According to the concordances, a eunuch was ‘a confidential court official, usually a castrate.’ After his discourse on marriage, carefully recorded by Matthew, Jesus uses the word to describe three types of men who cannot marry, marriage being about a woman and a man becoming one flesh and one family. Those who were eunuchs by birth (presumably those born homosexual), those who were made eunuchs by men (castrates) and those who choose not to marry in order to serve God more freely (celibates). Marriage was arranged by the parents of the man and the woman, and there was an understanding that it should take place only between fellow Israelites, though many disregarded this, as is clear from the Old Testament. The engagement was binding and a ‘bride’s price’ (mohar) was payable to the bride’s father, who had to pay a dowry. These could be paid in servants, land, property or work, as well as in money.
Matthew 19 v 11:
Not everyone can accept this word, but only for those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.
(New International Version)
In this private, follow-up discussion with disciples, away from the legalistic Pharisees, Jesus makes it clear that these groups of me are not expected to fulfil the duties of marriage. The fact that he tells them this in a private word, after the Pharisees have left, suggests that the subject was controversial, and that his disciples may well have contained men who were ‘born that way’, or who didn’t see how they could marry and follow him, or both. Marriage was not easy for those living an itinerant lifestyle, since it depended on heavily on the more settled pattern of village and town life which many Palestinians were living by this time. By the same token, a group of unmarried men who spent a lot of time in each others’ company would undoubtedly attract rumour and speculation, and in quizzing Jesus over the marriage laws, the Pharisees may have been hinting at this. Certainly, he had been often criticised for mixing too much with tax-collectors, prostitutes and publicans, and homosexuals would certainly have been included in this category of ‘sinners’. If this was the case, in not condemning homosexuality, but quietly accepting it, Jesus could have been accused of going against the teaching of the Torah. In his time, there was an argument raging over the grounds for divorce, and many women were exploited for their dowry and then ‘dumped’ by the husbands after a short time for very little reason. Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that he believes the only grounds for divorce are adultery. He shields the disciples from the pointing fingers of the hypocritical pharisees, who allowed men to divorce their wives with no just cause, but at the same time reassures them that they need not marry while following him. It is sometimes wrongly claimed in current debate, that homosexuality was relatively unknown in the ancient world, that it is a modern ‘lifestyle’ choice. Jesus’ words reveal this not to be the case, but we know little of how it was regarded. In the Old Testament, the struggle for the survival of the tribes against war, famine and plagues, was what motivated aggressive opposition to anything which got in the way of procreation and the ‘multiplication’ of families. Hence the reason for the references to the sinfulness of masturbation, ‘spilling one’s seed on the ground’, and the acceptance of polygamy, particularly among the nomadic tribes. The needs of ancient societies were very different to those of modern societies, and there are signs in the New Testament that times and attitudes were already changing in his day, hence Jesus’ determination to provide a new context in which to interpret the Torah.
Philip must have known that this mission to witness on the Gaza road was important, as it involved a journey of anything up to 80km, from the Samaritan city where he was staying, to Gaza, on the coast (see map of Palestine).
It’s entirely possible that this Treasurer of the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, or the Upper Nile Valley, or Nubia as it was then (‘Cush’ in Hebrew), was homosexual from birth, as important officials were often given charge over castrated servants. Either way, the actions of Philip in sharing his carriage, often depicted as a chariot, show that, at the outset, he did not regard this Ethiopian Jew as in any way ‘unclean’ compared to himself.
The Acts of the Apostles, 8 vv 26-39:
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get ready and go south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This road is not used nowadays.) So Philip got ready and went. Now an Ethiopian eunuch, who was an important official in charge of the Treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia, was on his way home. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
The holy spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that carriage and stay close to it. ” Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The official replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me? ” And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him. The passage of scripture he was reading was this:
“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,
like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.
He did not say a word.
He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.
No-one will be able to tell about his descendants,
because his life on earth has come to an end.”
The official asked Philip, “Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else? ” Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus.
As they travelled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, “Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” (Philip had said to him, “You may be baptised if you believe with all your heart.” “I do,” he answered; I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” ) The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptised him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy.
Queen Candace’s Treasurer, a very high-ranking Court official
, was clearly an African Jew
who had been to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. He was from a region called Nubia. During the Egyptian settlement
and enslavement, many Jews had spread a long way up the Nile Valley, and had inter-married. So, although he was rich, he may have been considered to be not a true member of the faith by some, but Philip does not adopt this attitude. The fact that he is reading the scriptures aloud is also an indication that he was devout, as well as educated in Hebrew, though perhaps not having the benefit of a rabbi to explain them. Philip comes to his aid. It must have been quite a long conversation if it began with Isaiah and led on to the fulfilment of the prophecies by Jesus. It would be good to know whether, after looking at this passage, in Isaiah 53 vv 7-8, Philip dwelt next on Isaiah 56: vv 3-5, which contains the following passage on ‘eunuchs’:
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let not any eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant –
to them I will give within my temple ands its walls,
a memorial and a namethat will not be cut off.”
