It had been a long night. Fishing was usually better after dark, but all we came back with was nets clogged with seaweed. I should have been cleaning them, for the sun was up.
But my eyelids were not. How long they were shut I don’t know, but my dozing was broken by songs and shouts. I saw a man walking down the road, followed by a crowd of people. That must be the Jesus I had heard about. Healer, preacher of the kingdom of God—and, some said, troublemaker.
He stopped and stood at the shore as if to address the crowd, but was nearly pushed into the water as people pressed around him. “Simon,”#8221; he called out. (How did he know my name?) “Let me use your boat!”
I jumped to my feet, ran, and got him seated in the boat facing the crowd. Great! Now I would hear all about this kingdom he was supposed to bring about. Maybe he would explain how he was going to get rid of the Romans and send that tax collector, Matthew, back to plowing his field instead of ripping me off.
Jesus’ message wasn’t what I expected. He talked about giving up anger and bitterness (I thought of Matthew), of dismissing adulterous thoughts (Benjamin’s new wife, I must admit, has a prettier face than my wife’s), even of loving our enemies. (Who could possibly love the Romans, after all they’ve done to us?)
But as Jesus spoke, my heart began to change, especially when he described God as a Father who loves everybody and is eager to forgive, who goes out like a shepherd seeking a lost sheep. Now, I’ve never been a shepherd and never plan to be one, but I know Jared; he told me how he searched all day for a lost lamb and then carried the weak little fellow back on his shoulders. That touched me. Am I that weak lamb God is looking for?
“Leave Me, Lord!” When Jesus ended his talk, he blessed the crowd, turned to me, and said, “Simon, shove off and catch some fish!”
I had to smile. “Master,” I said, not yet calling him Lord, “we’ve been out all night. There’s no more fish out there than rust on my nose.” But then, thinking of his talk and what I’d heard about him, I relented: “If you say so, I’ll lower the nets.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes, or my muscles, as I began pulling in the fish. “Help me!” I yelled to James and John, who had resumed napping. So many thoughts ran through my mind—as numerous as the fish that nearly broke the net.
That amazement was God’s moment for me. No sooner did I reach the shore than I dropped to Jesus’ feet and said, “Leave me, Lord.” (Note the change!) “I am a sinful man. I don’t deserve what you just did for me. All those sinful things you talked about—that’s me!”
But then something happened. It was more wonderful than the catch of fish, but frightening, too. Jesus lifted my chin, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be catching men. Follow me!” He didn’t give me time to hesitate. He just turned around and started walking, and I found myself in his footsteps.
Here’s what I found so awesome and incredible. It wasn’t the fact that I had come to believe in Jesus—who wouldn’t, after that haul of fish? It was that Jesus believed in me!
The Awesome Truth. I kept saying to myself, “He believes in me! He believes in me! I’m a sinner, and he believes in me. He believes I can walk with him, eat with him, live with him, and be his disciple. I’m overwhelmed.” So I was with Jesus when he healed the blind man, made deaf people hear, healed a woman of her flow of blood, and brought Jairus’ daughter back to life. It was at my own house that he healed the man who was let down through the roof.
My faith in Jesus grew with every miracle, but so did my amazement at his trust in me. What proof had I given him that I was dependable? None. That’s why I was even more astounded at what happened the day Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Suddenly feeling something like I had when I fell at his feet and called him Lord, I blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then Jesus said something incredible:
Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for human beings have not told you this. It was my heavenly Father. And so I say to you: you are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church, and the powers of hell will never win against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Jesus, how could you trust me, weak and sinful, with your Church? You say you’re changing me from sinful Simon to Peter, foundation rock for your whole community. But if I’m a rock, your words make me feel like a rock in an earthquake, shaken, turned over, upside down. Not much of a foundation stone here. I’m not worthy of it. I can’t believe how much you believe in me.
A Shattered Rock. When Jesus told us that his mission meant crucifixion, though, I took him aside. Maybe he was having a bad day. “No way, Lord. This is not going to happen to you!” His answer stunned me: “Get behind me, Satan; you are a rock in my path trying to make me fall.” From foundation rock to stumbling block—in a matter of seconds! I shut my mouth and walked on, puzzled and dismayed. I loved Jesus, but I didn’t understand him. Even to his death on the cross, I was wondering: How is his kingdom going to come about if he gets crucified? How can I be in charge of a community whose leader gets killed? And whose followers might also get killed? Whose new leader might get killed as well? Still I couldn’t leave him. Not when he had shown me so much trust. Never!
Never? Jesus knew me better than I knew myself. “Tonight before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Impossible, I said. But that’s what happened. The rest of the disciples had all run away in the garden; so did I, after cutting off a soldier’s ear. But not too far. Conflicted and scared, I followed at a distance and slipped over by the fire where the guards were huddled. But my Galilean accent gave me away. Three times—the last time with a curse—I denied knowing Jesus. Then he turned and looked right at me. I broke. He had trusted me to be his rock, but the rock was shattered. I wept.
That’s the end of my call, I thought. I failed. I betrayed your trust. You can’t build your Church on me. But then I remembered something else Jesus said at the supper: “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” He said I would repent and even be a source of strength for the other disciples.
No, that couldn’t happen. But it did.
On a Firm Foundation. Back in Galilee, some of us went fishing again. Just like the other time, it was all night and no luck until a stranger on the shore shouted, “Throw out your nets to the right, and you’ll catch some.” Ridiculous! But oddly enough, I did. And then again, like three years earlier, I brought in a fantastic haul.
“It’s the Lord!” John shouted. That both excited and frightened me. I remembered Thursday night: the fire, the triple denial, the look. How could I face him? I felt as unworthy as after the first catch. Even so, I jumped into the shallow sea and rushed to Jesus.
After we had eaten fresh fish, Jesus turned to speak to me. I was expecting him to tell me how disappointed he was. But no—no need to repeat that look of Thursday night. He simply asked, “Do you love me?” When I answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” he asked me again. At the third time I almost broke down. But each time I said “Yes,” he answered, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”
I was stunned again: Jesus still believed in me!
His assurance restored me. I was still Peter, the Rock on which he would build the Church. Then it struck me. Why didn’t I think of this before? I don‘t have to be the Rock alone. I am not a foundation resting on shifting sand. I am sitting firm on bedrock: Jesus. And resting on him as my foundation, I can hold up the Church. He had seen that from the day he called me from my boat. And now I understand why Jesus believed in me.
Fr. George Montague is a biblical scholar who also writes on the spiritual life. Three of his books, including his recent Living in the Father’s Embrace, are available on amazon.com and at The Word Among Us bookstore (www.wau.org).