06 June 2011

Before the Rooster Crows

It's a moment I'll never forget. How could I? It was the defining moment of my life, an instant imprinted indelibly on the fabric of my soul. If I close my eyes, even now a lifetime later, sitting with aching joints waiting for guards to come and carry me to my own cross, I can see it all unfold: torchlight flickers, the boot-steps of the soldiers echo as they tramp through Caiaphas' house...I follow Him at a distance, unwilling or unable to accept what is happening. He foretold it, I know, but seeing it happen...it's unreal. My heart is beating like a Roman galley drum, my throat is tight with fear, I am breathless; if they know I am one His followers, they might take me too, do to me what they are doing to Him...my flesh shivers at the thought of the scourge tips ripping my flesh. I cannot bear that thought, but neither can I leave Him. So I follow, hoping they don't ask too many questions.

It was only three years or so, but they changed me completely. I was a fisherman, simple, strong, and stubborn. I took my boat out in the early morning, when dawn's fingers were just brushing the horizon, threw my net and hauled it in, again and again until my muscles ached and burned, and when I couldn't take the strain anymore, I set my teeth and hauled harder, refused to stop or slow until evening lowered itself upon the sea and light faded. I had a family to provide for, and if I caught no fish, they didn't eat. I worked the nets, day in, day out, never considering anything else. What else was there? I had my family, a warm home, a trade I knew.

Then He came. He strode across the beach, sandals crunching in the sand. The net went slack in my hand, making my brother Andrew grunt in irritation. I didn't care. The man walking towards us on the beach...he was captivating, but I couldn't explain why. I straightened, lifted a hand to shade my eyes from the sun, watched Him approach. Andrew eventually stood up as well and took note of Him. The net dropped to the deck, and the only sound was the wind rippling the sail, fish tails slapping wet wood. He stopped, waves licking at his toes and the hem of his robe. He called out to us, a hand extended in invitation, “Come, follow me!” His voice was deep and rich, powerful and commanding and gentle. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The words were strange. We were fishermen, we fished for fish, not people. How could one catch men in a net? I glanced at Andrew, met his gaze for the briefest of moments. Andrew shrugged noncommittally. I looked back to Him, standing at the water's edge, waiting, as if He knew I would go with Him.

The water was cold and jarring in the hot air. I swam until my feet touched lake bottom, waded ashore, donned my robes. He watched me, His eyes a brown that was almost golden, like sunlight through amber, His eyes were the most incredible thing I've ever seen. His features were the ordinary, rough-hewn planes and angles of a Jew from the back-end of nowhere. His hands were calloused like a carpenter's, His hair and beard dark and tangled and thick. His robes were coarse, his sandals old and battered from years of wear. Oh, but His eyes. They were luminous, warm and kind. I stood before Him dripping wet and breathless from my swim, and He stared at me, into my soul, into my heart of hearts, my deepest, secret places, and He knew me intimately. I sensed something emanating from Him, a deep, thrumming, subtle power that seemed woven into His very presence...even now I cannot express in human words what it was like to meet His gaze. It is impossible, I think. Something ineffable stared out from His eyes, something beyond human ken; meeting His gaze is like staring up at the star-washed sky with the infinite millions of stars, like counting the grains of sand, like following the path of a wave across the trackless sea. Staring into His eyes is to stare full into the face of Yahweh. It is terrifying, and yet comforting. He saw the understanding dawning in me, smiled a kind and loving smile which sent a blaze of warmth and joy thrilling through me, drew me into an embrace. He might have whispered, “you are mine,” or I may have heard it in my mind...I cannot say for sure.

I stood in awe, rooted to the sand of the beach, Andrew next to me now, equally transfixed. I knew, then...this was the Messiah.

That began a three-year odyssey with Him, a lifetime of miracles and joy and pain and wonder packed into three short years. Every day spent with Him was to learn, was to be challenged, every time He looked at you, each slightest glance seared through you, laid bare your every thought and secret and fear and desire and worry; He knew your pride, knew your weakness, knew how to speak to you so gently and softly and powerfully that you would lay at His feet your very soul, could you but grasp it in two calloused hands.

Then, one day, all changed. We were sitting around a table, as we thirteen always did. It was Passover. We broke bread, shared wine, talked and laughed...but we all could feel a tension in the air. It exuded from the Iscariot, Judas. I always had a bad feeling about Judas. He was at the farthest end, near a window, morose and brooding, staring out at the olive trees in the distance, a hot breeze wafting in and fluttering his thick, curling, black hair and trimmed, oiled beard.