As both a ‘foreigner’ and a eunuch, this powerful and important man must have felt excluded from those among the exiles of Israel who would be ‘gathered’ together according to the prophecies. However, Isaiah’s prophecies are inclusive, and even refer directly to ‘the Cush’. This passage makes it clear that all that is necessary is to hold fast to justice in order to receive salvation. It also contains the words used by Jesus to drive out the money-changers from the Court of the Foreigners:
My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
The Ethiopian had been using this very same Temple Court in which his fellow-Africans had seen Jesus’ acted parable of inclusiveness at the Passover Festival. He may have been attending the Feast of Tabernacles the following autumn, since Philip had been in Samaria for six months, though this was a different Philip from the original apostle. As a ‘foreign’ Hebrew, the Nubian would have been restricted to the outer courts of the Temple and, if known to be a eunuch, would not be allowed in the Temple at all, though he would be unlikely to travel the distance involved without the likelihood of being able to worship in the precincts. This is further evidence of him being a ‘eunuch by birth’ since a castrated eunuch would have undergone more obvious hormonal changes.
Graciously, this African becomes the first from his continent to accept God’s invitation to faith in Jesus Christ, his Son, and asks to be baptised in the first pool of water they come too. This was not the ritual washing required of those who became Jews, nor was it the baptism of John, open as it was for Jew and Gentile alike, as a sign of repentance. Philip tells him that this is the baptism commanded of new converts by Jesus, including the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, Philip is overjoyed to accompany him into the water, and is himself given the Spirit to go on to preach to the Romans and Greeks on the Great Sea Road through Azotus and the coastal towns to Caesarea, while his glad new convert turns south from Gaza to spread the word along the Nile on his way home, the beginning of a long history of Ethiopian Christianity. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly inclusive of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexuality! Not a hint of racism or homophobia here, not in Philip’s mission!
English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Unlike with Thomas the Twin and Judas Iscariot, we know exactly who Simon Peter is, even though Jesus changes his name. His character and personality never changes. He is practical, loyal and humble. He’s a son of Jonas, a native of Bethsaida, a fisherman and Andrew’s brother, working out of the port of Capernaum, where they had their home, according to Mark (1: 29-31). He was married, as Jesus healed his mother-in-law of her fever. He becomes the third of Jesus’ disciples, introduced to the Galilean rabbi by his brother. Unlike his brother and Nathaniel, however, he makes no early declaration of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, despite being himself identified as ‘a rock’ (‘Cephas‘) by the teacher. Jonas’ sons were in a fishing partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who also joined Jesus’ growing band of disciples soon after (Mt 4: 18-22). The Gospel of John tells us below that eight of the twelve went fishing, though they may not all have done it for a living. Peter, James and John become, and remain, the closest of the Twelve to Jesus, a sort of ‘inner triangle’, or trinity.
- Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew
According to Luke (5: 1-11), Jesus began his ministry by using their boats as a pulpit, perhaps because he thought he and the disciples might need to make a quick getaway if a Roman patrol came along, or the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent out its men to apprehend him. Or perhaps it was just a way of controlling the crowds who came to hear him and be healed by him.
By this time, he had done the rounds of the synagogues in the area and news of his words and deeds was spreading far beyond Galilee. On one occasion, Peter and his crew had been out fishing all the previous night, catching nothing, so he was naturally somewhat sceptical when Jesus told him to go out into deep water again and put down his nets for a catch. However, he reluctantly agreed, leaving Zebedee’s boat anchored inshore, however. The catch was so great that they had to call the other boat out to help them, or they would certainly have sunk under its weight. Peter fell to his knees, partly in awe of his ‘Lord’ and partly in shame that he doubted Jesus’ word even for a minute. Of course, never missing an opportunity for an acted parable, Jesus promises them an even greater catch, of souls.
Sworn to Secrecy:
Despite Peter’s humility, or perhaps because of it, he is one of only three disciples, the others being the more ambitious Zebedee brothers, to witness two major incidents. The first incident is when they accompany Jesus to the house of one of the leaders of a local synagogue, Jairus, after he learns of the death of his daughter as he is on his way to heal her. When they arrived at the house, the women mourners had already gathered outside, making their traditional wailing sounds. This shows that the girl had been dead for some time, and Jesus knew too well that, in bringing her back to life, he would be crossing a line which could only lead him into direct confrontation with the Sanhedrin. So, he orders Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they have seen. His selection of these three reveals the trust he placed in them both to believe what they had seen, and to keep it to themselves. His words to the mourners outside, which at first they ridicule, were probably intended to conceal the miracle further, leaving it open for people to believe what they wanted to believe, rather than bringing the wrath of the religious authorities down on him at this stage. By keeping the number of witnesses to an absolute minimum, he seeks to protect his other disciples from such wrath. He chooses the strongest among his fishermen friends, including Peter.
- The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The second incident involves a mountain climb. Here is Mark’s account of what happened:
Jesus took his three friends, Peter, James and John, and led them up into a high mountain. They were alone.
High up in the mountains, Jesus was changed.
