Our human relationships are fragile things. One wrong word, one wrong assumption, left unchecked, or let to fester, leads to a tearing of that delicate fabric. Fast friends, however diligent in loving; witness the cracked foundation of their kinship riven wide in the course of time and carelessness. Spouses, once dedicated to the care and keeping of the other, find ever growing discontent in the person they married. Relationships are like a tenuous web of spider’s silk, heavy with morning dew: the slightest breeze is ruinous. We are connected to one another, and our relationships are the strings, the wires, the ropes, the cables, that hold us together.
People have their relationships ruined by the course of life. Even relationships with God are ruined by changing circumstances. We who are clothed in these mortal bodies do look forward to a life eternal. In all our busyness, our lives revolve around the attaining of things that cannot possibly follow us into eternity. We carry none of our money with us. Our homes, our toys, our material wealth, do not follow us beyond death. Our relationships do follow us. Our relationships are eternal affairs. How can they be torn apart so easily? We ought to be more diligent in repairing the human connections God has given to us. We should be experts in reconciling. I have learned that reconciling is impossible to do well; if we cannot identify the expectations that caused our relationship to pull tight, fray, and break.
Relationships are delicate when they have hidden expectations. We do this with God all the time. We expect God to do certain things for us, and we are not honest about those assumptions. Relationships with God will fail when we believe He will provide us with what He hasn’t promised. Our own visions of what a friendship with God will yield are often the very death of that friendship. We don’t just do this with God. We do it with our friends, our family, our children, and our spouses. If we are going to be good at reconciling our broken relationships, we must become experts at identifying the expectations we have of others, and let them go.
What are we to do? We, once rich in relationship, and now impoverished-- torn from our grip the greatest loves. Is there any way our friendships, marriages, and sacred family bonds can endure the test of time? Having loved and lost, trusted and betrayed, we look for a way to reclaim those broken threads. Reconciliation is the way, and reconciliation requires the death of certain expectations.
As in all things, we have a lot to learn from Jesus.
There is an example of reconciliation-- a man who lost the most, over his lifetime, and yet was able to reconcile those lost friends-- when they were able to recognize and release their expectations of Him. The mists of time have not been able to expunge the record. He was a blue collar worker, in the time of the Pax Romana, long ago in the region of Judea. Sometime shortly after His 30th birthday, Jesus of Nazareth left his trade to follow a call of itinerant preaching, healing, and messiahship.
Along the coastal roads, and the wilderness byways, He ministered through the land. He preached the good news of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God. As He did so, He called individuals to be a part of his ministry; and a part of His heart. They followed, each a part of the ministry; each a part of the Savior’s heart. Each lost in the fantasy of what a relationship with Jesus meant. And, oh, the crowds.
How they loved to hear Him preach! Finally, there was a prophet who spoke with authority. Any who doubted, the many cacklers and naysayers, had their mouths shut early by the wonders, those supernatural miracles. Deaf people were hearing. Blind people were seeing. An army of poor and desperate souls poured out of the cities, and marched across the wilderness to hear Jesus. The disabled were armed cavalry, no force on earth able to stop them from receiving their healing. And healings there were. Everyone was talking about Jesus of Nazareth.
The religious establishment, whose mouths were full of the same old tired teachings, grew afraid of the power this prophet had. The people were listening to Him, and He was claiming to be the long awaited Messiah.
Jesus was a man of momentum. He was the right person, in the right time, with the right abilities. Everyone knew it, especially those that Jesus called His “Twelve.” They were in. They got in on the ground floor, and the Jesus elevator was going to take them all the way to the top. What a ride they were on.
The Twelve were the only real friends that Jesus had. They had His trust. They were the ones that He relied upon to execute miracles, distribute food to the poor, and manage the treasury. Each of the Twelve had visions of what they were being called into. Each of them saw a different vision of what the future held: and it was tantalizing. Peter saw himself sitting at Jesus’ right hand, when He finally executed the Kingdom. Jesus would be the king, and Peter would be His hatchet man-- overseeing everything there was to oversee. James and John were the famed “Sons of Thunder,” and saw themselves in high places of honor; trusted to make things happen for the great Lord, and trusted with much land and wealth. Judas was in charge of the treasury, and used it whenever he wanted to buy the things that he wanted. He knew the treasury would one day be vast; and there would be more than enough for him to skim whatever he needed, whenever he needed it.
