Peter’s Dark Night of the Soul

Life often isn’t easy as a Christian. Just when we think we have everything under control, it all comes crashing down about our ears. For Peter and the other apostles the prospect of carrying on the work Jesus had left to them was a daunting one indeed: one he could not possibly undertake until he had fully learned the lesson of his past failures.

This meditation, based upon the fruitless night he and others spent fishing in Galilee after the resurrection, explores what those lessons were.

Nb. The meditation is hypertext-linked to the Bible Gateway. By hovering over the references, you will initially be shown the passage in the New International Version, with an option to switch to any of a wide range of different languages and translations. You can also browse the surrounding chapters or look for other references if you wish.

(Back to ‘Loaves and Fishes.’)

Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. {That is, Sea of Galilee} It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

(Jn 21:1-3)

You would think that after meeting with the resurrected Jesus, his disciples would be cock-a-hoop with excitement and eager to spread the good news to all the world. But we see here a very different picture.

The disciples had been told to go into Galilee (Mt 28:7), and these seven had done so: but for Peter, Nathanael, James and John, it had simply been a matter of going back home. Judas was dead, and the whereabouts of the other four disciples at this point is not explained. Already, the group was fragmenting.

From the day that Jesus had said to Peter, ‘From now on you will catch men,’ (Lk 5:10) we never hear of Peter going back to his boat, until now. But what was he to do? Where were the women who followed Jesus, who had been ‘helping to support them out of their own means’ (Lk 8:2-3)? What had become of the funds that Judas, the deceased treasurer, had kept? They had to eat, so what other option was left? Besides, Jesus had said he would ‘go before [them] into Galilee’ (Mt 26:32): but where was he? Were they supposed to just sit on their hands and do nothing?

It must have been a bitter experience for Peter, going back to that boat. The memories of that day when he had stashed the nets for the last time, as he thought, (and hurried after Jesus with those wonderful words, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4:19), ringing in his ears) must have rung very hollow indeed as he began to heave the boat down towards the water.

All those ambitions! Memories came flooding back. James and John with their mother coming to Jesus, asking if they could have the best seats, one each side of Jesus, when he came into his kingdom (Mt 20:20-4). And hadn’t the rest of them been furious?! And where were James and John now? One each side of this stinking old boat! What was it that Jesus had said to them when they had protested to him about them?

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.’ (Mt 20:25-7)

Well, they were certainly learning to serve now!

But then a stab of pain as Jesus’ very next words came flooding back: ‘- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:28)

Serving! Sacrifice!

Jesus knew how to do that: but what about you, Peter? Maybe, as they splashed through the water, before getting into the boat, Peter remembered the face of Jesus, crouched at his feet (such a short time ago: though it seemed like a lifetime) with a bowl of water and a towel round his waist (Jn 13:2-17). Peter had been wondering if one of them was going to get lumbered with that job (and hoping it wouldn’t be him) ever since he had noticed the absence of any domestic servants. But how indignant (exposed, really) he had felt seeing Jesus staring up at him: not condemning; just, well, available. (“Lord, where are you now?!”) The Messiah, the Holy One of God, who was willing to do anything for his friends.

“Friendship! He called us His friends (Jn 15:15)! This man who commanded the storms and the wind like puppy dogs (Mk 4:37-41)! Yet he really liked our company. He shared his heart with us, even though we so often didn’t understand (Mt 16:21-3). And he needed us. Especially on that last night, the night when we let him down (Mk 14:50).

“Oh, I was so sure of myself then! ‘Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will’ (Mt 26:33). Just an hour or so later, and I was so wrapped up in my own misery I couldn’t even see his. Fast asleep while he pleaded for mercy (Mt 26:36-46). And he was doing it all for us (Lk 24:46-7)! Another hour or so, and so concerned about my own skin I was ready to deny I had ever known him (Mt 26:67-75).

“Thanks for coming to find me, Lord (Lk 24:34). Just thinking about Judas makes me shudder (Mt 27:3-5). ‘Cause if you hadn’t come when you did, I reckon I’d have been next.

“But Jesus, where are you now? I can’t make it on my own! I know that now. The others know it too, and I can’t pretend any more. You’ve told us to tell the world: but I can’t. I don’t feel a bit like Peter, the rock. This is me – Peter the petrified! Big in the mouth; but a coward at heart. Jesus, I’m only brave when you’re around.

“I only dared step out of that boat to go on the water because you were there, you know (Mt 14:24-33). It was seeing you there, so calm among all those waves, that made me believe it was possible. I couldn’t do it now, even knowing you’re alive. It was knowing that if anything went wrong I only had to holler; and you’d be there, holding my hand. And you were. I’d have drowned that night if you hadn’t been. We’d all have drowned, come to that.