His friends were still with him. His clothes were gleaming white; no bleacher on earth could make them whiter. His friends saw two other men talking with Jesus: Moses, who had led the people out of slavery, and Elijah, who had stood up to a king in God‘s name.
Peter didn’t know what to say, so he began to talk like this:
‘Sir’, he said. ‘It’s grand for us to be up here. Do you want us to make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?’
Peter and James and John were terrified.
A cloud rolled around them. God’s words came into their minds.
‘This is my only son. You must do as he says.’
The three men looked around. There was nobody there but Jesus.
As the went down the mountainside, Jesus told them not to talk about what they had seen to anybody, ‘until I have risen from the dead.’
It was this saying they could not forget. They talked again and again among themselves about what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
We don’t know exactly what happened on the mountain, but the three friends shared a tremendous experience, one which transcended even that of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps it helped them to understand that first incident. Since then, Peter had argued with Jesus, only a week before his transfiguration, and it had been clear how little he, and they, had understood him or listened to his words. Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, but failed to grasp the need for him to be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah, let alone what he meant by being ‘raised to life’.
On the road to Jerusalem from Caesaria Philippi, he had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him, because he couldn’t get out of his head the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader would establish a national kingdom, with a king and government. James and John were already applying to become his chief ministers. How could the Messiah suffer in any way or die in the hands of foreigners? Until now, it hadn’t made sense. Now their understanding had been transformed by this mountain top experience, but they were still puzzled by the idea of ‘rising from the dead’. That’s why Jesus told them not to speak about his Resurrection until after it had happened.
The Armed Man in the Garden:
In an echo of the incident at Caesaria Philippi, Mark tells of how, after their Passover Supper, the disciples went outside, singing a hymn. They walked through the olive groves towards Bethany, where they were staying:
‘You will all let me down,’ said Jesus, as they walked along. ‘The Bible says:
‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will run away.
‘But after I am raised I will go to Galilee before you.’
‘Everybody else may let you down, said Peter, ‘but I won’t.’
‘I tell you, Peter,’ said Jesus, ‘that this very night, before dawn, you will say more than once that you’re no friend of mine.’
‘Say I’m no friend of yours?’ said Peter hotly. ‘I’d die with you first!’
- Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The big man could hardly speak any more, but now he resolved on letting his sword do the talking, if he needed it to. No one had noticed when Peter had picked up the sword in the upper room, pushed it through his belt and arranged his cloak so it couldn’t be seen. As they climbed the Mount of Olives into the Garden of Gethsemane, they felt a chill wind that whispered cheerlessly through the olive branches as they fell silent. They had all echoed Peter’s words, but the master said nothing more until he told them to sit down and wait for him while he went to pray. Again, he called his inner circle of friends, Peter, James and John to go with him. He told them to wait, still at some distance from where he would pray alone, but within sight of him. They were to keep watch for him. He told them, his voice breaking with deep distress, that his heart was nearly breaking as well. They watched him go on a short distance and then fall to his knees. In the moonlight, they could tell from his posture in prayer that his mind was in anguish and, as he had said, his soul was overcome with grief to the point of death. Peter put his head into his hands, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help. Exhausted, in the darkness, he drifted into sleep.
He awoke with a start to a gentle touch on his shoulder. It was Jesus, and as the other two sat up rubbing their eyes, he said in a voice tinged with disappointment, “Couldn’t you three keep awake with me for a single hour?” Choking back his emotion, he added, quietly, “Watch, and pray that you may not have to face temptation; your spirit is willing, but human nature is weak.” He sat silently with them for a while and then returned to his solitary prayers. A second time Peter awoke to find Jesus standing over him, this time more composed. Peter tried to rouse himself as Jesus went back to pray alone. After a short time, Peter felt a firmer hand shaking his shoulder. “Wake up,” said Jesus, “the hour has come. In a moment you will see the Son of Man betrayed.”
Dazed, Peter jumped to his feet. Flaring torches dazzled him. In what seemed like another dream, he saw Judas step forward and kiss Jesus, and heard Jesus say, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?” On the word, ‘betray’, Peter gripped his sword.
- The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked the Temple Guards. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” said Jesus calmly, turning around to point at the disciples, ” so, since you have found me, let these others go.” Peter shouted, “Don’t worry, Lord, we can take care of ourselves.” In the glare of the torches came the flash of a blade and the cry, “watch out, the big fellow has a sword!” Peter struck out wildly at Malchus, the Temple Servant, as he moved forwards to oversee the arrest of Jesus. “My head!” Malchus shouted, “he’s hacked my ear off!” He was covered with blood and dazed from the blow. The Guard rushed forwards and there was a lot of shouting and scuffling, then calm returned as the Galilean spoke quietly, telling Peter to put his sword away, that “those that lived by the sword, died by it.” Someone put a bandage around Malchus’ head, holding the almost severed ear back in place. Then Jesus put his hands over Malchus’ head and healed the ear instantly. The Captain of the Guard inspected it, but, despite the blood, found no wound. Then he carried out the arrest, and the other disciples slipped away into the night, throwing away anything that might incriminate them, including the short-swords that one or two others, besides Peter, had been carrying. The Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in the Twelve. Having captured the shepherd of the flock, they knew the sheep would scatter, just as Jesus himself had predicted.