Then, words from Him that chilled us all to the bone: “This is my body, which is given for you,” holding aloft a loaf of bread, which He broke in two, with solemnity and ceremony. And then, after we had all eaten from the bread, He poured a draught of wine into our cups, and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” We drank the wine, stealing glances at each other, asking, silently, what this all meant. He had spoken before of His death, and we tried to ignore it, tried to pretend that maybe He was wrong, just this once, just about this. Him, die? Please, Yahweh, do not let that day come. He has become a part of us, our Rabbi, our Lord, our friend, our brother, our father...

“But behold,” He said slowly, looking into each of our eyes, coming at last to linger upon Judas, “The hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table.” We knew, then, that it was real, and that one of us would betray Him to his death.

Later, when the food and wine was all exhausted and we sat on the slopes of the Mount of Olives singing hymns, He turned to me and pierced me with His eyes like luminous pools of shekinah glory and said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to have you, that he may sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” His words made my hands shake and turned my stomach into a pit of stone.

“Lord!” I protested. “I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” He had called me, made me anew. I knew then, in that moment, that I would, truly, go anywhere He went, suffer what He suffered. He was the prophesied Messiah...how could I do anything else?

But He looked at me, sadness in His eyes, and said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day until you deny three times that you know me.” I stared at Him in disbelief, a hollow in my gut, a tremble in my hands. Suddenly, after three years, all was falling apart. I? Deny Him? I vehemently affirmed my willingness to follow Him even unto death, and my words were echoed by the others. But the seed had been planted, and the doubt was there, in the deepest corner of myself. Would I, when the time came, be faithful? Little did I know then how soon would by words be tested.

We went to one of His favorite places to pray, the Garden of Gethsemane. The moon shone high and full, the night air was warm and still. As we walked, I could sense that His spirit was troubled, and I wished I could do something to comfort Him, who had done so much for so many. He left me, with James and John, those wild, thunder-voiced men, beneath a spreading tree and went off by Himself to pray. We three sat and waited, prayed, conversed...and fell asleep. James, John, and I had sat here waiting for Him a hundred times over the years, all night, sometimes. He could pray for hours without rising from His knees, He could pray from sunset to moonrise through to dawn, without ceasing or tiring. How could we know that this night would be any different. I awoke to His touch on my shoulder. “Simon? Are you asleep?” He asked, pouring guilt on me. I should have known, should have stayed awake, for Him. “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And He went again to pray, leaving us to think on His words. How right He was. We struggled and prayed and fought sleep, but our eyes seemed weighted by anchors, slid inexorably downwards. We nodded off mid-prayer, nudged each other, stood and walked around, slapped our arms, but to no avail. He woke us again, and this time gave us a look which spoke louder than any words. We hung our heads in shame, and He returned to pray, a third time. As He departed, I noticed smears of blood on His brow, as if He had sweat drops of blood rather than salt. This time, we stayed awake mere moments before succumbing to sleep.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” He asked, anger in his voice this time. He sighed deeply, wiped his brow, turned and gazed into the distance, listening to some voice only He cold hear.

“It is enough. The hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going.” Even as He spoke the words, Judas crested the hill with a crowd wielding torches and swords and clubs. “See? My betrayer is at hand.” It is a blur, now, a haze of action. The one thing I remember, vividly, is Judas embracing Him, kissing His sweat-sheened cheek. The look He gave Judas was too complex for words, contained too many emotions to be counted or named; foremost, love, and forgiveness mingled in that reproachful, tender, piercing gaze so fraught with the divine glory that shone from his eyes, his very pores.

How dare he? A filthy sicarii, a traitor, a selfish coward, betrays the Messiah, the Promised One, with a kiss? That moment...I see it...Judas at the head of the blood-hungry mob, clean, soft hands gripping His shoulders, lips pale and trembling pressed to His left cheek, then His right, slow and exaggerated...Rabbi, the Messiah, He knew...He clutched Judas's arms for a moment and stared into his eyes, forgiving him, loving him, weeping for him, seeing his death. Judas kissed Him, and the mob went wild.

They seized Him. I saw red, then.

