They glanced at each other, their nets trailing idly down the left side of the boat, and then James found his voice. “No,” he said, a question in his voice.
Then the man on the shore said the oddest thing. “Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll get plenty of fish!”
James glanced sharply back at Peter, who shrugged. With a self-conscious grin, James pulled up the largest net and began to gather it up. Peter and John dropped their gear and moved beside him. They cast the net, the same motion as hundreds of times before that night. The ropes ran out through their hands, and they began drawing it in. Peter knew immediately something was different. There was a resistance, then a weight, then a living, bucking, wild tension on the ropes. They braced and pulled hard, looking at each other with expressions that shared the surreality of the moment. Thomas and the others jumped up to help. They pulled together, but Peter stopped them. “We’ll have to drag it to shore,” he said. “It might tear otherwise.”
John suddenly spun and stared at the man on the shore. His eyes wide, he looked at Peter. “It’s the Lord!” he said, his voice tight with excitement. Peter dropped his hold on the net, and the boat lurched. James chuckled and braced himself for the added weight.
Gazing at the shore, Peter grabbed his cloak, pulled it on, and on a sudden impulse he ran the length of the boat and dove into the chilly water. John and Thomas yelled, and James and the others were laughing. Peter swam strongly, straight toward the man on shore. He came out of the lake, his clothes streaming water, shivering and splashing through the shallows. He ran up… to Jesus. They stood for a moment, Peter staring, Jesus smiling.
Then Jesus turned and walked to a campfire. There was fish frying, and bread. The wind changed and Peter smelled the earthy, delicious smell of breakfast. He suddenly realized he was starving. The boat pulled up to the shore, the other disciples shouting and laughing, straining to pull the net out of the water, counting all the huge fish in the net. “Bring some of those fish!” Jesus called. Peter remembered his manners enough to go help pull the net in. Jesus tended the fire and then called, “Now come and have some breakfast!” They all came, grinning and nodding, tired but happy.
Jesus served them fish and bread. They talked a bit at first, but mostly they sat there and ate with the contentment that men share eating a well-earned meal around a campfire. Thomas smiled to himself, thinking, everything tastes better cooked over a campfire, and when it’s cooked by the Son of God, it’s unbeatable.
After breakfast, Jesus came to Peter. He sat beside him and looked at him. Peter was apprehensive. Jesus looked at him, and then said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
James, sitting across from them, wondered what the “more than these” part meant. Was Jesus asking if Peter loved Him more than he loved the fish? No, that was too weird. Did Jesus mean to ask Peter if his love was greater than the other disciples’ love for Jesus? Whatever He meant, Peter seemed to understand what He was asking.
Peter’s voice was tight with emotion and he said, “Yes, Lord, You know I love You.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus said.
Peter thought he understood. Jesus was giving him a commission. He was to care for the new group of people who were coming to believe in Jesus. Peter would do it. He would give it his all. There was still the cloud of his shame, but Jesus was giving him a job to do anyway. It was his chance to prove himself.
But then Jesus looked at him again, and asked again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He had Peter’s full attention now. Peter looked him in the eye, and thought, He wants me to be totally sure. “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know I love You.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
Peter knew then that his responsibility would be to care for all of Jesus’ followers to the best of his ability. It was an overwhelming task, but Peter would do it. He would give it his all. He would prove himself.
But then Jesus asked him quietly, a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter’s eyes filled with tears. His shame came crashing down. His denials came back in full force. He felt the anguish of that night again. He cried bitterly for a few minutes, wondering if he really could say that he loved Jesus, when he had turned away from Him. But Peter realized that whatever awful things could be truthfully said about him, he couldn’t help loving Jesus. There was no life for Peter outside of loving Jesus. He knew he wasn’t good enough to love Jesus and would never be, but he couldn’t help it. He spread out his hands in a helpless gesture. “Lord, you know everything,” he said finally, his voice trembling. “You know I love You.”
Jesus reached out and gripped his shoulder. His voice was warm as He smiled and said, “Then feed my sheep.” He looked into Peter's eyes. “The truth is, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.”
Peter understood. This was a passage from selfishness to selflessness. Jesus was warning him that he would eventually have to give his life for the sake of Christ. But Peter’s joy was surging in spite of the sobering words. The cloud was gone. He was looking into the eyes of his friend, his savior, his Lord, and he was loved and forgiven.
Peter didn’t know what to do or say then, so he resorted to his old habit of running his mouth before he could stop himself. He looked at John, who was smiling like an idiot. Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”
Jesus raised an eyebrow. “If I want John to stay alive until I return, what is that to you?” He pointed at Peter and said, smiling, “You follow me.”
Peter ducked his head, embarrassed. But his heart was warm, even in the cool breeze.
The sun was up now, orange in the eastern hills. The men cleaned up the last bits of breakfast, and then got to work on their fish.