Treachery in the Courtyard:
As Peter crouched in the darkness of an olive grove, he was stunned by a mix of feelings: Fatigue, fear, uncertainty and, above all, a sense of guilt. He was acutely aware of failing his master, of having fallen asleep three times and failed to keep watch. How many times, on Galilee, had he been fishing at night and returned to the shore to accompany Jesus in his ministry the next day? The arrest had all happened so quickly, and yet he had seen the lights in the distance and fallen back asleep. In that moment, if he had managed to rouse himself and stand guard, as Jesus had asked, he could have woken ‘Thunder and Lightning’, the sons of Zebedee, they would have had time to draw the swords Jesus had told them to bring with them, and the three of them, surrounding Jesus, might at least have put up a better fight and even shepherded Jesus away to Bethany, to the safety of locked doors. Now his solitary, futile sword-play had landed him and his master in even more trouble. Now, in the distance, he could see the torches of the Temple Guard and Roman soldiery taking an unresisting Jesus to trial. Why had Jesus told them to bring swords in the first place, if he didn’t intend them to use them? Where was the Legion of Angels Jesus had said he could call out of Heaven to protect him? Why hadn’t he done this?
John and James joined him in the olive grove next to the Bethany Road and they decided to split up. James would take the other, remaining disciples to Bethany and hide out in Lazarus’ house with the women. They would bar all the doors. Peter and John would run down through the olive groves, overtake the arrest party, and try to find out what was happening to Jesus. Nicodemus was near the gate to the High Priest’s House, having been summoned in the middle of the night to attend ‘a hearing’, just as Jesus was led through. John spotted him, and Nicodemus passed him off as his servant to get him through the gate and into the judgement hall. Peter stayed in the Temple courtyard outside the gate and watched the members of the Sanhedrin arriving. There were quite a few people in the centre of the courtyard, but Peter hung back in the shadows, conscious of the blood staining his fisherman’s tunic. However, someone had lit a fire, so he removed it. hid it behind an olive stump and moved closer to the fire. As he did so, he suddenly saw Judas emerging from the High Priest’s House by torchlight. He found himself muttering and cursing “that traitor” out loud, unintentionally drawing attention to himself.
- Peter’s Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the serving girls sitting by the fire heard his thick Galilean accent and asked him if he was one of the followers of Jesus. She had heard the man from Nazareth preach many times and the Twelve were always with him, and he recognised him as the big man, a sort of bodyguard, who was always at his side. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. A member of the Temple Guard who had been in the arrest party also came over. He looked carefully at Peter, thinking he might be the big man who hit Malchus with his sword. “You are one of that man’s followers, aren’t you?” he said, pointing to the house where Jesus was being interrogated by Sanhedrin. Peter denied it with such a protest that the officer of the Guard grew even more suspicious. However, there was no blood on his clothes and it had been dark in the garden. There had been a lot of confusion.
The officer went inside the House for a short time, and about an hour later Malchus himself came out to where Peter was sitting and asked him to stand. More than a head taller than Malchus, Peter was able to look down at the bloody bandages on the Temple servants’ head. Malchus asked him officiously for his name, trade and address. Peter answered that he was Simon-bar-Jonas, a fisherman from Capernaum. “I thought so,” said Malchus, “you’re a Galilean, the prisoner’s armed bodyguard who did this to me earlier when we went to arrest him in Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. Come on, speak up! I’m in no pain, no thanks to you, but I can’t hear so well, just now,” Peter answered that he rarely went to the other side of Galilee, let alone to Nazareth. He had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, but had never seen him and the man meant nothing to him. He had come on his own to the City for the Passover, together with his friend John, who was in the Temple, praying. He was waiting for him.
At that moment, Jesus was brought out of the High Priest’s House. He stood on the steps and looked straight over at Peter: a sad look, but nothing to prove he knew him. John was with Nicodemus, not far behind. Near at hand, a rooster crowed as the sky grew lighter. In the half-light Malchus could see tears rolling down the big man’s face. He tried to speak, twice, then turned and broke into a run across the courtyard and out of the gate, weeping bitterly. John left Nicodemus and ran after Peter.
Behind them, the Temple Guards had blindfolded Jesus and began playing games with him by the fire, beating him and asking him to guess who had hit him, and hurling worse insults at him. Nicodemus tried to stop them, but was ushered away, and Malchus turned away and went back inside. The guards were far too preoccupied with their prisoner, whom they had been told to hold until the full Sanhedrin could be assembled in daylight, to bother about chasing after his Galilean fishermen friends. They could run all the way back to Capernaum, as far as they were concerned, and the Romans or Herod’s men could deal with them there, like they dealt with all the other troublesome northerners. Not their problem. They had their man.
