St. Peter, Slave No More
When unable to memorize information, humans tend to create a Cliffs-Notes version (or ‘dynamic equivalent’ – whichever you prefer) in their brain so that they might at least have some reference they can recall. So, too, whether it is Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, his temptation in the desert, the transfiguration or some other Bible story, the main events are usually recalled but the situational context leading up to these major stories in the Bible are often overlooked.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
This verse and those following it are well known, especially to Catholics, as the act of reconciliation between Peter and Jesus, made in reparation for Peter’s denial of Jesus after Our Lord had been arrested. It is, however, in the preceding verses that we find a profound change already occurring within the life of St. Peter:
4 When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.”
6 So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.
7 So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.
8 The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.
9 When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”
11 So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
St. John communicates to the reader of his Gospel a quality of Peter’s that is seen in two very remarkable acts:
First, we see in verses 7 and 8, that he leaped into the sea and swam “about a hundred yards” to Jesus on the shore. Swimming might have been a regular task for a first-century fisherman, but to St. John’s audience in Asia Minor, the task, let alone the distance of 100 yards, undoubtedly illustrated a great ability.
In verses 10 and 11, St. Peter shows an ability that seems almost super-human. After Jesus asks for some fish, Peter single-handedly drags ashore the net full of 153 large fish. A very common fish in the Sea of Galilee is the barbel, which is said to weigh between .5 and 22 pounds. Even at 5 pounds each, which would hardly be considered “large” for a career fisherman, 153 barbels would tip the scale at 765 pounds. St. John further implies the weight of the fish through the final observation that, in spite of the load, the net did not break.
These verses are the contextual support for the reconciliation of Peter and one would do well to look for details that provide a context greater still; one encompassing Peter’s rejection of a martyr’s death for his Lord. In verse 9, the disciples arrive on shore to find Jesus and Peter and a charcoal fire. With all the intricacies involved in writing such a spiritual Gospel, why would John mention that the fire was burning charcoal? This detail is not inconsequential and serves as a connection point to another event within the Gospel of John.
17Then the maid who was the gatekeeper said to Peter, “You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
18Now the slaves and the guards were standing around a charcoal fire that they had made, because it was cold, and were warming themselves. Peter was also standing there keeping warm.
The detail of a coal fire is only mentioned in John’s Gospel within these two connected situations – Peter’s denial of Jesus and his reconciliation. St. John, however, did not simply wish to illustrate a simple connection between the two stories, but to illuminate the total conversion experienced by St. Peter. While he was warming himself by the fire in John 18:18, Peter was found to be in the company of slaves and it was, indeed, his slavery to sin (or more specifically, fear) that prompted his denials of Jesus. While St. John’s intention to show Peter as a slave is not necessarily explicit in the verses from John 18, it does become more evident when contrasted with Peter’s actions from John 21 that we discussed above.
Freedom comes in two forms, Freedom from Restraint and Freedom for Excellence.
Freedom from Restraint is the type of freedom most people think of when asked to describe what it means to be free. It is the ability to actually do what a person is capable of doing. If a man is handcuffed, this freedom is limited greatly since he is restrained.
Freedom for Excellence is the ability to do great things. For example, musically, a man may only have the freedom to play the piano poorly and, thus, has a very limited Freedom for Excellence. Mozart, however, had both the freedom to play poorly and play well, possessing a great Freedom for Excellence.
In John 18, the Gospel writer places Peter in the company of slaves – those who have no freedom. In John 21, Peter is shown, through his outstanding abilities, to have a freedom beyond even that of the common man and could not in any way be considered a slave. This conversion of Peter is due, not to a simple change of heart on his part, but to the redemptive and transformative effects from the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, possibly the greatest of which is spoken by St. Paul:
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”
16 The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Peter, a slave to sin and motived by fear, denied Jesus near a charcoal fire. The death and resurrection of Jesus redeems humanity from its slavery, allowing us to be free. Christ calls to the disciples in John 21:5, calling them “children,” thus expressing a new spirit of adoption, which beckons Peter back to the fire, who then expresses the acceptance of this adoption and rejection of his past slavery through an extraordinary display of freedom. St. Peter’s conversion of spirit is complete, reconciliation with Christ follows and the flock of Christ is passed on to his first earthly shepherd.