I drew my sword, hacked off the ear of someone in the crowd, sending a spray of blood into the air. Touching the wound with His fingertips, He healed the servant's ear. Words were exchanged, and they led Him away to the high priest. As they departed, I saw one of them toss a small sack to Judas, which clinked when he caught it. Judas saw me watching him. He must have seen the hatred in my stare, for the traitor put a hand to his sword, as if to be ready, should I attack him. I would have, I think, but for the lingering memory of His last words to me: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” So Judas turned and slunk away like a frightened dog. I never saw him again, but I heard that they later found him, hung by his own hand from a withered olive tree, his robes soiled, his face tortured and twisted in death and remorse, swinging in the hot winds of Gehenna.

John and I followed them, at a distance. With every step I took, I felt my courage, my fierce determination of just a few hours ago draining away. They led Him, hands bound up painfully behind His back, to Annas, and then to Caiaphas, and it was he who questioned Him. John followed further than I dared, being known to the high priest. I might have gone with him, into the interior court where Caiaphas heard trials of the people, but my courage failed me, then. I stood outside the door, listening to the murmur of voices just beyond the iron-bound wood.

Then it came, that fateful moment. The door squealed open, revealing the pretty face of a servant girl. She motioned for me to enter into the court and led me to a charcoal fire, around which stood a handful of officers and high-placed servants. The girl glanced over at the dais, where He stood, hands still bound, surrounded by soldiers, then looked quizzically at me. “You are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” She asked me, gesturing at Yeshua. Panic swallowed me, overwhelmed me. I was surrounded by the very men seeking to kill Him, the men who had schemed and and plotted for His life...how do I answer? If I say that I am, will they not take me as well? Will they not beat me with their hard fists, kick me with their boots, whip me with their scourges? My flesh crawled, and the truth stuck in my throat.

“I am not.” I heard the words drop from my lips like stones. He turned His head, just then, and looked directly at me. Shame burned in me, but not with more heat than did fear. The crowd around the brazier was examining me now. One of them said, “this man is one of them,” gesturing at John and at Yeshua.

“No, I am not!” The flickering flames of anger, always so hot, so close within me, grew unbearable. Could they not just let it go? I was caught up by my denial, now, and I could not go back. Now a third man, an officer who had been with those that arrested Yeshua, looked at me carefully, intently.

“This man was with them, I am certain,” he said to his friends gathered around, “for he too is a Galilean.”

I cursed, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about!” At the very moment that the words came from my lips the third time I heard a rooster crow with its loud voice, three times. The blood drained from my face, and my strength fled. I collapsed backwards against a pillar, remembering His words, “before the rooster crows this day...”

Far across the court Caiaphas' guards were questioning Him, striking Him. When the rooster crowed, He turned His head and met my eyes once more, unblinking through the rivulets of blood that streamed down his face. Images from our years together flashed through me, striking me with lightning force:

Gaiety and joy of a wedding, dancing, laughing, wine by the barrel, tables of food, the radiant bride and glowing groom whirling around each other...a servant whispering in the ear of the father of the bride, gesturing at a wine barrel...Yeshua's mother, sweet young Mary telling Him that they had run out wine, Yeshua giving gentle instructions...the stunned surprise when the master of the feast when he tasted the wine...

Baptizing with His wild-eyed cousin John...

Crossing through Samaria, breaking custom and tradition, the woman of ill-repute at the well at mid-day and the baffling discussion of “living water” and then the crowds of Samaritans milling around Him and seeking the truth with such fervency...

The uncountable thousands of ill and lame that came to Him, so trusting, so believing...all healed...men lame since birth standing up and walking away, blind men seeing, dancing and laughing at the beauty of the world around them, lepers casting off their rags and rejoining society...

Crowds of thousands being fed with a few loaves of bread and some fish...

The storm on the Sea of Galilee, rowing furiously with the others, we see a ghostly, radiant figure striding across the waves...our superstitious panic and terror wells up, until His voice came to us across the water, strong and bold and reassuring...love and trust welling up inside me, stepping out over the side,Thomas clutching at my sleeve in disbelief as I step onto the surface of the water...it felt like the sand on the beach, shifting and slipping under my feet, but ultimately solid as long my eyes are fixed upon Him, His arms outstretched towards me. A thunderous crash of lightning stole my attention from His luminous face to the ten foot waves and wind-whipped rain pelting against my face and I began to slip beneath the waves. “Lord! Help me!” I cried out to Him.