From Bethany to Galilee:
But John and Peter did not return to Galilee. They ran to Bethany and joined the other disciples, who had decided to stay together, close to Jerusalem, at least until the worst was over. They kept the door locked, except for the women coming and going with other relatives, escorted by John and Joseph of Arimathea. Two days later, when Mary Magdalene brought news of the empty tomb. Fearing that the body had been stolen, Peter and John set off on one of their runs again, to Joseph’s garden cave, where Jesus had been placed after his crucifixion.
John got their first and waited for Peter, and when they saw the linen clothes lying there, they began to believe, John better than Peter, that the scriptures really had come true. But they didn’t really understand was resurrection was until Peter met the risen Jesus in person on the road near Jerusalem later that same afternoon. Two other disciples also met him on the road to Emmaus in the evening and when they returned to Bethany to tell the others, Jesus suddenly appeared to all of them, except Thomas. A week after that, he had appeared to all of them again, this time including Thomas. After this, they followed the instructions of the angel and Jesus himself, who had first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany outside the tomb, to return to Galilee to meet him there.
However, nothing had happened for weeks now, so Peter decided to go back to doing what he knew best….
After this, Jesus appeared once more to his disciples at Lake Tiberias. This is how it happened. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the twin), Nathanael (the one from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and the two other disciples of Jesus were all together. Simon Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.” “We will come with you,” they told him. So they went out in a boat, but all that night they did not catch a thing.
As the sun was rising, Jesus stood at the water’s edge, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus….
….A third time Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and so he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep…..”….Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!”
The Drama of Jesus, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:
The late afternoon breeze was rippling the water of the Lake of Galilee. John and six of the disciples were walking along the shore. “Where’s Peter?” asked John.
“Whenever he wanted to think something over,” said Andrew, “he’d go down to the boats and mend the nets.”
“But we agreed we’d stay together while we waited for the Lord to arrive.”
Andrew shrugged. “An impatient man is our Peter.”
“Come on. Let’s find him,” said John….They found Peter sitting morosely on a pile of nets, looking over the lake. Gruffly he greeted them and said, “I’m going fishing”.
“Jesus told us to wait on the hillside,” answered John. Peter pulled irritably at his beard. “You can wait there. I’m going to the boats and nets and the lake, to work.”
“But what about His work?” asked John. “I’m sure the Lord has plans for our future.”
Without looking up, Peter muttered, “You can also be sure that He wants reliable men to carry it out. Not weaklings; not those who panic and are afraid. He called me the Rock and I turned out to be this….” He picked up a piece of rotten driftwood and broke it over his knee.
“You told me that He forgave you.”
“Forgave, yes,” Peter sighed. “But trust me – depend on me in the future – that’s different. Would you put your work in the hands of a person who openly denied he even knew you?”
“Is that all you remember of that terrible night? A night when we were all bewildered and afraid. We all failed him.”
“That may be,” said Peter, “but I gave him my word that I would never let him down.” He thumped his palm with his fist. “I said I’d die for him.”
“True,” agreed John, “we all said we’d die for him.”
“You didn’t swear you’d never seen him before and that anyhow he meant nothing to you.”
“So you feel ashamed and guilty,” said John gently. “It shocked you to catch a glimpse of the real Simon – weak, scared and unreliable. The truth took you by surprise, shook you and bruised your pride.” He put his hands on Peter’s shoulders. “Tell me, you miserable, short-memoried fisherman, did it take Him by surprise?” John spoke slowly and forcibly. “Did the truth about you shock him?” He turned to the others. “Andrew, do you remember what the Lord said to this bag-of-self-pity you call a brother, when he told us that Satan would sift us all like wheat?”
Andrew nodded. “He said, ‘Simon, Simon, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you come to yourself you must lend strength to your brothers.’ “
Peter turned away. What John said was true. Jesus had known the worst even before it happened. He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself and he still loved him, cared about him and prayed for him.
Peter kept looking towards the lake. He didn’t want them to see his tears. He strode down towards the water, muttering, “I’m still going fishing.”
They sat in silence and watched him check the fishing gear. Then he put his shoulder to the boat and slowly pushed it into the water. Once aboard, he set about hoisting the sails. The disciples jumped to their feet and ran after him, shouting, “wait for us.”
They cast their nets all night and caught nothing. Slowly, they rowed back in the dawn mist…
A voice called from the shore, “Fellows, have you caught anything?”
Peter shouted back, “No.”
“Shoot the net to starboard and you will make a catch.”…
…They cast the net. In a second their tiredness turned into excited action. The boat jerked to starboard, the water had sudden turbulence. Peter took immediate control. He shouted orders. “Pull – watch it – carefully now – don’t tear the net…John, what are you doing?”
John had no thought for fish. He was staring through the mist. “The man on the shore He….”
“Never mind him, help with the catch!” But John was still looking shoreward. “Peter,” he breathed, “it’s the Lord!”
“Remember how he told us to cast the net on the other side of the boat?” Peter wasn’t listening. The moment he realised who it was, he grabbed his tunic, hauled it on, dived overboard and swam to the shore.
