Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” … Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:13, 16-18
The Sea of Galilee is the largest body of water in Israel – about 21 kilometres long (north to south) and 13 kilometres wide.1 It is a beautiful, freshwater lake, fed by the waters of the Jordan River and surrounded by lush hills. The slopes of the Golan Heights border its eastern edge, while Mount Arbel stands sentinel on the west.2 About 45 kilometres deep, its waters are filled with an abundance of fish, the most common of which is tilapia – also known as “St. Peter’s” fish.
Despite its idyllic vista, the sea’s location below the mountains to the east makes it subject to sudden, violent storms – much like the one that terrified the disciples the night that Jesus slept peacefully in the boat (Mt 8:23-27). But on the day we sailed from Tiberias to Capernaum, we had no need to be afraid. That day, the breeze was gentle and the waters were calm. The stillness was broken only by the sound of waves gently lapping at the sides of the boat and the occasional creaking of the boat’s wooden slats. Birds soared overhead and sailors threw nets out into the water, just as they would have done at the time of our Lord.
The Sea of Galilee figured prominently throughout Jesus’ life. It was on its shores that He called His first disciples – Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mk 1:16-20). It is the place where His ministry was centred, where He taught the people (Mk 3:7-12) and performed many miracles, including the miraculous catch of fish (Lk 5:1-11). It was here that Jesus walked on the sea (Mt 14:22-33), and where He calmed the stormy waters with the simple command, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk 4:39) After His Resurrection, it was to these shores that Jesus returned to cook breakfast for the disciples, and where He confirmed Peter’s primacy among them (Jn 21:1-17).
The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter stands on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee at Tabgha – the beach where Jesus appeared to them for the third time after His Resurrection. It’s not far from the site of the miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. The chapel is modest – built by the Franciscans in 1933 – and it incorporates part of an earlier, 4th century church that was destroyed in 1263. The mensa Christi (“table of Christ”) dominates the interior. The rock is believed to be the place where Jesus lit a charcoal fire – where He prepared a breakfast of fish and bread for His disciples after they landed on shore (Jn 21:1-19).
As they walked along the beach that morning, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus then commanded Peter to feed His sheep – to be the “rock” upon which Jesus would build His Church. Though he had once given way to fear and denial, Peter had been transformed by grace. He had come to realize that he could not depend on his own strength, but that he needed to turn to God to ask for the wisdom and courage that he would need. Peter was ready to take his place – the first place – among the disciples. He was ready to die in order to glorify God.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The Sea of Galilee is also referred to in Scripture as the Sea of Chinnereth (Num 34:11, Josh 12:3), Lake Gennesaret (Lk 5:1), and Lake Tiberias (Jn 6:1, 21:1).
2 The Golan Heights were known as the ‘Decapolis’ in Jesus’ time (Mk 5:20, 7:31). The area was considered to be pagan, and it consisted of an alliance of 10 cities, all originally of Greek origin. The cities included Damascus (the capital of modern Syria), Philadelphia (modern-day Amman, the capital of Jordan), Scythopolis (Beth-Shean, now part of Israel – the only city west of the Jordan River), Gadara (Gadarenes – now Umm Qais, in Jordan), Pella (in Jordan), Gerasa (Geresenes – Jerash, in Jordan), Hippos (Sussita – Israel), Capitolias (Beit Ras – Dion, Jordan), Canatha (Qanawat, Syria), and Raphana (in Jordan).