“Oh, you of little faith,” He said to me, His voice gentle and reproachful. “Why did you doubt?” As He speaks, He reaches out a hand—even though mere moments ago He was a dozen feet away across a roiling field of waves—and grasps mine, His grip is firm and strong, He stands legs splayed and back straight, lifting me bodily out of the water with one hand as if I were a child, me, a heavy, thick-muscled fisherman. When He grasps my hand my fear abates instantly and I know I was foolish to doubt Him...He would never abandon me, never allow me to sink beneath the waves.

I slammed back into the present and I saw Him across the courtyard with blood stinging His sinless eyes, loving me silently, perfectly, and I realize that I have failed Him. I stumbled blindly out of the room, heart beating to burst in my chest, crushing guilt in my gut, tears burning my eyes and dripping like liquid shame down my face. I feel gazes on me as I run sobbing from the court of Caiaphas the high priest.

I cannot think on the hours that followed, the scourge ripping His back and sides, the inch-long thorns of the mock crown digging into His skull, the dull thud of the hammer driving spikes into His wrists...oh my Lord...how can they do this to You? Why do You let this happen? You commanded the very wind and waves to be still, and they subsided, You commanded Lazarus to rise from his days-old grave, and he rose, You can command a host of angels to rescue You, but You remain hung there on the cross, laboring for breath, blood painting You crimson. The mock You, they jeer at You, those godless, vicious Romans. We disciples sit around your feet, weeping silently. You comfort us with Your eyes even as You die.

The sun stood at its apex, full and burning hot...then shadows crept from beneath the horizon and stole over the land, covered the sun as if to hide the earth and the sun and the moon and the stars from the shame of what mankind is doing to its Savior. The crowds murmured and made signs to ward off evil, knowing in their hearts that something momentous is occurring.

We still do not understand completely why You do this. How can we?

You call out in a voice loud enough to reach the farthest of the crowd of thousands who gathered to watch You crucified, you call for your Father, ask Him why He has forsaken You, and it is then that I begin to glimpse a fragment of what it is You do, there on the cross. I remember the sacrificial lambs on the altar and I see you, there on the cross, and I understand. It staggers me. I cannot completely comprehend it. How could I? Is this for me? Because of my sin? Did I do this to You? I look to my left and see my brother Andrew, and I can tell he is wondering the same thing, and there are James and John and Mary Magdalene, of all us...all thinking, is this because of me, my Lord?

The Sea of Tiberias was calm that day, the day He came to us for the last time. We sat on the beach, still full of marvel at the manner of His death, and full of wonder at the manner of His resurrection. As the day came to an end, however, I simply couldn't sit still anymore.

“I am going fishing,” I said. I didn't know what else to do. I had to do something, anything at all to make sense of the roiling thoughts and emotions that gripped me. I am a simple man, a fisherman, being out on the water has always been a place of solace, a refuge, a place to go and think. The difficult, rhythmic work of casting out the nets and pulling them in has always helped me think. The others all looked at me blankly for a moment. We hadn't fished nearly at all since the day He called us to be “fishers of men,” and now, in the midst of events that promised to change everything, I wanted to go fishing. “Typical Peter,” I heard someone mutter, probably James, son of Zebedee. But in the end they all put shoulder to hull and shoved off with me. We caught nothing all the night through. I didn't care, I was just glad to be physically exhausted, so tired and sore that I couldn't spend any more energy trying to come to grips with the import of His sacrifice.

Dawn was breaking, our nets were empty, and we about to beach the boats when we heard a voice from shore saying, “Children, do you have any fish?”

“No,” we answered.

“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” We exchanged baffled glances, but did as the figure on the shore had suggested. John and James and I cast the net on the right side and pulled it in, only to find it so heavy with wiggling, flipping silver-skinned fish that we could not manage it alone. Thomas and Nathanael of Cana lent their strength to the pull. When we had the net in, we slumped to the deck, exhausted. John, however, was peering at the figure intently. He turned to me, gripping my shoulder, and said, “It is the Lord!”

I turned to look again, and saw that John was right. I put on my robe, jumped in and swam to Him. I do not know how to express with this pen the joy that thrilled through me when I crawled from the water and threw myself into His arms. It really was He! He wrapped his arms around me, and I felt a burst of peace rise up inside me. He held me like a father, and I heard, as I had when first He called me, “you are mine.”

