise from the dead. The words burned in their hearts. As they stopped together for the evening meal, these two asked the stranger to bless the bread. He took it in his hands, raised it toward heaven and blessed the ‘Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth,’ and then broke it and gave it to them. It was then that their eyes were opened. They saw who he was. And then he vanished, completely, from their sight. The mystery intensified. Turning on their tails, they rushed back to Jerusalem, to the upper room, where they knew all would be gathered, breathless to share their news.

Excitement mounted, din of conversation rising.

And then, he himself was there, standing in our midst. The doors were still locked, but there he was, again present, the One I had so longed for.

“Peace,” he said, “be with you.”

He showed us hands and feet. He ate fish in our presence. He opened our minds to the Scriptures. And the wonder of that night flowed over us. Jesus alive. Oh, how I love him.


Shortly, we returned to Galilee, heeding his call to meet him there. And so we found ourselves out on the lake, fishing by night, settling back into familiar ways, but catching nothing. Until the voice of a stranger redirected us.

“It’s the Lord,” John said, and I couldn’t wait to see him face to face, once again. So, I pulled on my outer garments – a greeting like this needs to be done right! – and plunged into the lake, struggling through the waters, the boat being not too far distant then from shore. Anticipation would not allow me to hold back.

On the beach I saw the Master, standing by a fire of burning coals. Dripping wet, eagerly I joined him, coming to the fire to warm myself.

And then memory flooded back. I saw myself standing by that fire in the High Priest’s courtyard, denying this very One before me now, once, then twice, then three times, each vehement denial like a nail hammered, echoing back at me. Once (thud), twice (thud), three times (thud).

When he’d appeared, alive again from the dead, meeting me alone on the afternoon of that first day, his eyes themselves told the story of his undiminished love that nothing had disrupted, neither death, nor life, nor my denials, nor anything else besides.

But at the High Priest’s fire I had denied him publicly, in the hearing of many. Now the pressing guilt made itself known at this fire on this beach.

As the others arrived at shore in the boat, he said, “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught.” Relieved, I retreated from the fire and climbed aboard the boat, helping drag the net to shore, and began counting the fish. One, two, three – the very rhythm prodding my memory afresh, like the explosion of metal on metal, hammer to nail, the cracking of wood in a fire. My guilty discomfort grew.

“Come and have breakfast,” he said. We gathered. He lifted hands and prayed. He broke bread and passed it. He did the same with the fish. I stared into the fire.

As we finished – us seven, plus one around that fire – in the hearing of all, Jesus said to me, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Well, yes, Lord, of course,” I said, “you ... you know that I love you.”

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus said.

I stared into the fire – the wood popped (crack).

He started in again. “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”

More strongly, now, I said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Take care of my sheep,” he said.

I looked at his face. Again, the fire popped (crack).

He looked back at me. Once more he said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Dismay and distress welled up within me. Why was he questioning me so? “Lord,” I said, “you know all things – you know that I love you.”

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

I looked in his eyes. (Crack!) Explosion of sap in wood in fire.

I looked round that fire. My increasingly passionate proclamations of love for the Master, had rung out, unhindered, in the hearing of my brothers, just as he’d intended. He himself had drawn out each affirmation, prodding me to the next, allowing me to respond to the love he himself had already extended me. Once, twice, three times. Never canceling those hammered nails, yet absorbing each one in his own love.

Moving away from that fire, he turned and looked at me and said, “Follow me.”

It was the very invitation that had begun this whole journey, those many years before. Back then, I had dropped fish and nets and boat – everything – to follow him.

So now. Restored, I still follow.


Forgiveness and restoration is what Jesus won for us through the cross and resurrection. Embrace the fullness of his sacrificial gift.


Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

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