Gathered together at the Sea of Tiberius were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”John 21:2-3
There is a field of biblical scholarship called “redaction criticism” which tries to understand the scriptures by studying what got edited out and why. If I were a redactionist scholar, I would try to find out what happened to Peter’s “screw it” statement. Because you know that, standing there next to the Sea of Galilee (aka: the Sea of Tiberius, aka: Lake Gennesaret) Peter was like “Jesus told us to meet him here and he’s not here. Screw it, I am going fishing.” Whether from boredom or frustration or a need for adventure, Peter is getting out on a boat.
Fishing seems to be the most popular pastime among disciples of Jesus Christ and disciples of Hank Williams. Think of the scene from “Walk the Line” when Johnny Cash takes June Carter fishing after someone has been rude to her in the five and dime. Maybe it gives everyone something to do with their hands while their minds process the events of the day. It’s possible that both Peter and June knew they needed a little time and space before they engaged with the issue again.
Because the issue, the great divorce, whether it was between June Carter and her first two husbands or Simon Peter and his Lord and savior, would be there when they got back. I have no real knowledge of what was going on with June, but everyone knows what Peter did. And he did it three times before the cock crowed. Like Jesus said he would. Now, Peter did it, and he didn’t deny his betrayal, but I wonder if it did not stick in his craw just a little bit that Jesus knew this was going to happen and did not do a dang thing to stop it. Almost like he needed Peter to do it to prove a point.
The point is about our limitations and the unfathomable limitless of grace. Peter’s humanity was inescapable. For him to own his relationship with Jesus on the morning of Good Friday would be to risk being killed at the very point where he was needed – alive – the most. In order to be able to serve as the rock on which the church would be founded in the future, he had to sin now. He was in a position where he had to do it.
That is a dilemma which German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered when he saw the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich impose unprecedented suffering on the Jews of his country. Murder is famously a sin, but would not it also be a sin to allow such suffering to continue? Could a faithful person chose to participate in a coup attempt or an assassination plot? A faithful person, he said, is free to chose because the faithful person may take responsibility for following the dictates of conscience.
When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility … he imputes this guilt to himself and to no one else, he answers for it; he accepts responsibility for it. He does not do this in the insolent presumptuousness of his own power, but he does it in the knowledge that this liberty is forced upon him and that in this liberty he is dependent on grace. Before other men the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by conscience; but before God he hopes only for mercy.Bonhoeffer – Ethics
So Peter had no way out, but he still needs forgiveness. He might also be a tiny bit pissed about being put in that position in the first place. One can imagine the words of John Prine in Simon Peter’s mouth, singing “Father forgive us for what we must do. You forgive us, we’ll forgive you.” And there is the hope, realistic or not, that the necessity of this great rupture, this tremendous serving of humble pie, is something we only have to experience once.
Fish and whistleJohn Prine
Whistle and fish
That they put on your dish
And when we get through
We’ll make a big wish
That we never have
To do this again
If John was not reading Bonhoeffer as he wrote, maybe Dietrich had a premonition of Prine’s music. They would likely have enjoyed one another, sharing as they did a love of American folk music and the finer things in life. Bonhoeffer was a snappy dresser who appreciated fine spirits and tobacco, so Prine’s intention to have a cocktail (vodka and ginger ale) and a cigarette that’s nine miles long upon his arrival in heaven sounds like something Bonhoeffer would have joyfully anticipated too.
John Prine’s vision of heaven comes complete with a nightclub called “The Tree of Forgiveness” in which he will welcome anyone who had done him harm. (As a witness of the lengths to which he might be willing to go, Prine floats the possibility that perhaps even some music critics might be let in.) To enter into this act of forgiveness is, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, to share in bearing the cross of Christ. “The law of Christ,” he writes in The Cost of Discipleship “is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot … but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ which I now share.” The tree has often been used as a euphemism for the cross, so what Bonhoeffer calls “the cross of Christ” could easily be understood as Prine’s “Tree of Forgiveness.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was (spoiler alert!) executed in 1945 in Germany. John Prine was born in Illinois in 1946. Although his sister really was a nun, as Prine testified at the end of “Illegal Smile,” I don’t really have any evidence that he read Bonhoeffer. And of course it would have been impossible for Bonhoeffer to have heard Prine’s music, though he was definitely a fan of Prine’s predecessors in the folk tradition. In the end, it may be enough to say that both of them recognized the profound absurdity of our human predicament yet never resigned themselves to the despairing thought that we are without hope. Maybe they were just kindred spirits. Or maybe it is reincarnation.