Lady with the Lamp


Meditation on John 21: 1-19

April 15, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church


   21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together 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.” They said to him,  “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them,  “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him,  “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


Florence thought of herself as different as she grew up. She wants things that other girls don’t want. She is born in 1820 in Florence, Italy, to an extremely wealthy, cosmopolitan English couple on an extended European honeymoon.


The Nightingales owned 2 large estates, Lea Hurst in Central England and Embley Park in South Central England. They move in social circles that include politicians, writers and poets, such as Tennyson. Flo’s father is a liberal humanitarian who fought for the reform of Parliament. Her maternal grandfather was an abolitionist. She is well-educated; her father teaches her to read French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek; she excels in math. But it is the Victorian Age. She is expected to marry well and have children. She turns suitors away.


Flo further shocks her family when at 16 she announces that God is calling her to be a nurse. Paid nursing is a job for poor, uneducated and often elderly women, with a reputation for drunkenness, bad language, and loose morals.

Florence is headstrong. She persuades her parents to allow her to take a 3-month course in Lutheran Deaconess training in Germany. Within a year, she becomes the superintendent of the “Institution for Sick Gentlewomen (governesses) in Distressed Circumstances” in London.

In 1853, the Crimean War breaks out. British forces are seriously depleted after the October 1854 Battle of Balaclava and the ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade.”



Word of the horrible conditions for wounded British soldiers reaches the Minister of War, who is an acquaintance of Flo. He invites her to take 38 female nurses to work in a military hospital in Turkey on trial. She says yes. Her family doesn’t approve; it means being in close contact with men of all sorts, without a chaperone.

Florence and the 38 nurses arrive in November 1854 at Scutari Barracks in Constantinople, where wounded soldiers are shipped across the Black Sea. The conditions are horrifying; 2,000 men lying on mattresses 18 inches apart in 2 rows, with barely enough space to walk between. Food is scarce; there’s not enough running water, no way to keep patients clean, even if the importance of sanitation and the dangers of bacteria were known—and they weren’t. Vermin and disease are rampant—typhus, typhoid, cholera, dysentery.


No one has told the doctors that the nurses are coming; they are shown to their quarters in a tower infested with rats and a dead Russian soldier on the floor. But soon thousands more wounded arrive; the nurses’ help is needed. Flo attempts to organize the hospital and the distribution of supplies, arguing with doctors and writing letters to government officials, trying to improve overall conditions.

But how she becomes a heroine to the British people is that she is devoted to the common soldier. She endears herself to them, walking the halls at night with her lantern, sitting up talking with them. The soldiers write about Florence in their letters home. She writes hundreds of letters to their families, expressing condolences when soldiers die, assuring them that their sons had “the best care” and passed “peacefully.” The soldiers affectionately call her “the Lady with the Lamp.”


When the war ends in 1856, Flo goes home to her family, who, though disapproving of her work, embrace her celebrity status. But Flo is filled with anger about all the death she has witnessed. She is even more upset when she learns that more soldiers died at her hospital than any other. They died not from their wounds, but infectious diseases caused by unsanitary conditions. All pride in her war service evaporates. She is unable to forgive herself for not seeing the link between the conditions at the hospital and the alarming death rate.



In our gospel reading today, Peter is having trouble forgiving himself, too. He can’t move forward with what the Lord has called him to do. The passage starts with Peter declaring that he is going fishing—by himself. He doesn’t invite anyone; perhaps he’s running away from the leadership gifts that his community recognizes. The others immediately say, “We’ll go, too.” You can almost imagine him shrugging his shoulders,  “Whatever.”

The passage comes after the risen Christ has appeared a number of times to the disciples. Christ gives them his peace and His Spirit and sends them out to do a work of forgiveness. Then comes chapter 21 and the story of Peter’s commissioning to care for Christ’s “sheep”– the ragtag bunch of disciples that will grow into a great flock in Acts, when Peter preaches on Pentecost. In John 21, Jesus waits for the disciples to be exhausted from their fruitless fishing all night, so that he may bless them with another “sign.” Casting on the “right” yields more fish than they can haul in, bringing to mind 3 years earlier, in Luke 5, when the fishermen reluctantly cast empty nets at Christ’s insistence, and then leave their nets and miraculous catch to become fishers of people with Him.

I love the details in this passage, including the one about Simon Peter needing to put on his clothes. Does it remind you of Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit? They are “naked and ashamed” and attempt to cover themselves. I think Peter, too, feels vulnerable in Christ’s presence.

Now Jesus invites the disciples to bring their catch to a shared meal. He serves them, and we remember the Last Supper. Eating together affirms that the risen Jesus is no ghost; he is flesh and blood, but also divine, as revealed by the miraculous catch. Jesus calls Peter by his formal name, asking him if he loves him—“more than these.” The “more than these” could mean,  “do you love me more than you love the disciples?” or  “do you love me more than the other disciples love me?” Jesus asks 3 times, leaving no doubt in Peter’s and our minds that Christ remembers how Peter denied him 3 times before the cock crowed, just as Peter hasn’t forgotten or forgiven himself. Peter responds emotionally the third time, “You know I love you!”

Yes, Christ knows—and wants to use Peter, not despite his weakness, but with his weakness; for Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus wants to make sure Peter will be a humble, servant leader of the Church, reliant on the Spirit and motivated only by LOVE– for Christ and His Church.

And it is this way with us, friends. God wants to use us, not in spite of our weaknesses, but working through them to accomplish his purposes. His Spirit equips us with everything we need, including faith and the ability to forgive ourselves and one another. He wants our only motivation to serve Him and the Church to be LOVE.

The Good Shepherd is calling us now,  “Follow me.”


I don’t know if Florence ever forgave herself for what she saw as her great failure during the War. But God used her in a powerful way, with her weaknesses. From age 38 on, she was often confined to her bed with brucellosis, an infection caught during the war. In 1856, Queen Victoria rewarded her with $250,000 and an engraved brooch–the “Nightingale Jewel” for her war service.


 She used the money to establish St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.



She wrote thousands of letters advocating for public sanitation and healthcare reform for the British army and civilian hospitals. She was consulted about field hospitals during the U.S. Civil War and on public sanitation issues in India.


Among her honors, she receives the Order of Merit from King Edward in 1907 and a celebratory message from King George on her 90th birthday in May 1910.  She dies three months later.

       I have to think that her strength during the war and afterward, during her prolonged illness, came from the same One whose voice she heard at 16, calling her to be a nurse. Flo was laid to rest at her family plot, refusing burial at Westminster Abbey. Her marker bears a plain cross with only her initials and dates.


She may never have realized the importance of her wartime service –when she showed comfort and compassion to thousands of wounded soldiers. When she wasn’t the rich heiress Florence Nightingale, but was only “the Lady with the Lamp.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your love and forgiveness for us, when we feel we have failed you and ourselves. Help to us to fully accept ourselves in our weakness and to rejoice in your grace and mercy. Thank you for your plan to use our weakness for your work and your glory. Lead us to acts of bravery and humility, shining your light and never seeking worldly rewards, such as appreciation from other people. May we always seek to obey and please you. Let our motivation for our actions every day be LOVE. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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