I’m telling you, these past couple of weeks…it’s been a whirlwind, that’s what it’s been. Never in my life could I have even imagined a time like this. I mean, I figured we were going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. I had that part figured out long before the donkey and the crowds and the hosannas. I never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I knew that’s where we were headed with Jesus. And even with all his talk of death, I figured we’d have our Passover observance and then…watch out, Rome! Watch out, Pharisees! Jesus was going to do something amazing—I wasn’t sure what, but it was only right that we were going to Jerusalem at that highest of holy times for our Anointed One to begin his new world order…whatever that may have been.
If I had any clue whatsoever what that damned turncoat Judas had in mind, I would have snapped his scrawny neck in two long ago. He’d been on my nerves for a while anyway. I mean, what the hell was he thinking? He knew the Romans wanted to arrest him, he had to know that even if Jesus had fought back, we would have been way outnumbered. After everything we had been through together—the crowds, the miracles, the amazing teachings…to betray our Rabbi for thirty stinking pieces of silver? To turn his back on Jesus? To deny our Lord? May he rot in hell for eternity!
Except, that night…I denied him too.
But three times.
Judas’ betrayal wasn’t the only one that night.
And don’t think for a second I haven’t thought about that every second of every day since it happened. Jesus was put on trial, he was executed, and as the days went by, Judas’ face kept reappearing in my imagination. In my dreams. And in my dream I rush at him with anger and loathing, screaming the most vile obscenities I can think of at him, drawing a sword and with all my might plunging it into his belly, gutting him like a fish. And he looks up at me with fear in his eyes…
…and the features of his face melt away…
…and what’s left behind it is my face.
That same scene has replayed itself over and over in my mind. It haunts me. Judas may have handed Jesus over to Rome, but what did I do? I denied I even knew the man! The man I had spent three years following, learning from, the man I loved more than life itself…well, I can’t even say that, because when push came to shove, I buckled. I caved. I was no better than Judas. If I wish eternal hell on him, I wish it on myself three times over.
Well, I wished it on myself.
You see, three days after Jesus had been executed, Mary Madgalene came running in all out of breath and jabbering incoherently—something about Jesus’ tomb having been disturbed, and that the body wasn’t there anymore. I was angry. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had been executed for no good reason, now someone had the audacity to screw around with a dead man’s tomb? And it most likely would have happened on the Sabbath? Oh, you bet I was fit to be tied. I didn’t wait a second—I ran out to where Jesus had been buried. Now I’m a big guy, and not exactly a sprinter…it wasn’t long before I was huffing and puffing, but I was bound and determined. Dammit, if someone was going to mess with Jesus’ tomb, I needed to see what had happened and make things right if I could. It was the least I could do. Maybe that was what the Judas Dream was telling me…
Sure enough, I got to the garden, ran inside to tomb, and there it all was. Burial cloths in one spot, the cloth that had been over Jesus’ head in another. “What the hell is this?” I thought. “What kind of messed-up grave robber takes a body but leaves the burial cloths?” I looked around the cave, but there was nothing that would point me to what had happened. No footprints, no sign of a body being dragged away, nothing except those cloths, folded so nicely, staring up at me and mocking my grief.
I wasn’t angry anymore. Just sad. Deeply, profoundly sad. I had let Jesus down again. I couldn’t even help ensure a decent burial. And now, by entering a dead man’s tomb and touching a dead man’s garments, I had ritually defiled myself. If I wasn’t fit to stand before the Lord after denying him, I sure as hell wasn’t fit now.
Numbness consumed me as I slowly walked back to where we were staying. My mind went blank. I didn’t know what this all meant—and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything anymore. And if I didn’t think about anything, then at least I wasn’t thinking about the Judas Dream.
But your mind can only stay blank for so long before it needs to be filled. And once again, the visions, the dreams, Judas’ face morphing into my own face, came rushing at me over and over and over.
And I had a lot of time on my hands. After all, as Jesus’ followers, we weren’t exactly free to be roaming around Jerusalem. We had found a safe house, and had locked ourselves inside. I don’t know how long we had planned on being there. I don’t think anyone knew. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, not without our Rabbi with us to lead us...to guide us.