Andrew’s face was a study. “Oh-um-then what do we do with all these fish?”
“He helped us to catch them,” said John decisively. “We bring them in.” He grasped the net calling, “Keep rowing!”
The boat was soon in the shallows. The six disciples landed and started dragging the net up the beach. They were at once aware of the smell of fish cooking and the warmth of a fire in the chill dawn. As John dragged in the net his mind was a whirl. What could he say to Jesus? “I’m sorry, Lord. We waited and waited on the hillside. We had to do something so we went back to the nets.” But his dilemma disappeared when Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you caught.”…
“Come and have breakfast,” said Jesus, and began serving them.
Apart from murmurs of thanks no one spoke during the meal. John looked at Jesus but looked away again. He was unwilling to meet his Lord’s eyes. He asked himself, …”What has He said to Peter? What are his plans for the future?” Peter sat there moodily looking at the fish. Then Jesus spoke using Peter’s old name. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” came the husky reply. “You know I’m your friend.”
Jesus looked directly at him. “Take care of my lambs.”
Then realisation gripped him. “He still wants me,” Peter thought, “that’s the end of the fishing business.”
There was a long silence. The disciples barely stirred. Jesus spoke again. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter still sat there, his hands cupping his chin. Again he said, “Yes, Lord. You know I’m your friend.”
Jesus looked at him. Peter’s eyes met his. There was love and confidence in the order. “Then tend my sheep.”
The wind stirred the water. Small waves splashed on the sand. Peter was barely aware of the familiar smells of fish and nets.
Insistently Jesus’ voice came again. “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”
Peter flinched. There were tears in his eyes. The words wounded him deeply. He blurted out, “Lord, you know everything. You know everything. You know I’m your friend”. His wet clothing stuck to his body. He shivered.
Again came the order, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus paused and then went on, “Peter, I’m telling you the truth. When you were young you used to get ready and go where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.”
Peter’s gaze was focused on the Lord’s wounded feet. Slowly the words he had heard took shape in his mind. He looked at his own feet and realised that one day, when Jesus’ words came true, he too would have similar wounds…Jesus looked into his troubled face and said, “Follow me.” Then he stood up and walked away. At once Peter followed him…..
…..The guards grasped Peter and John and pushed them down the steps from the judgement hall. “Clear out,” said the captain. “And mind you do what you’re told.”…Hurrying towards them came Matthew. “Thank God you’re free. I have splendid news. Yesterday that big crowd heard you tell that Jesus is alive, Peter. …They believed, hundreds of them.”
“So things have been happening while we were in prison and in court,” said John.
“We’ve been busy telling people about Him and what He said. Scores of us were at it till late last night, and we started again early this morning.”
“Hundreds you say?” questioned Peter.
Matthew nodded. “You know how I like figures. Since he gave us his Holy Spirit and told us to go tell the good news, five thousand have believed.”
Peter whistled softly. “Fishers of men, that’s what he promised. Shoals of them!”
Alan T Dale has pointed out that no story can simply be a record resulting from a historical enquiry. Whilst it must be subject to the proper analysis of the sources, texts and contexts it is set in, we are not merely asking historical questions. The whole story faces us with three questions which stem from Jesus’ thrice-asked question to Peter about brotherly love:
- Isn’t love the real human adventure? The Story of Jesus puts a question mark against all our chosen ideals and ambitions…challenges us to look for the real source of fulfilment…
- Isn’t love the clue? Jesus was never dogmatic, but crafted his convictions the hard way, struggling, as mankind always has, with the business of making sense of the tangled human experience…all he said and did was a product of this process…
- Isn’t love the end? Men and women have always dreamed dreams and seen visions of a future common society in a common world. In Economics, in Science, and in Education, we seek the clue to this world. The Story of Jesus and his Disciples forces us to ask what kind of world we really want and how we expect to make it. He continues to make us scrutinise our common assumptions and encourages us to make a bolder enquiry. Isn’t love the clue to history, its meaning and its end?
Jesus’ ‘craft’ is summed up by those final words to Peter, ‘Follow Me!’ – the answers are to be found not only by thinking critically but by living boldly, experimentally and adventurously. What if Peter, instead of breaking the driftwood and casting it away, had cut away the rotten wood and shaped the remaining soft wood into something useful or ornamental? The fishermen moved their nets to starboard even before they knew who was directing them, and that it would be as successful a catch as it had been before. ‘Tough Love’ isn’t a blueprint, it’s a ‘Rough Guide’! It’s true meaning can only be found experimentally. God’s world is a world in the making – to be explored, lived in, shared and enjoyed together. How this can be done can only be found in the doing, in following Jesus. Love is the greatest human experience, and friendship is the way we improve it. It is the attitude and emotion which forms the precondition to finding real answers to human questions. Jesus was the pioneer, and we often fall a long way behind, but He never lets us fall so far behind that we cannot see or hear him. We are his friends because we do what he commands; we love him and one another. We follow him to the ends of the earth, and from this world to the next where Love, his Love, is perfect. Easter is not just for one Sunday, or a week or two after, it’s for ever!
