I am 4 years old, sitting on the bow of a small ship, cruising over the waters of Pearl Harbour. My father is beside me, and behind me. I am enveloped by his voice as the wind rushes against my face.
I feel small and I feel infinite. When the ship moves on the water, I feel almost as if I am the ship, I feel powerful and swift in the water.
I take on a dreamlike state as my father tells me about the power of water. This is his favourite lecture and I know it well. It’s little based on fact, far more on fancy, but even now it rings in my head.
He speaks almost in a Hollywood grandeur or some sweeping Shakespearian sonnet about the depth and darkness of the sea. The ability of water to give and take life. He points out every dangerous crag and trick the sea will use to win you over, and then how she betrays you.. with a sudden storm, an empty fishbox, a sudden wave that leaves you winded. He reminds me again, how he nearly drowned that long ago day before I even breathed. Tells me the stories of his surf lifesaving days, talks about the wind on the water in front of us, wishes out loud that he was in a yacht and not a diesel-smoking ferry.
He is rough and proud, stubborn. He talks too big, far bigger than anything he’s done. But he has a good intention behind every dream, and he genuinely loves the beach, the water, the sails and the fishing. His name means man of the sea.
He trained as a marine engineer, in the days when that meant you could undo and rebuild a marine diesel engine, and attend to just about any task on board any vessel from a fishing trawler to a 30ft matchsailer.
But I don’t really care about those things. I am four years old, and already I am sick of hearing Dad’s grand tales and I’m far more interested in getting in on the action.
“dad, will you teach me how to sail this summer? I mean really sail?”
“yes, when you’ve learned to swim”
“but I can swim!”
“when you can swim properly”
“well, can we go fishing in the dinghy, not off the wharf.. but in the dinghy? I’m tired of the wharf, I only catch rockfish”
“maybe we can go fishing. But I’m not sure if I really like fishing anymore. Thought I might take up knitting this summer”
with this I turn my head in horror… aghast at the thought of not one, but two parents that knit!.. I’m relieved to see that my father is merely winding me up.
As if my father could give it up. It’s in his blood, it’s part of his genetic make up I’m sure. As much as big stories and tall tales, his fondness for red wine and bbq, his surefire plans to make a million dollars and his inevitable failures..
I wish I could say that my father is the loveable underdog who made good somewhere in life. That the pieces have all fallen together for him.. but the reality is not that way at all. Of course.. I didn’t know that when I was four. Then I believed that one day we would sail around the world, my father and I. He would man the tiller and I would run the sails, climb the mast, ride the bow in the spray. We would fish for our dinner and cook in on the galleystove, visit any port that took our fancy..
It was natural and right of me to believe these things. After all.. from the beginning of my life, I had lived with the sea as a grandstage. I was born into a house called Hau Moana, the windy sea, that overlooked the Manukau Harbour. Less sheltered and pretty than the Waitemata.. we ate shellfish when it was less dangerous to do so, watched tankers and sailboats from my bedroom window.
Every available moment was spent at the water’s edge whether at the beach or the lakes. It didn’t matter whether it was summer or winter.. it may occasionally be too cold to swim, but it’s never too cold to make yourself known against the sand and the wind.
Dad and I stood against the elements, side by side.. as he taught me to swim, and sail and fish.. although he taught me to fish slowly. First, fishing just meant standing beside Dad while he did all the work. Sometimes off the wharf he would let me play with the net and “help” catch bait. Then later, he let me push the squirmy, wet bait of choice onto the hooks.. I thought surely that was the next step to being allowed a rod of my own. But no.. then there came netting the fish, cleaning the fish, eating the fish.. I had to ‘prove’ I could do all those things before I could really call myself a fisherman. Eventually though.. I made it off the wharf. I was relieved, because all I ever caught were rockfish and I’ve never yet found a good recipe for those.
It’s important to tell you the reason why these stories are important. My father, whom I love very much, hasn’t had what most people would call a successful life. Many people call him a failure. You don’t need to know why, you can just know that, and it can be okay for you to know that. It’s as important for me to have a memory of my father that is strong and good and fun and safe, as it is for my father to have the sense of belonging that he does in the water.