And so the Judas Dream kept coming. After I got back to the safe house, I tried to fall asleep. Yes it was morning, and yes, I should have been getting ready to start my day, but I just couldn’t take it. After everything that had happened, and now this. I should have known better than to try to sleep. Once again, I was swearing, rushing at Judas, sword in hand, his beady eyes, though frightened, boring holes through me, my sword slicing through his abdomen, watching his face melt away, watching as I saw my own face, like a reflection in the water, staring back at me…only this time, I looked down, and I saw Judas’ hands…no, they were my hands now, clutching strips of burial cloth…then a rooster crowing…
…but it wasn’t a rooster. Mary Magdalene had returned, and was screaming again. Only this time they were cries of joy. She was swearing up and down that she had seen Jesus, and had talked to him, and was vividly recounting the conversation she had had with him…poor woman. Poor, deluded woman. She obviously had her own issues she was dealing with—at least I recognized that my nightmares were just that—nightmares. Dreams. Visions. She was convinced that hers was real.
But here’s the thing—Mary was right. I mean, I didn’t believe a word of what she had said, but that evening, there we were, just sitting there, not really doing much of anything. I was just kind of staring off into space when suddenly my reverie was broken by James. He shouted loudly and jumped to his feet. His eyes were wide, as though he had seen a ghost.
Instinctively, I stood up too, ready to run…maybe we had been found! It’s then that I saw…Him.
It was Jesus.
I didn’t realize it at first—I saw someone standing there, but in the panic of the moment I had no idea who it could possibly be. But then I heard his voice: “Peace be with you.”
That voice. Something stirred inside me. That voice, those words…
And then he held out his hands.
There were scars in them.
Could it be?
He gestured to his side.
It was The Rabbi! It was Jesus! Mary was right!
But how? Why?
He told us we were receiving the Holy Spirit, and that he was sending us.
But as I stood there, speechless…and as all of this happened…and as the rest of the disciples rejoiced…I remained still.
I knew he couldn’t be talking about me.
He may have been alive…somehow…but I was still Judas. I had still denied him. I had still turned my back on him.
My dreams grew worse. Still the cursing, still the murdering of Judas, still the changing of his face…only now, the face didn’t change to mine. As I ran the sword as hard as I could through Judas’ slimy traitor body, and as his face melted away, what was behind it was the face of Jesus. And as he died, with his last breath he said, “Peace be with you.” He was mocking me. He knew there could be no peace for me, he knew the hell I deserved, and he was making me suffer through that hell right there.
I needed to get away. I needed something familiar, something I could cling to, something to heal my soul.
I needed to fish.
After a few days of hiding, we were able to sneak out of the city undetected. I knew exactly where I was headed. Back home. Home to Galilee. Home to the Sea of Tiberias. Home to something I actually knew. I knew that lake backwards and forwards, I knew fish, and I knew how to catch them. I invited some of the others home with me too. Who knows how long we’d stay there, or if we’d ever leave again.
There’s something healing, something freeing, about being on the water. I don’t really know how to describe it. Even Jesus would get on a boat sometimes if he needed to rest, recuperate, rejuvenate. He would have come up with some creative way to explain what I’m talking about. All I know is that for the first time in what seemed forever, I was able to sleep. Sweet, dreamless sleep. Normally I would have been mad as hell that I couldn’t catch anything…we had put our nets out and had come up empty time and time again, but you know what? After all I had been through, that just didn’t seem important. And so I slept. No Judas. No Jesus. Just sleep, all through the night. And through the early morning, when the fishing is best.
The sun had come up, and I was still lying on the floor of the boat. The other guys in the boat were talking to someone on shore. Apparently, this person gave them some advice on where to cast the nets, because they took the nets and swung them around to the right side of the boat. I shook my head, sleepily, and smiled. It was well past the best time to catch anything, but bless ‘em, if they wanted to try, then more power to ‘em. I sat up and asked anyone in general who it was giving them advice.
Nobody answered, because suddenly the nets were full! The guys started yelling, rushing to grab the nets, straining to pull them in. As one, they pulled the nets over the side of the boat, and they emptied, with what must have been over a hundred fish flapping and wriggling and flopping all over the floor of the boat.
Then, a voice yelled, “It’s the Lord!”
I jumped to my feet and looked, straining my eyes as I gazed into the rising sun to see the shore. Sure enough, it was Jesus! What was he doing here? In my excitement, I just about jumped into the water, but then I realized I was naked. Damn! Cursing at my clothes, I pulled them on, stumbling around and I’m sure looking like a complete idiot. I didn’t care, though. Jesus was there on the shore, and I needed to know how and why.