The future was bright for those twelve friends of Jesus.
And then, Jesus started to talk about being crucified. The grand arrival of the Kingdom would be the most humiliating and disastrous end there could possibly be. The cross was reserved for the terrible mutineers and political coup artists who failed. For miles, as one walked toward any city of importance, the streets were lined with crucified degenerates. Like streetlights and highline poles, the conscience of the Roman people was ever illuminated by those damned souls, nailed to a crucifix; moaning their final regrets. Until, finally, they died; and the crows pecked off their flesh. Rome stomped her opposition, and the cross was the heel of her iron boot.
The Twelve could not believe Jesus. His friends rolled their eyes at his distant chantings of death. Peter even publicly rebuked the Lord for His insistence on crucifixion. Jesus would have none of it. He knew he was going to die. Jesus’ insistence on His own death caused those thin relationship strings to pull tight. The breeze was blowing. His will did not mesh with His disciples’ ambitions. Their expectations of what Jesus would do for them made their relationships with Him very weak. As soon as they would discover His unwillingness to be what they wanted; those relationships would break.
The night before He was crucified, they all ate one last meal together. The scene of the glorious mundane. The meal. Jesus eating with those twelve friends, washing their feet, reminding them of the importance of serving, not lording over people. It was at that meal Christ’s fate was sealed by the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. He knew he was going to betray Jesus. The Christ had stopped feeding the emotional need Judas had, to become somebody great. Judas was the first of the disciples to figure out that Jesus could not be co opted. They were riding His coattails, but it wasn’t the direction they had hoped. Judas discovered the dream, the vision of greatness, the unending money, his expectation, was all but over.
We can guess as to the motive. Perhaps Judas knew that there was going to be a time when there would be a reckoning for his skimming off the treasury. They would have made an example out of him for the treachery. Judas knew the ride was over, and was looking to turn a profit, turning over this rising star.
For certain, Judas had talked himself into the betrayal of Jesus. He found some fault in his friend, perceived some dissatisfaction, some prideful arrogance, and then focused on it. Given enough time, that once strong filament of relationship brittled. At the meal, as Jesus looked into his eyes, and gave him bread dipped in vinegar; the very devil entered his heart. He knew he was going to betray Jesus, for 30 pieces of silver. The string broke.
After Judas left. Peter was convinced that Jesus might get in trouble, and promised to die protecting his Lord. He was a little denser than Judas. He was convinced the Jesus Twelve could win a back alley brawl with the thugs of the religious establishment. The relationship thread tightened. Jesus shook his head, predicting that Peter would deny him three times before the first rooster crowed. The Lord knew something that Peter didn’t; Peter was more interested in what fidelity to Jesus would do for him; than he was in being faithful to Jesus.
Peter’s relationship thread didn’t brittle until the mob took Jesus. Peter had to watch his expectations, his dreams of grandeur, shatter into a million pieces. He realized friendship with Jesus was no longer an asset, taking him to the highest echelons of power and prestige-- that friendship was a liability, and loyalty to Jesus wasn’t going to get Peter anywhere; but crushed under the iron boot of Rome.
Peter followed Jesus at a distance. Something was wrong. That momentum, those miracles and sermons; were nowhere to be found. Peter was confused. The power of Jesus was hobbled. Where was his ability to shut the mouths of his opposition? Where were the miracles and the favor of God? Peter stood in the courtyard, as Jesus was being humiliated. Throughout the night, the voices of the accusers boomed out across the paving stones. Jesus provided no response.
A high pitched voice of challenge barked out of the darkness, from a lowly servant girl. “Aren’t you one of his disciples? Didn’t I see you with him?” Oh, the irony. The notoriety that Peter craved, being one of Jesus’ friends, would be his undoing. Unless he acted quickly.
“No.” A simple answer. Perhaps, if he kept his response low key, this would just blow over. A few seconds of silence followed. The sky was beginning to brighten with the impending arrival of a new day.