My father is different around the water than he is every other place. He’s more comfortable in his own skin. It’s like he knows it inside and out. How to use the wind to travel over her, to live from her, to play in her. My father has never been a failure at sea. He has rescued people from overturned boats, from drowning, from broken masts and in return. the beach and the water have never failed to bring a sense of peace and calm to our family. Even now.. dad still travels to the southwest beaches, and mum travels north, but we always end up beside the water.. water is such an integral part of our family.. it’s who we are, it’s what we know. The sun and the salt, the numb tingly feeling of windburn and sand and salt in our hair.
Peter knew that feeling well. He knew that sense of calm from being beside the water. The sense of security he had in being able to fish for a living .. providing for his large household. He knew the way the seas can turn on you, after all, he’d witnessed some big storms, but he mostly just felt at home. His skin was leathered and brown, his hands calloused from pulling in nets at the dawn, after a long night out on the water. Middle Eastern fisherman do it differently than us Southern Pacific folk. They fish at night to sell the fish fresh at dawn, they fish at night when it’s cool.
Have you ever been out with the sea overnight? My friend eddie and I slept out under the stars one night. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and lay down in the dip where the sand and grass meet. We could see the shadows of the mountains to our left, the faint lights of the campground to our right. But as the night went on, the sounds of life as we knew it faded, and everything became focused on the sea. She rose and fell, and every small wave was like a breath. Every so often you heard a small splash and wondered what was diving or eating or flying? Did you know they have flying fish in the Gulf Harbour marina? I was just there last week and saw them jumping in between the empty berths.
It’s a soothing peaceful kind of place. Just the kind of place you go to mend an argument, to heal a quarrel. It’s the kind of place you go when you miss someone far away.. to reach your hand into the water and imagine the distant shore on the other side. It’s where you go to grieve, where you go to propose marriage.. it’s just the kind of place that inspires life, or heals you from it.
No surprise then, that Peter was there so soon after it happened. No surprise that the water, the sound of the boat creaking, the nets being drawn in was the only thing to dent the knot of iron in his stomach. No surprise that Peter, just like a fisherman does, turned to what he knew best, when nothing else seemed sure.
This Peter and my father have a lot in common, you know.. he’s all at once humble and proud, stubborn, impetous. You know he drew out a sword and struck off the ear of one of the guards that came to arrest his friend? When people talked of him, it was always with a fond tease at his bullheaded nature. He’s one of those characters that most of the time is five minutes behind everyone else. An action man, he rarely took the time to think through a solution beyond the time it took him to execute it.. hence the ear. And sometimes he just missed the point entirely, like in the footwashing ceremony. This friend, Jesus, had asked for the equipment to wash the feet of the friends that were following him.. they were known as the disciples. Peter got all hot under the collar again.. said, no no.. you can’t you can’t.. ,missed the point completely. You see, there was something going on that night.. that was bigger than who was worthy to wash who’s feet. But Peter didn’t get it until much later.
I think Peter got it when the darkness fell over the sky. When the breath left Jesus’ body. I think that’s when he first started to see that this was no ordinary death. Afterall, peter was the first to realize Jesus for who he was.. “the messiah” he called him, long before anyone else. Didn’t his salt of the earth, simnple approach to things just charm the pants of you? I mean, from the get go.. Jesus points him out, holds him in his close circle of three, changes his name.. but even Peter doesn’t get it yet. Can’t you just imagine, the disciples sitting around the fire after it had all been done.. lost in their grief and sorrow.. lost in the wondering, what next? And then suddenly remembering the look on that soldiers face when peter struck his ear off? And where did he get that sword? Did he have that the whole time?
Peter didn’t smile, or laugh though. Normally the first to poke fun at himself for missing the punchline, or not quite getting it.. he stood up, almost awkwardly.. said in his characteristic abrupt way.. “I’m going fishing”.
Relieved that peter once again had spurred them into action.. the disciples followed him. Down to the boats. Hungry for one another’s company and companionship, they climb into the one, made of creaky old wood, but faithful. Peter seems so much more in control here.. directing them out to the best old spots.. calmly instructing them to move here, now, drop nets, swing round. So calm, so under control.. so at home. The other disciples amazed really.. at the sense of peace exuding from Peter.