The fools were still messing with the nets and the fish. I didn’t have time for all of that—so I jumped in the water and began to swim. I swam as hard as my arms and legs would carry me. Why the hell couldn’t I swim faster? Cursing again, I realized I wasn’t that far off shore. Tiberias isn’t exactly deep, even in its deepest spots, so I tried putting my feet down. Sure enough, I could touch bottom. So there I was, half running, half swimming to the shore, when to my left, I see a large shape pass me.
It was the boat.
I am an idiot.
As I got close, I saw that on the beach, there was a fire going. Jesus had some fish cooking, and there next to the fire I saw a couple of loaves of bread lying on the ground. What did this all mean? What was he going to say? “Jesus smiled, held out the bread, gestured toward the fish, and said, “Come.”
“Come and have some breakfast.”
So we came. We all came over to where he was, and even though I was soaking wet, I plopped down on the ground next to him. And we ate. By now, my mind was racing. I honestly don’t remember a word of the breakfast conversation. I think I may have told a couple of the off-color jokes that I was famous for with the other disciples, and I remember lots of laughter, but it was all a blur. Because those visions of Judas and I had come rushing right back. And while a part of me wanted Jesus to be there, needed for Jesus to be there, another part of me wished he would leave, just wished I could go on with my life and fish and forget all about how I had let him down.
It was spooky. It was almost as though Jesus was reading my mind. We had just finished eating, and he looked at me.
“Simon, son of John, do you sacrificially, unconditionally love me more than these?”
I looked to where he was pointing. It was toward the lake. The boat. The nets. The fish.
I gulped. What kind of question was that? Hadn’t I laid down my nets and followed him the moment he had asked me to follow him three years ago? We hadn’t been able to catch anything that day, either, and he had told us to try the other side of the boat…
…wait a second.
I shook my head, realizing that I had been staring at the boat, and turned back to Jesus. He was still watching me intently.
“Yes, Lord,” I answered, “you know I love you…like a brother, even.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him it was sacrificial…unconditional…after all, if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have denied him after he had been arrested, would I? I would’ve said “hell yes I’m his follower, and if you’re going to arrest him, you might as well have me arrested too.”
But I hadn’t said any of that. My love was conditional. I could love him, but only on the condition that it not hurt me too much. And while my love was sacrificial—I had after all sacrificed my livelihood as a fisherman to follow him—it didn’t obviously go as far as sacrificing my very life.
Jesus nodded, and said something strange. “Feed my lambs.”
Feed my lambs? Huh?
He spoke again, asking almost the same question. This time, though, it was more direct. No gesturing, no comparison, just flat out, “Simon son of John, do you sacrificially, unconditionally love me?”
Damn it…he had noticed the verbal gymnastics I had played. Embarrassed, ashamed, I spoke more quietly. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Then, almost in a whisper, “I love you like a brother, Jesus.”
“Tend my sheep,” came Jesus’ reply.
Immediately, Jesus asked me another question. The hardest question of all. A question that pierced to my very soul: “Simon, son of John…do you even love me like a brother?”
Didn’t he know? Of course he knew, he knew it all! He knew about the guilt, the shame, all the sleepless nights, the dreams, how I had come here to escape it…he knew it, and here he was questioning me like this! I knew I didn’t love him perfectly—I knew I had let him down, that I had denied him, that I had betrayed him, but damn it, he oughta know that I love him.
All the emotion of the preceding two weeks came spilling out of me as I jumped up and cried loudly, “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you like a brother!”
With my eyes I pleaded with him. “Lord, please don’t do this to me. Please…I’m so ashamed of myself. I’m so sorry. I want so much to love you with perfect, unconditionally sacrificial love, but you and I both know that I’ve let you down time and again. Please…”
He said nothing but “feed my sheep.”
And his eyes said “your love doesn’t have to be perfect, because my love is. You have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now go and feed the world with that gift and that love.”
And just like that, all the shame, all the guilt, all the awkwardness was gone. It was as though all was new again.
Jesus must have sensed that, because you know what his next words were to me? They were echoes of the very first words I had ever heard him say.
So I followed. And I’m following still.