The Fourteenth Miracle

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Matt. 26:23 (NIV)

In the early 1980’s I cared for a forty-eight year-old man with an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage from aneurysm. In those days delaying surgery for seven days after the initial bleed was thought to allow time for the brain swelling to go down making the surgery safer. The decreased surgical mortality made up for the small number of people who would re-bleed during the waiting period. One of the trickiest parameters to manage during that week was blood pressure. If the pressure went too high, the aneurysm would rupture; if the pressure went too low, the patient would suffer a stroke.

This man’s high blood pressure was difficult to control on several medicines. Fearing a rupture any moment, I ordered a seldom-used IV alpha-blocker at a low test dosage of 0.5mg, not wanting to over-treat. Normal doses would be 1 to 2 mg. An hour after the phone call, I got a call from the nurse that the patient had gone into shock and the ICU staff had already begun resuscitation. I arrived at the hospital a few minutes later to help with the unsuccessful code.

The fatal blood pressure drop had occurred shortly after the “test” dose. The nurse held out the empty 5.0 mg. glass vial. She had given ten times the ordered dose, a lethal mistake.

They don’t make that drug anymore, and pharmaceutical companies now take care to avoid packaging medicines in ways that make such mistakes easy. But the changes came too late for that patient, too late for that nurse.

She was inconsolable.

We make mistakes. She read a drug label wrong. Judas Iscariot read the Messiah wrong, and no one has ever forgotten the betrayal with a kiss. I know I’ve made big mistakes. A drill plunging into the all-important speech and language areas as I tried to drain a subdural hematoma. An injury to the carotid artery leading to a fatal stroke while I tried to get control of the blood flow to a giant aneurysm. A wrong-sided scalp incision. A bruised spinal cord.

The consequences of the big mistake are not limited to the victim. Yes, the nurse’s patient died. But what happened to the nurse? She was a good nurse–smart, hard-working, and compassionate. When we lost the patient, did we lose the nurse too? What happened to me?

Yes, Jesus died. But what happened to Judas?

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. Matt. 27:3-5 (NIV)

Remorse leads to despair. Returning the money was not enough. Despair led to suicide.

The nurse underwent a review and received a cautionary letter in her permanent file. She took a course in error prevention. The drug company changed the way they packaged the medicine and the hospital changed risky methods of ordering and dispensing medicines. She could have returned to working in the ICU, but she did not. Because she needed one more thing to be fully restored.

I know. There are times when the word Sorry is too small. I’ve paid for the consequences of my own mistakes, struggled with my own self-confidence, wondered if I should go back the next day to take care of the next sick person.

The passion story of Jesus carries a parallel story of betrayal. Judas wasn’t the only one to lose hope. Peter, in spite of his bluster of faithfulness on the night of the arrest (quote: “Even if I have to die with you I will never disown you”) by morning had indeed publicly denied knowing Jesus three times. When the cock crowed at the break of dawn, Peter remember his vow and wept.

Matthew doesn’t mention Peter again in his Gospel. Neither does Mark. Luke and John both tell us Peter ran to the tomb after two women had found it empty. Then we don’t hear anything about Peter until another episode recounted in the Gospel of John that occurred a few weeks later.

Peter had given up Jerusalem, returned to his home and his old job. I imagine him severely depressed. He had stood at the threshold of the Kingdom of Heaven, looked in, saw the endless beauty, and met the king. Then someone asked if he knew Him, and Peter said No, no, no. Not me! Then, three days later, his own eyes told him that he was wrong. Jesus was who he said he was, and Peter had failed his very first trial.

Three years before, when Jesus had sent them out on their own for the first time, in his guidance had said, “Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Peter was disowned before the Father in heaven. Life could offer him nothing more than return to fishing in the obscure province of Galilee. He had turned away from the kingdom of heaven at the critical moment. He had made the big mistake.

Now he worked all night and caught not one fish. He was no longer good at fishing. Total and complete failure. And this time of day was the worst, the graying of the sky before dawn, the time the cock crows. Tired, depressed, and hungry, he felt like throwing himself overboard.

In a few minutes he would do just that. But for a reason he did not expect.

He smelled something. Smoke. And fried fish and warm bread. It tickled his hunger and made him lift his head. A hundred yards away a small fire flickered on shore. Some early riser getting ready to make breakfast. Some early riser who was apparently a better fisherman.

“Friend,” the stranger called out to them, “haven’t you any fish?”

Was their failure that obvious? Even from a hundred yards away?

Peter’s companions shouted back, “No.”

“Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

Just what he needed. A know-it-all. Like the water on one side was different than the water on the other. An idiot bent on making them all look like idiots. Before he could say a word, though, their nets were up and tossed out again over the opposite gunwale.

The net filled quickly and the boat tipped dangerously toward the starboard. They couldn’t pull in the seine of squiggling fish. Peter’s crew kept the ropes tight and started rowing for shore, dragging their catch.

Peter squinted now through the mist and the pre-dawn gray at the flame and the figure on the shore. It sounded like, looked like…but it couldn’t be. Then his cousin John whispered loud enough that Peter heard, “The Lord.”

He looked back into the boat. James and Andrew struggled with the oars, John kept the net tight. Peter should help. The boat barely made headway and Peter was clearly the strongest rower. John lifted his eyes from his struggles long enough to meet his gaze. The Lord, he mouthed.

Peter leapt over the side, the cold water shocking his tired mind bright and clear. He swam hard and fast, keeping his eyes on the small flame. Dripping across the beach he came to the banks of flaming coals, fish already cooking and bread being warmed.

Jesus (it had to be Jesus), said nothing at first, only squatted by the fire and turned the fish. Peter, too, said nothing. What could he say to the the man who had talked with Moses and Elijah, who had walked out of his own tomb?

The words Whoever disowns me echoed again in Peter’s head, as they had for the last three weeks. Why was he here giving them fishing instruction and cooking breakfast? Is this the final farewell? The final I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen. Better luck next time message? He deserved the message, he knew he did. What he didn’t deserve was a record-breaking catch and breakfast.

The boat’s keel crunched into the gravel beach behind him. He heard the bang of the oars on the gunwales and the splash of men struggling with a full net of live fish.

Finally Jesus stood up. Their eyes met, and Peter waited for his dismissal. But he said, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

Peter turned and ran to the boat, scrabbling over the side, grabbing the net from the exhausted crew and dragging it up the beach. Then the four stood before the fire, Jesus on the other side with a griddle and a basket of bread. Had the heavens opened and choirs of angels begun to sing, they would have been less surprised when he simply said, “Come and have breakfast.”

Words failed them. They ate in silent wonder. When they could eat no more, Jesus spoke to Peter. “Do you love me?” he asked.

“Yes, Lord,” Peter answered.

Jesus repeated the question two more times; Peter repeated his answer two more times.

Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, three times Peter affirmed loving Jesus. The balance was restored. Jesus went on to say a few more things, saving the most important for last: “Follow me.”

After the big mistake, you can throw the coins back into the temple, you can take your letters of reprimand and remedial education courses and pay your fines. You can say you’re sorry.

But if the mistake is big enough, you still live in the cloud of despair.

I hope you haven’t made any big mistakes. Some of us have divorced someone that didn’t deserve it, some of us have abandoned children, some of us have had abortions. Some of us have robbed people legally or illegally. Some of us have killed people for no good reason, and some for a good reason only to discover there are no good reasons.

Remorse, depression, and despair pull us into a deep, dark place, and if you are there right now remember that little light you see a long distance off in the mist is Jesus cooking breakfast for you.

Head for shore. Sorry will be enough. You are forgiven.