Of course, not underneath the surface. What was Peter going to do.. run back to the disciples and say.. hey guys.. I did get it. I get it at last and it’s not good. He said that I would betray him.. and I did. Judas at least thought he had a reason, but I had none. I’m not worthy to even sit in your company, let alone be any kind of follower of Jesus. It’s simple and clear to me now. It’s over. I can’t live that life, because I havne’t got what it takes. So I’m going back to my fishing boats and let’s leave it at that.
What Peter couldn’t understand was why he was still standing. After all, the prophecies about Judas had all come true.. he was lying in a field, intestines everywhere. So when was the hammer gonna fall on him? What I did was even worse, he’s thinking, as he manuvoeres the boat to a better mooring.
That was always Peter’s problem.. comparing himself to the others, wondering about them more than concerning himself with himself.. even now, wallowing in his failure, he’s thinking about the others. What they will think, what they will say.
He can’t even bring himself to remember the look in Jesus’ eye. When they had entered that room, to share in the supper.. he’d been so confused. The Passover supper was due to be shared.. but the way that the rabbi had done it.. so different. And all that talking about not sharing it again until heaven. Who knew that it was all so close. But it was the phrases about the betrayal that chilled Peter to the bone, even on this warm night.
He considered himself undone. How could he come back from this? How could he face his brothers, the disciples? The words of Jesus lingered. “you will deny me” “I pray your faith will not fail you” .. that Jesus knew, and still ate the passover meal with him. That Jesus knew what he would do and still washed his feet. That Jesus knew what he would say, and how he would deny him.. and still said Peter, come and watch for me while I pray.
That was the worst of it. Peter had betrayed his truest friend, his deepest brother, his Messiah Lord. And not even into the hands of the courts, but had simply denied him. Had rejected every notion of the years they spent together. And those piercing eyes looked at him, and nowhere could Peter escape them.
And why shouldn’t he feel bad. After all, he lied and worse.. denied the Christ. Judas was taken over by Satan in committing his foul act, but at least he never denied his relationship with Christ. In fact, some considered that Judas was convinced of Jesus’ blasphemy.. and was trying to do the righteous thing. Surely Judas, now lying in a field was more likely now, to find forgiveness and life eternal with the Father, than Peter. Peter.. some rock. More like a pebble.
And now, matters worse.. even that which he has never failed at.. at the fishing. Now even his beloved Galilee was turning her back on him. The nets are empty. The dawn starting to rise. All is sorrowful, and mournful. Peter’s grief and rage wells up inside. It spills out in tears, and a heavy hand on the nets, then a heavy hand on the sails.
Of course.. Peter has always been a little slow to get it. And lost in his sorrow and in his comparisons, in his grief. Wondering how and where he might repent for this most grevious betrayal, he’s missing the point again.
He has the right idea.. going back to what is certain and sure.. but it’s just not the right certain and sure thing that he’s going back to. The beach.. scene to so many things.. and scene to some of the key moments. ..
Didn’t he hear Jesus say “ I pray your faith will not fail you.. AND after you have turned back, strengthen your brothers?”
Jesus had treated Judas and Peter in the same manner… both betrayers included in the Passover, included in the promises of a new feast in heaven, both sets of dusty, hardened feet washed. Eyes searching into the soul of each one.. Jesus had told them both that he knew the deeds they were about to commit. Judas, penetrated by guilt in those moments, Peter, unwittingly promising his faithfulness.. didn’t he see?
Fishermen, men like Peter, men like my father.. don’t cope well with failure. Most of us don’t. We tend to bolt for that which is comfortable, that which is secure.. so many of my parent’s arguments ended up in fishing trips, long before they ended in divorce court. But mostly, when they really stuff it up. When it’s really coming down.. they know it. and the shame of it kills them. We’ll live with the shame of our failures for the rest of our lives because we know no other way to give them up. Know no other way to repent, know no other way to move forward. And they hang like a weight around our neck, and as we gets older, it hangs heavier and heavier. Failure breeds failure, when there is no hopeful outlook.. no hope arrives of it’s own accord.