“Jesus, I reckon you are around here – somewhere. When we were in that upper room, and Thomas was going on about how he would never believe unless he could stick his fingers in your wounds, you heard that then, didn’t you? We never saw you; but you must have heard, ’cause you quoted his very words the next time you came (Jn 20:24-7). Are you listening to me now? Why won’t you answer me? ……………”

(Back to ‘Loaves and Fishes.’)

“……… Lord, we’ve been at it for hours. Where have all the fish gone? These boys are relying on me to get them a meal and something to pay the bills. Have I forgotten something? I’ve tried every spot I can remember, every trick of casting. We’ve been so quiet we hardly dared to breathe.

“Quiet. It was David, wasn’t it Lord, who said, ‘I have stilled and quietened my soul like a weaned child?’ (Ps 131:2) I’ve been trying to do that, Lord: but all I feel is a great emptiness. Life was so … full when you were around. This silence is driving me mad! How can I go back to living like this, night after night, out here chasing fish? You’ve given me the best years of my life. How can I go back: but how can I go on?

“I’ll never forget what it was like the first time I laid my hands on a sick man and told him to be healed in your name. The look in his eyes! First they went big and round, then the tears started to well up from the corners – and then he jumped up and hollered for all he was worth! “I’m healed!” He hugged me so hard he nearly cracked my ribs.

“Yet you weren’t there when that happened, were you? You sent us off in pairs and told us you were giving us authority to do these things (Lk 9:1-2). How did you do that? I kind of simply assumed that if you could turn water into wine without ever laying a finger on those waterpots (Jn 2:1-11), or heal people at a distance just by saying so (Lk 7:2-10); then as long as you had said it, it would be ok. But why don’t I feel that way now? Why do I feel so helpless?

“I suppose, Lord, that I always saw myself as being a leader. But the truth is, I only felt really secure when I was following your orders – when you were really doing the leading. Now, I’m all at sea – literally! I’m just drifting here, not knowing where to go next, or what to do next. I’m out of ideas, out of methods, and only a miracle is going to get any fish into these nets tonight.

“I’ll never forget the day you first showed me your way of fishing (Lk 5:1-11)! It had been a night rather like this one: though somehow it didn’t get to me the way it has tonight – truth of the matter is, failure was more of a way of life for me then, wasn’t it? Simon, the reed, never able to hold onto an idea long enough to see it through. Anyhow, I’d been impressed with you when Andrew first introduced us (Jn 1:41-2), even if I wasn’t sure about the ‘Messiah’ bit at the time; and maybe I was half hoping you’d give me a denarius for the loan of the boat. But when you told me to cast the nets in broad daylight, I thought you’d really flipped. I’ll never forget that catch! It was like they were queueing up to get in the net!

“That really showed me who you were; and what I was. The first time we met, you said I was Simon but would be Peter; and I thought, “Oh, yeah, and what else has li’l brother Andrew been saying about me then?” (John 1:40-2) But when you looked at me, as we struggled with that catch, I realised you were reading the depths of my soul just as easily as you had read the depths of the sea; and I just couldn’t handle it. I think I would have swum for shore and done a runner, but for what you said next.

“You’d said nearly the same thing the last time, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4:19). Following had seemed easy enough, and I’d quite enjoyed tagging around with you from time to time. But seeing that catch of fish gave those words a whole new meaning. If you could make fish jump into my net like that, then you really meant it when you said you could make something out of me. If all I had to do was follow, and the rest was up to you, that looked like too good a deal to miss.

“Lord, I guess that’s the bottom line. I’ve always fancied myself as a leader: but I’m really only any good as a follower. I’m no good at all without you. You told me Satan was after me: but that you had prayed for me and that when I was converted I was to strengthen my brothers (Lk 22:31-2). Well, Lord, I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried to feed them, and this hasn’t worked. Thomas was as high as a kite after he met you and touched you that night (Jn 20:26-8): but he sure looks as tired and down in the mouth as all the rest of us now. And how can I strengthen him when I feel just as weak and confused and helpless myself?

“Lord, if you don’t show up, and keep on showing up, then this thing you have started is dead in the water – as dead as this boat is right now. I need you. I love you. Lead me, Lord, and I will follow. May I never again be stupid enough to think I can handle things by myself. Let me never again be satisfied with anything but you; not with position, not with crowds, not even with success – just you.”

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

(Jn 21:4-22)

And I believe that, as Peter turned to follow, he said in his heart, “Thanks, Lord, I think I can just about handle that.”

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