“I saw you with him? Didn’t I?” She insisted. People were starting to turn their attention toward him. Peter’s soul was frantic. He was about to be drug down by his association to Jesus. He needed time to think; a luxury he didn’t have. Loyalty was important to Peter, but what good is loyalty in the grave?
“No.” Peter cleared his throat, as casually as possible. “You are mistaken.”
The girl was looking at him hard now. So were the others gathered around the fire. They were searching his face. He kept it straight, but his insides were screaming. They would find him out. They would find him out. They would kill him. His family would starve. Friendship with Jesus was costing way too much. Jesus lied to him. Jesus wasn’t going to save anybody, he was a fraud. They, they were going to crucify him and everyone who was associated with him. What an irresponsible bastard.
That’s what he was. An illegitimate child with visions of grandeur, preying upon the desperate and the foolish, of which Peter certainly proved himself to be. Damn him. Peter made a decision, to hang Jesus out to dry and protect himself. Which he should have done from the beginning. Somebody had to look out for Peter.
“No. I’m sure of it. Your accent betrays you. You’re from Galilee, and that’s where Jesus is from.”
“Goddam snotnose! Shut your hole! I said I don’t know the man, and I mean what I say!” Peter didn’t have to fake the rage. It was bubbling up from deep inside, and once freed, it gushed. “In my world, a person keeps on insisting you’re not talking truth, they mean you’re a liar. And then, we fight to the death. Is that what you want? So shut up! I swear it by God Almighty, I don’t know the man!” He growled a little at the end. The firelight cast flickers and shadows on Peter’s face, and the now present dawn pushed away the last of the darkness behind him.
The girl opened her mouth, as if to speak; and a rooster crowed. Since the dawn of mankind, no rooster crow had pierced a heart so deep. It was a dagger, driven straight and true into Peter’s soul. Jesus said that he would do this: betray him. And, he had. Lost in the moment. Lost in the sea of broken dreams. Scared, and teeth on edge; Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster had crowed once.
The rooster kept crowing, but it could not muffle the sound of the relationship thread popping apart. His face recoiled in surprise, and Peter looked over his shoulder at the figure of Jesus before a tribunal.
Jesus was staring at Peter. Their eyes met. Jesus knew. Peter knew. Peter turned away from Jesus. Bodily. Spiritually. Emotionally. And he ran.
The iron boot stepped down on Jesus. Alone. He breathed his last, naked and alone; hung on a crucifix with the crowds gawking. They buried him in a cave.
Three days later, the grave was empty. Some believed again, somewhere in their hearts. Like Peter, who believed, the belief of a living Jesus was not a relationship. He believed, but he could not see past his own betrayal; his own worthlessness. There could be no reconciliation.
The Twelve were gathered. They were already down to ten, but they kept going by the moniker Jesus gave them. Judas had hung himself. Thomas was out getting some food to stockpile, so they could lay low for a while. The door was locked. The Twelve were stone faced. Each man found himself repeating the events of the last few days over and over, switching partners every few hours; but unable to reach any kind of resolution. There were murmurs and low whispers. Each man looking for a way forward with his life.
There was a lot of confusion. Nobody was sure what to do, and their leader was probably dead. Risen maybe. Definitely gone. No spider’s web of relationships now, just a pile of strings.
Jesus walked right into their midst. No knock. He just appeared. His message was incredible.
“Peace be with you.” They looked in shocked silence. He was quiet, powerful, and present. Jesus was with them. He was looking each one in the eye, man by man; as he slowly lifted his hands. They saw the scabbed over holes. He showed them his side, still red and healing. Bartholomew stood, hugged Jesus, with a low hearty chuckle. The tone in the room changed. Gladness crept into the stony faces. Whispers grew to laughs.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then Jesus breathed on them, a long full breath. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
In the relational dimension, those strings lying on the ground were lifted. One by one, they reattached to Jesus. All but three: Judas, Thomas, and Peter. Jesus was giving His disciples forgiveness. He was giving them the opportunity to let go of their expectations. Jesus was sending them out to work for Him, full of His Spirit.
