As Simon was mulling over the backbone of that last piece of fish he had chewed, the Master turned with a smile and piercing eyes in his direction and asked that one question that summed it all up for Simon.
“Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these?” and He nodded lightly in the direction of the shore, the nets, the boat and the sea.
Simon squirmed. Something was pinching inside and the pain seemed to spread through his whole being like when a bee stings you on the chest. His throat suddenly felt as if someone had stuffed a handful of gravel down it. He tried to clear it and stammered, “Y-yes, S-sir, uh, you know I’m your friend!” and he choked back that burning which was rising like a fever up his throat. He hardly heard the words that were spoken directly to his heart – him, Simon the Rock – as the Master continued to speak to him:
“Feed my lambs.”
Tears reached his eyes as his mind began racing back over the last fishing expedition, the wind whistling through the sail yards as they tacked towards the southern shore of the sea in search of fish, the blaze of the setting summer sun on his sweaty back, the smell of mist in the evening winds, and the squiggly, jumping, leaping catch on the shore after that night’s catch! What could he say? And he knew full well that they would have caught nothing, had it not been for the Master’s words of authority. He knew full well what all that meant, and what he was being called to give up, once and for all!
“But Simon, do you love me?” The question came in full force, albeit just as calmly as before. Simon caught the emphasis and knew exactly what Jesus was asking. Visions of the cross welled up before Simon’s imagination. He saw himself wearing the Master’s skin, peeled back to red flesh, bearing a crude wooden beam up to that place, (Simon shuddered.) Golgotha, to be hammered, nailed and tied to that thing… he knew what was being asked of him, he knew he was being called to lay down his life, to love without limits, to risk all, to leave all behind… his fishing, his fishing nets, his boat, his life…. Through cloudy eyes he looked around at his friends. He had led them to those boats… “Why me?” he thought. John was looking straight at him with kindness in his eyes; seeming to understand what Simon was going through, while the others were sitting quietly, some looking at the Master, others staring at the sand.
“You know I am your friend!” he insisted weakly, not really knowing what to say or how to account for his shame and confusion. He couldn’t help but remember things he didn’t want to remember. That dark, chilly night around the fire, the servant’s girl’s look, that overwhelming fear that filled his empty soul when she asked him that question….
“Feed my sheep,” came the answer. The Master had, by this time, gone over to Simon and put his hand on his shoulder. He took Simon by the beard and slowly lifted his face so that he could look him in the eye. Simon resisted a little, but felt that firm hold tugging upwards. There was a gentle smile on the Master’s face.
“Simon, are you truly my friend?” he asked this time. Simon could no longer resist his tears. They flowed freely now. He blurted out his answer as if in a final plea for mercy,
“Master, you know everything! You know I love you.” It was over. As the Master let go, Simon put his hands over his face and wept unabashedly.
“Feed my sheep,” came the final command.
The Master stood up and walked over to the fire, stoked it a bit with a stick and turned again to Simon and said,
“I tell you the truth, Simon, when you were younger, you used to put on your clothes and go about wherever you liked. But the day will come when you will stretch out your hands, and someone else besides you will come and put your clothes on you and lead you where you do not want to go…”
That was okay with Simon. He lifted his head and looked straight into the Master’s loving, yet penetrating eyes. He no longer had any shame, nothing to hide, no more resistance. He saw nothing any more but the love the Master had for him and how he wanted him to love his brothers in the same way.