Jesus got that. He’s Son of God through and through. He didn’t need to prove that to Peter one more time by telling him about the betrayal. There’s a far more humane reason why. There’s a far more human reason why. There’s a matehood reason why, a brotherhood reason why. You think Jesus would have left Peter.. whom he loved so deeply, sitting on the edge of the water, failure and despair hanging around his neck.
By the time dawn rolled around on that morning, with Peter thrashing away on the inside all night long, he was probably starting to get it. After all, he gets there in the end. He was probably starting to remember, the look in Jesus’ eye wasn’t all bitter hardness, in fact.. he might have imagined that. And inexplicably.. there was a weight starting to lift.. as he began to think.. if he told me, and yet told me after I had shared the meal.. maybe not all is lost. Maybe when the end comes for me, I will see him again.. I will make my apology.. face to face.. like a man. He knows it. I can handle that.. so now I just have to wait.. Wait til I see him again. And tell him how sorry I am.
So resigned to it, a lifetime of sorrowful remembrance, but prepared to pay the price.. peter instructs them to haul the nets in one more time. Still nothing.
And then a voice calls from the Shore.. try the other side. Try the other side.
There’s a flicker of something deep inside Peter. Something strange about that voice. Something familiar but not quite. He looks at the faces of the disciples.. waiting for his instruction. He looks at them.. says .. why not.. for old times sake.. after all.. last time someone told us something strange sounding.. look what happened.
The mood lightens. It’s an odd way of appeasing the grief and tiredness of these men, but it feels good.. to remember something other than the last few days.
Within minutes.. there’s a flurry in the water underneath the boat.. haul in, says Peter.. haul in… reaching down with his own hands.. the nets straining, sweat breaking out on the foreheads of the men.. all of a sudden, the fish are there. Something unusual is going on, Peter can feel it. It’s almost nostalgic.. almost reminds him of the night of the storm, something so strangely familiar about that voice on the beach.
By the time Peter is ashore, there is tilapia smoking on the fire. His mouth waters… it’s been known as St Peter’s Fish since that time. It’s light and warm on the tongue, just as a good fish ought to be.. cracked open from the fire. He’s torn between the fish and the man before him. He’s getting it again. Jesus is back, face to face.
He’s overwhelmed with joy and relief and shame. He doesn’t know whether to kneel at his feet or embrace him or hang his head. He looks at Jesus, somehow different and yet the same before him. His eyes pleading, what do you want from me.
Jesus says… walk with me. That peter can do. He’s an action man, and so walking is a good choice. Of course.. his steps are a little too fast and then too slow.. he’s awkward and uneasy.
He wonders, should I say it first.. how sorry I am.. or should I beg forgiveness. Maybe I should just ask how he knew.. or better yet.. why I did it. Why I’m not dead like Judas is.. I feel like I ought to be.
The conversation is long. It’s warm and tender, soft and strong. It’s filled with quiet understanding, as Peter gets it more and more. It becomes joyous, until the two walking in the distance look more like old fishing buddies comparing the ones that got away than Messiah and follower.. much less resurrected Messiah… !! the disciples look around each other.. almost with a shrug, they figure if it’s important.. they’ll hear about it.
And so is it? important? That peter denied Christ and was restored? Breakfast on the beach one last time? Was it just an excuse to get them down there to relive the good old days? Do you love me? Says Jesus.. you know.. with your head and heart and mind and will? Of course, Peter replies. And again.. he asks.. of course.. more than ever. Ok he says..
A few minutes later, he turns again.. takes peter by the arm, looking hard at him.. but peter, do you also love me? The Saviour’s voice cracks. His eyes are welling up. Peter is momentarily dazzled by what he sees.. the Messiah has a question of me? That brings him to tears… do you love me? You know.. with your heart? Do you hold me with affection in your heart? Are you still my friend? My brother? .. Peter gets it. and from that moment he keeps getting it. Here is Jesus, standing before man,.. saying do you love me? Love me for who I am.. for what we share? If I know you love me.. then what does it matter what’s been before.. all that I can forgive when I know that you love me. What’s ahead.. there’s where we go from here.. but I’d just like to hear you say it.. one more time, before I have to get with the messiah thing.. do you love me, mate?