John’s ‘Epilogue’ is not the only Galilean appearance of the risen Jesus recorded in the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the eleven disciples meet him on a hill. Matthew tells us that even now, some of them doubted what they were seeing, but Jesus drew near and told them to go out and make disciples of ‘all peoples, everywhere’. He left them in no doubt that they were no longer fishing in a small inland sea in northern Palestine, but in the wide open seas beyond, and for a catch which none of them could number.
What have we done to deserve your appearing? Like Simon, we have denied you in the inmost secrets of our hearts. We have denied you with our lips, and yet you have marked our tears and read our thoughts. We thank you for that love which always comes to us. Help us never to forget your mercy and keep us, like Simon, faithful to the end. Amen.
(Ian D Bunting)
Make a Catch
Sometimes, Lord, you seem to us as a stranger on the shore. Then you remind us of our calling. You challenge us with hard commandments. You draw out our trust. And then, when we obey you, you reveal yourself – not as a stranger but as a friend! Help us to discover you again today, as we do what you tell us. For your name’s sake. Amen
(Ian D Bunting)
Alan T Dale, Portrait of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 1979.
Paul White & Clifford Warne, The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.
David Kossoff, The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow: Collins, 1971.
Thanksgiving for Resurrection Power:
Risen Lord, we thank you for the varied and vivid accounts given to us by those who actually talked with you and ate with you and touched you. We thank you for this visible, physical evidence of your power over death. And we thank you, too, for the invisible spiritual evidence which each of us can experience in our heart, which declares to us that Jesus Christ is still alive. May we, like the first disciples, be brave enough to tell what we have seen and heard so that everyone may enjoy the friendship which we have with you and which is our great blessing; for your dear name’s sake. Amen
Jesus represented as telling Mary not to touch him, by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
‘Do not hold on to me….But go to my brothers and tell them…’
These are the simple first words with which the risen Jesus sends Mary Magdalene away from the garden at sunrise on the third day. So, Mary became the first apostle. Simon Peter and John were the first to enter the tomb, finding it empty, but they returned home feeling confused, because they still didn’t understand the scriptural prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead. Mary, according to the Hebrew custom, is left there to mourn, crying out. These were not low sobs, but full renditions of grief such as we see at Palestinian funerals of martyrs today. As now, this was the traditional role that women took up, together with many others. Her tears were also shed because of the disappearance of the body, of course. Whereas Peter and John run back to the other men, her instincts are to stay and to enter the tomb herself, still crying, until she recognises and holds on to the Lord. This is a very real, physical encounter, not a hallucinatory experience, as the male disciples may have condescendingly thought at first. Mary also knows this is no ghost, and Jesus’ words confirm this. Later that evening, he also appears to the eleven, showing them the physical signs of his crucifixion, so that they would believe that he was flesh and blood. Remember, Cleopas and his friend, after Peter the next to see him, had not recognised him until he broke bread at Emmaus earlier that evening. He consecrates the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit so that they may continue his mission, and begin theirs, making them apostles. (John 20 vv 1-18)
Mary Magdalene and the other women surrounding Jesus pass out of Biblical history and into Church history from the exodus of 36 A.D. It is an indication of how much these ‘Holy Women’ were valued among early Christians, and even by some in the later Roman Church, that they preserved and published manuscripts referring to the women’s subsequent missions to the gentiles. Though it must have been difficult for the Papacy to admit the pre-existence of older forms of Christianity in western Europe, Baronius, the Vatican historian, records in his Ecclesiastical Annals that, in that year, a group of Christian men and women was ‘exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars’. He quotes the Acts of Magdalen and ‘other manuscripts’ to suggest that, along with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Salome, the hand-maiden Marcella, Lazarus, Philip, James, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary (the wife of Cleopas, the disciple who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus), and Jesus’ mother, Mary (to whom John the Divine had appointed Joseph as ‘paranymphos’, or companion), were among the occupants of the boat. The manuscripts all refer to Joseph being accompanied by twelve companions. They drifted as far as the coast of Gaul, the modern-day south of France, from where, the legend has it, ‘Joseph and his company’ went on to Britain, where he had substantial tin and lead mining interests in the west of the country, and that they preached the gospel there, remaining there until they died. This is confirmed by Greek and Roman sources, including the Jewish Encyclopaedia. We may choose to treat these stories as legends or ‘tradition’, but they do have meaning. They remind us of the centrality to the Christian faith of those who were present at the drama of the cross, and who were the last witnesses to the crucified Christ and the first to give testimony of the risen Christ, including the suffering mother whom John led away from the final agony, the women who discovered the empty tomb and the woman who first witnessed the risen body of the saviour. To any Roman the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’ would have sounded a savage word, like ‘gallows’ or ‘guillotine’ to the English or French. Perhaps that’s why the early Roman Church didn’t use it, but preferred to mark the fish symbol as they worshipped secretly in the catacombs. It remained the way the Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves, but for these women, as well as for all the apostles, it became the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’. Paul later wrote that he could ‘boast’ about it. How much more could those who had overcome witnessing its destructive power do so? The Celtic Church wisely turned it into a much more ‘feminine’ symbol of the intertwining of God’s grace with the nurturing of the natural world to make it a thing of great beauty set against the landscapes and seascapes of the western highlands and islands.