As he had come, he left. Jesus walked out. Peter had enough. It was torture. Trust had been broken. Broken! Jesus would never trust him, and Peter could not trust Jesus. Why did he have to deny Him? Why did he follow so closely? Why? It would have been far better to fail, to deny, out of His sight.
He really was the Son of God. It still blew Peter’s mind circuitry. Jesus was there in Eden, calling into being the entire created order. The breath breathed on the Twelve, was the same breath he breathed into the first man, some eons ago. He had the authority of the Messiah. Peter shuddered. There was coming a day when Jesus would judge Peter’s soul. Peter knew what Jesus knew. He would be found guilty.
Peter was glad he left.
Then Jesus came again to the Twelve, eight days later. Thomas was in this time. Jesus let Thomas feel the healed-over holes in his hands, and the stab wound on his side. Thomas believed, and reconciled with Jesus. The Twelve believed again. Their expectations, those wild visions of power, wealth, and grandeur, were the only things that finally died the night of the crucifixion. Those relational expectations of Jesus were gone, and for the better. The truth, that Jesus was the Son of God, was not shaken by a physical death. He had been right all along: he had the authority to lay down his life, and the authority to take it up again. To his greatest sorrow, Peter could not reattach that string.
Without a constant presence, the Twelve were unsure of how to move forward, practically speaking. Peter filled a natural void. Though he was not the relational center of the Twelve, he was the central leader. After a couple weeks of lying low, the world started to move on. The upstart spiritual rebellion had been crushed. Status quo had won a great victory, now content to sit down and gloat. In the evening, just as the light was fading, Peter unlocked the door. The Twelve looked at him, curious.
“I’m going fishing.” He said, still facing the door. There was a murmur of consent behind him.
“We’re going with you.” James said, rising from the floor. To a man, they all followed Peter out to the docks, and out into the Sea of Tiberius. They were back to their old way of life, and the Jesus experience was behind them.
Though they labored all night, they caught nothing. Peter threw himself into the work, his calloused hands grasping at netting-- his calloused heart grasping the unattached Jesus string. There was no way back. There was no way forward. Jesus had come to them twice, talking about forgiveness. But forgiveness was not a way forward, it was just a thing. Forgiveness was a wiping clean the slate of chalked up wrongs. It was not a script of the future. Peter stood in the metaphor, line in hand, bewildered, culpable, and ashamed. Unable to let go the string, and unable to follow Jesus. He hadn’t just left Jesus in an hour of need, he had betrayed Him, three times.
Peter wished he would have died that night. He was ready to, so he mused. Jesus had put a stop to the fighting before it could really get going. Jesus rebuked Peter for defending Him. It was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to go that way. It wasn’t what Peter expected.
He paused from thought and cast the net, hurling it with a grunt. The tiny weights spread the net into a beautiful blossom, just before kissing the sea and disappearing into the depth. The others were busy about the small boat, tending to the various sailing factors which kept the nets tossing and retrieving; productively scouring the sea for a school of fish.
Peter replayed the events of that night, the night he betrayed Jesus three times. Guilt and shame stabbed at his heart as the memory noir rolled again. In his stomach, a knife pierced-- that knife of irony and sorrow. He drew the net back in. Empty. Again. The morning light was just breaking from the eastern horizon. If there were roosters out on the sea of Tiberius, they would have started taunting Peter with that crowing sound. A common sound which would cause him to wretch a little every time it met his ear.
A familiar voice called him out of the reverie.
“Children, do you have any fish?” Before Peter could place the voice, while he was still scanning the shore for the figure poised in conversation, Thomas yelled back.
“NO!” A few seconds of silence, and then Peter saw the figure on the shore, hands cupped around his mouth to amplify his speech.
“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” Peter rolled his eyes. He hurled the net off the starboard edge, with the customary grunt. Another perfect throw. The net made that wet slapping sound as it vanished into the sea. Peter waited, and then began hauling the tail lines. The net was full. Seeing the struggle, others joined in on the haul. The nets were so full, they could not bring it up.
