The big engine sputtered to a stop and the pilgrim-laden wooden boat glides silently to a stop in the blue water. The only sounds are made by the gentle waves lapping playfully at the hull. Along with the others on board, I sit alone with my thoughts observing the Galilean hills surrounding this fresh-water lake, arguably the most famous in the world.
To some, the lake, or Sea of Galilee as it is usually called in Scripture, might look like any other. Fed by the Jordan River, the lake measures 4.5 miles, east to west, and some 13 miles from north to south. It is cool and clear. I’m told it’s about 150 feet deep and full of fish, although I can personally verify neither claim.
What makes the Sea of Galilee remarkable, of course, is what happened here in ancient times; and, in a sense, what has not happened in times modern. Because most of the land surrounding the lake is owned by local municipalities, the government of Israel or by the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches, the shoreline has been kept almost pristine. Development at the water’s edge and even up the slopes of the surrounding hills has taken place only as necessity has required.
That said, from the lake I looked upon the same hills Jesus beheld. They have changed little. Biblical vignettes began to play themselves in the theater of my mind. Perhaps it was just over there that Peter, watching Jesus approach walking on the waves, accepted the Lord’s invitation to join him and stepped out of the boat and onto the water. And, only few feet further on is the place where he began to sink and cried out to be saved.
It would be easier to chide Peter for his lack of faith if even a single one of my water-walking attempts had ever proved even moderately successful.
And over there may have been where Jesus slept so soundly in exhausted slumber that the tossing boat, rocked by whipping winds and pounding breakers, failed to wake him. Finally, the experienced sailors reached the limits of their considerable skill and in desperation (and in some apparent anger) they awakened Jesus, seeking his intervention. “Don’t you care that we perish? How can you lie there sleeping?”
Jesus spoke a word to the wind demanding silence and the storm stilled. He then tossed a zinger of his own, finding it remarkable that they had such little faith.
I wonder how many times Christ has chided me for my little faith? More times than I know about, I’m sure.
It seems obvious to me, as I sit on that lake, that Jesus was saddened that the disciples still did not understand. God’s purpose required Jesus’ redemptive death and their participation in the telling of it. Therefore, their anxiety over their own well-being, even when death seemed certain, was unnecessary and unjustified. They just didn’t get it. I cannot escape asking myself, “Do I?”
There, in another place by the north shore, was where the disciples had fished all night without catching anything. Only a few days after that first Easter, their minds still struggled to accept the whole concept of resurrection as a reality.
When Peter announced that he was going fishing, was he merely seeking to assuage his grief and guilt by turning to something familiar, or did this fishing expedition signify something more to him and the disciples who accompanied him?
Perhaps Peter had been so despondent over his denial that his friends worried about him being out there on the lake alone. Could it be that in his mind the unlikely chapter in his biography called “Disciple” had come to a sudden tragic close and a new one called “Life Resumed” had begun? If so, their complete and utter failure to catch even a single sardine must have only heightened his sense of hopelessness.
From where I sit in the boat, I can see a church called the Primacy of Peter. Tradition says this is the place from which Jesus called to them, “Catching anything?” I think he already knew. He had already lit the fire to cook the catch he knew they would have—if they only believed and obeyed. He had even provided a few fish of his own for their breakfast.
I wonder if God engineered their failure that night to put them in a proper frame of mind to resume doing what he had called them to do? I suspect so because it seems obvious that he was now responsible for their fishing success. Regardless of the disciples’ confusion about their futures, he was still in control. That may have been the point.
I look back to the place I had imagined their boat. There, in obedience or perhaps only in appeasement to Christ’s admonishment to try fishing on the other side, they filled their nets with the haul. They counted 153 fish and John noted that they were large. No doubt, we should have seen the ones that got away.
In my mind I seethem there in that place and I watch as Jesus took Peter aside. “Do you love me,” he asked three times? Peter replied affirmatively though timidly. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. And with that, Peter was redeemed.
I wonder to myself, how could Jesus, the master story-teller, have failed to use a fishing metaphor? How natural it would have been to say, “Catch my fish!” or even “Feed my fish!” No, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee Jesus talked about sheep instead of fish. Suddenly it occurs to me that it could not have been by accident.
Jesus meant to draw a clear distinction between Peter’s past and future. Fishing was the past. His future would be devoted to the sheep of Christ’s pasture.
I wonder to myself, in my silent meditation, how many times I have opted for the familiar instead of pressing ahead into an uncertain future? People, pastors and even churches do it all the time choosing what does not threaten rather than having faith enough to accept something different. Being content with what is rather than pressing for what could be.
I wonder whether some of my failures are God’s attempt to steer me to his greater successes? I reflect on the times in my life when I wanted to abandon what seemed unreasonable or impossible to embrace something I could control. But I can’t control things, can I? Not really. Any more than Peter could control whether they caught fish that night.
To myself I affirm again, “He is Lord, he is Lord. He is risen from the dead and he is Lord!”
The growl of the engine announces the need to return to the 21st century, but I am going back with some altered perceptions, for I have been with Jesus.
Jim White is editor of the Religious Herald.