The expulsion of Joseph and his companions in an oarless boat without sails would be in keeping with the Sanhedrin’s methods. They dared not openly destroy him and, instead, conceived a treachery that they hoped would confine him to a watery grave. Their survival was not unique in Mediterranean waters, if we consider Paul’s litany of trials and tribulation. We don’t know if Saul had anything to do with the castaway Christians, but we do know that it was soon after this that he had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul. This news stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). We know well what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. However, the story of his visit to Athens is worth the re-telling, because it highlights the clash of cultures in the ancient world which the missionaries had to contend with, not only in converting gentiles, but also within the Church itself:
Paul came to Athens by boat, and he was waiting there for Silas and Timothy. He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images to Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them. “What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneared some. “It’s sme foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others. The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times….The Lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council. “Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”
‘Paul stood before the Council. “Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters to you very much. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it “To the Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.
‘The God who made the world and all that’s in it by that very fact id the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a temple in the street that you can build with your own hands….We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories….Yet he is very near to every us. Your own poets have said this very thing – ‘In God we live and move and exist’ and ‘We, too, belong to his family.’
“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be. What, then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he is like…We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain…The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”
‘Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about him “raising Jesus from the dead.” But there were others. “We’ll hear you again about this,” they said.’
(Acts 17 vv 16-34)
It was out in the world beyond Palestine, in Anatolia, Athens and further west, that what Jesus meant – why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ – became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different races and classes and nations, becoming Christians. Here Paul is writing to those who had become Christians in the highlands of Anatolia:
‘Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’ – as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends. And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you’. (Galatians 4: 4-7)
For Paul it was the way Jesus died that made real what God’s love was like – a love which was ‘broad and long and high and deep’; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. Death, he once quoted ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world – this world and whatever may lie beyond it – is God our Father’s world.
To many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible. We need to remember that it was never easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends, with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene, were taken so much by surprise. For Jewish people the whole story of an executed criminal being raised to life was a ‘stumbling block’, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For the citizens of Athens and educated people the world over it was equally ‘laughable’. Those who had become Christians also continued to struggle with what it meant. This is how Paul tried to explain it:
‘The heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive. How, then, can some people say, “There’s no such thing as being raised from death?” If that is so, Jesus never conquered death; and if Jesus never conquered death, there is no Good News to tell, and we’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. We’ve even been telling lies about God when we said he raised Jesus from death; for he didn’t – if “there’s no such thing as being raised from death.” …Jesus is just – dead. If Jesus is just dead and has not been raised to life again, all we’ve lived for as friends of Jesus is just an empty dream, and we’re just where we were, helpless to do anything about the evil in our hearts and in our world….If all we’ve got is a ‘story’ about Jesus inspiring us to live this life better, we of all men are most to be pitied.
‘Of course, the whole idea of people being raised from death raises many questions. For example, “How are dead people raised to life?”, “What sort of body do they have then?” But questions like these sound silly when we remember what kind of world God’s world is and what God himself is like. Take the seed a farmer sows – it must die before it can grow. The seed he sows is only bare grain; it is nothing like the plant he’ll see at the harvest-time. This is the way God has created the world of nature; every kind of seed grows up into its own kind of plant – its new body. This is true of the world of animals, too, where there is a great variety of life, men, animals, birds, fish – all different from one another.
This shows us how to think about the matter of being raised from death. There’s the life men live on earth – that has its own splendour; and there’s the life men live when they are ‘raised from death’ and live ‘in heaven’ – and this world beyond our earthly one has its own different splendour. The splendour of the sun and of the moon and of the stars all differ from one another. So it is when men are raised from death. Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays. Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour…
For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.’ (1 Corinthians 15: 12-56)
So if we accept the ‘wondrous story’ of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, we suddenly become aware, like Mary, of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in the world’s work with everybody else – as engineers, teachers, shopkeepers, secretaries, farmers, nurses, doctors, managers, representatives. But that’s what we do, not who we are. We are members of God’s Family and God’s co-workers in transforming the world around us. And it is not just what happens in this world that matters. Death has been totally defeated, so that this world is just an exciting beginning.
Almighty God, our Father, we have seen you in the evidence of changed lives and in the growth of the Church from the small group of twenty men and women in Jerusalem to a world-wide fellowship which has spread through time and space: but sometimes we still doubt.
We have seen present day missionaries leave all to follow you: but sometimes we still doubt.
We have seen famous sceptics changed into compassionate, caring Christians: but sometimes we still doubt.
We have seen the burning joy of men and women who have who have undergone great torture and persecution for their faith: but sometimes we still doubt.
Father, each time we doubt use this experience to build up our faith. You do not offer us a blind faith but one we can prove through the help of your Holy Spirit. May we persevere in looking for answers in the right places and from the right people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.