John grabbed Peter’s shoulder, one hand pointing at the figure on the beach. “It is the Lord!” Peter looked now with ferocity. He let go of the net. The Lord was standing on the beach. Without much thinking, but much passion, Peter threw on his cloak and dove into the sea, flailing about in a panicked swim towards Jesus.
The other disciples hung on to the nets, and sailed towards the shore. They beached, the palpitating nets now ready to be man-handled in without finesse.
Jesus was there, standing by a fire burned down to the coals. Bread and fish were laid out in strips over the red coals, just waiting for hungry men. How long had he been there, sitting by a fire and watching his Twelve, cooking breakfast?
“Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Jesus said. Peter waded in and began to haul the net up. The others helped, and the nets did not tear out. They were strong enough to handle the stress. Jesus stood up, spreading his arms wide, hands open, “Come, and have breakfast.”
It was good food, and well deserved. The disciples were famished. Conversation was sparse, it was clear Jesus had some business planned. There was an indescribable tension. Finally, as they were just finished eating, Jesus looked hard at Peter. Silence stole over the group.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter met and held Jesus’ gaze. “Yes, Lord, you know that I have affection for you.” Jesus nodded slowly, a look of understanding in his eyes. The two kept eye contact. The other disciples looked uncomfortable.
“Feed my lambs.” Jesus said. Peter nodded. This was it. Jesus was making a deal with him. He had a way forward. Jesus was offering a relationship. Peter smiled. In the metaphor, Peter was reaching out, string in hand; to attach it back to Jesus.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asked. Peter paused in the reattachment. Why the question a second time, without asking about how much he loved?
“Yes, Lord, you know that I have affection for you.” He repeated.
“Feed my sheep.” Jesus commanded. Peter was about to nod, but the look in Jesus’ eyes was so fierce, so tender. It gave him pause.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” There, as the morning light was breaking into full brilliance; Peter understood. Jesus had to ask a third time. He had to respond a third time. The depth of betrayal was met with a depth of love. Jesus was going to the place that Peter wanted to avoid, and he was forgiving it. No, no, Jesus wasn’t just forgiving, he was asking for Peter to replace his betrayal with commitment. Peter’s love would be walked out by shepherding Christ’s own. No expectation of greatness, of power; but an opportunity to yield to the will of Jesus, and to care for Jesus’ people.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.” Jesus said. “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. Follow me.”
Jesus stood up and walked away from the coals, the boat, the sea. Peter stood up and followed Jesus, jogging a little bit to catch up. There it was, Peter was following Jesus again. If Jesus would slow down a little bit, he could catch up, and reattach that relational string where it belonged.
As Peter was closing the gap, he became aware of John dogging along, too. “Lord, what about this man?” Peter said, pointing to John.
Jesus stopped, turned around to face Peter. He looked at Peter, and pointed at John, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
There the relationship connection was reestablished. The spider’s web remade, this time of thick steel cable. Reconciliation won. The will of Jesus, His true offer of Lordship, became the foremost driver of the relationship. The expectations of the disciple had been put to death, and reconciliation had finally overcome the betrayal.
We can learn from Peter, and the other disciples. Our own relationship lines must be made of thick woven material; not thin spider’s silk. The thin stuff is always present when we have expectations of the other, usually hidden and not talked about. You cannot be a true friend, not truly, if you expect that your friendship will yield results that are self-gratifying. We must do the hard work of rooting out these assumptions in our human relationships. In our relationship with Christ, we must be able to identify what it is that we want God to do for us. Maybe it’s like Peter, and John-- we want our friendship with God to yield honor, money, fame, or popularity. Perhaps it is something more sincere, like our children being successful, or our career being rewarding. No matter the relational assumption, it must go, before we break the relationship.
The lasting bonds, whether human or divine, are the ones where we are focused on the good of the other. Our connection must be made of love, and not self serving. When our bonds are made of love, we do not judge the other by how we hoped things would turn out. Instead, we look to sacrifice for the other person.The work is difficult because we must admit to ourselves that our relationships can be self serving. We are loathe to admit that we care more about what someone is going to do for us than we care about them. When those relationships inevitably break, we have the opportunity to right the wrong expectations, and win a reconciliation.