We ate fish and broke bread, and for a little while all was as it had been, an early breakfast under the light of dawning day. Then, He turned to me and said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” How could He ask me that? It broke my heart to hear Him doubt me. I hung my head, knowing I had earned that doubt.

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” My voice trembled as I spoke.

“Feed my lambs,” He said to me. I opened my mouth to speak a promise, but He spoke over me, gently but firmly. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Now my heart was cracked and falling apart. I loved Him with all that I am. I had failed Him once, but never again. Surely He, the Messiah, could see in me how much I loved Him. Couldn't He?

“Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Now my words came thickly, slowly, heavily, sadly.

“Tend my sheep.” Once more, I took a breath to speak, but He didn't give me a chance.

“Simon, son of John,” He began, a third time, and now tears fell from my eyes, and I struggle to stand from the weight of my grief. “Do you love me?”

I could barely speak, so the words emerged as a broken half-sobbed whisper. “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” Oh, I was broken, then. I struggled to meet His gaze through my tears, and I saw...I saw so much there, in His eyes, such infinite love, such forgiveness, and I understood with lightning-swift clarity why He had asked me, three times, if I loved Him. Each time, He was forgiving me for each denial. Each time He asked me, “do you love me?” He was wrapping His arms around me and whispering in my ear, “you are mine,” and making me eternally His.

“Feed my sheep,” He said, once more. His next words reverberated in my soul, echoed deeply. “Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” To the last, speaking in riddles. The parables, the stories, the lessons, all seemed so clear, but always there was an element that we knew we were missing. What did this mean? It seemed frighteningly like a prophesy of my death. At last, He turned to me and told me to follow Him...

And I followed Him, across the whole earth, speaking of Him, preaching His message with words given to me as I needed them. I followed, I kept the faith in all circumstances. I vowed that I would never again fail or deny Him, no matter the cost.

So now, here I sit in a jail cell beneath the Holy City, Jerusalem, waiting for the guards to take me up and take from me the ultimate cost. I am old now, and tired. I do not go willingly, for I would spend my last breath, my last shred of strength bringing the good news of His life, death, and resurrection to all peoples. I was never so at home as when aboard a ship plying the seas, rolling with the swells, climbing up and crashing down, sail bellied out with a strong wind, a new place drawing near, new people in need of His joy. He has been beside me all the while, down every road, across every sea, whispering to me, “you are mine,” and “follow me.”

I am His, so I followed Him.

I realize now what His very first words to me meant. I never understood it until this moment, as the guard's key turns in the lock. “Come,” He commanded, “and I will make you fishers of men.” I put aside, then, the nets and ceased casting for fish. I took up a net of His message and cast it for men. He truly made of me a fisher of men.

They will stretch out my hands, and dress me, and carry me where I do not wish to go...I know this. I am afraid. This will be my last test, my last sermon. Lord, you know I love you.

They took him, one at each arm, half-dragged him up the mossy stone steps into daylight, dressed him, brought him before a tribunal. “Deny this madness,” they commanded him. “Deny this false prophet, this Yeshua of Nazareth.

“Deny Him, and we will set you free,” they promised him. The stood before him, resplendent in polished silver mail, bright crimson cloaks and crested helmets held smartly beneath arms, pila gripped in gloved hands. He was old, bent, gray, wrinkled, but he bore the marks of a man once mighty. He pulled himself erect, grimacing with the effort, spread his feet apart as he had for a lifetime to balance against the rolling deck of a fishing boat. He closed his eyes, briefly, lips forming a silent prayer. He opened his mouth to speak, and when he did so, he gained new life, as if he had been imbued with a spirit of vitality and eloquence. He spoke one last message to a crowd gathered to watch the execution of this man, Peter, who had walked with the Christ.

“Yeshua of Nazareth,” Peter said in a voice preternaturally powerful, carrying to the farthest spectator, “was the Messiah. I walked with Him, I loved Him, and I served Him all my life. I will not deny Him.” Peter then spoke the Good News, and not one of the Romans interrupted him. They all stood, spellbound, as he spoke, and there was more than one stone heart softened and stirred in that place.

The centurion gave a curt command, and the legionnaires stretched him upon the cross, stripped him, hammered the spikes through thin, purple-veined wrists, lifted him up, and watched him die.

At the last he looked to Heaven as if seeing a dear friend once more. “Lord, you know everything,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

And he gave up his spirit.

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