The Charcoal Fire

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Among my favorite smells of spring-going-on-summer is a charcoal fire. The scent summons me back to childhood summers when, draped in damp towels after swimming, we would gather after sunset around a charcoal fire at the town park. I loved to watch the fire begin—the flames flying upward then settling to a soft red glow. Everything tasted better cooked over charcoal! And when the embers had tamed somewhat, we would roast marshmallows, or decode invisible ink messages. (Writing in lemon juice, scorched by firelight, “magically” became visible). 

I doubt, though, if Peter in this Friday’s (4/9/21) Gospel had the same positive feelings when he smelled the charcoal fire that Jesus had prepared on the shore, from which He was serving them breakfast. For Peter, too, the smell must have brought back memories—for this was not the first charcoal fire in John’s Gospel.

But the only other fire was not Peter’s best moment. It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, when Peter was at a distance from Jesus, physically and spiritually. Jesus had just been arrested, and Peter was outside, trying to get warm by a charcoal fire in the High Priest’s courtyard.

Unlike a bonfire, a charcoal fire, to give warmth, requires closeness. And so others by the fire, seeing Peter up close, recognized him as a follower of Jesus. Three times they question him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?” We know well that three times he denied it. And then the cock crowed.

What does Peter think now, as he approaches Jesus and the charcoal fire on the beach of Tiberius, his clothes dripping wet from his hasty rush to shore? Does he draw up short for just a moment, wondering why Jesus would deliberately re-create such a painful memory? For it is clear that Jesus has deliberately set the scene. 

The charcoal fire is not the only memory reprised in this story. This present story begins with Peter out on the sea, his nets again empty after a long night of fishing. But when, unrecognized at first, Christ calls from the shore, telling him to try once more—the nets are suddenly filled to overflowing. Just like the bursting nets of three years earlier.

Peter cannot help but flash back to that first miraculous catch. How his nets and night of labor had yielded nothing. Until Christ got in the boat with him and told him to try again. 

The stunning scene that followed—the boats nearly sinking with the catch of fish—is delightful to imagine (and not without humor). But even that first miraculous catch was not the first miracle Peter witnessed. It was, however, the first time that Peter’s own work was transformed—that his own hands and nets were used to yield something beyond human power.

It was more than Peter could handle: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

But now, as the miracle of the fish is repeated a second time, Peter must also call to mind everything that followed that first time. How Christ called him anyway. How for three years, Peter walked in the company of God made man. How he was chosen to head His Church. How he once, even for just a moment, walked upon the sea.

But then, by a charcoal fire, how he refused to even acknowledge Jesus as an acquaintance.

In that refusal, Peter not only denied Jesus. He denied himself—he denied who he had become, how he had been made new as a follower of Jesus. Jesus wills not only to have Peter undo the denial but Himself to restore the newness of being promised to Peter. Jesus had promised to make of him “a fisher of men”—but this would be a work of Jesus’ making, not Peter’s effort or strength.

It is from the empty nets of his Peter’s self-reliance that Jesus wishes to work an even greater miracle. 

Now, Peter is again called to follow Jesus, and to be His shepherd.  He is to lead the Church—but as sinner, not savior. He is not merely to witness a miracle, but to become one. 

Peter must see again to the need to be washed, not just externally, but in the deepest place of wounds and weakness. He must walk with Jesus again, being again called to be made new. What was not possible alone is possible in Christ. Peter is called as living witness that even from our sins, God can make something new and even better.

To each of us, Jesus proclaims this Gospel, that we might be set free—not just on the surface, but in our darkest memories—of the sins committed against us, or even of our most shameful sins. These are the places of pain that we keep hidden.

Peter’s sin is not just to be understood as a cautionary tale—as if, with warning and willpower, we could or would do better. Rather it is an invitation not to fear welcoming Christ into our own set of memories. To allow him to take us back to our own place of betrayal. To let him walk into our memories—especially the darkest and most painful.

Not all of my childhood memories are as pleasant to me as smoke from a charcoal fire. As I’ve journeyed through years of inner healing, I’ve found that Christ often takes me to places that I “would not wish to go.”

I’ve found though that when He invites me to follow Him into these memories, the memories themselves can change and be made new. Sometimes he gives me a new perspective. Sometimes He takes me to a deeper level of mercy. And sometimes He just stays with me.

Sometimes this challenges me. Like Peter, disturbed by Jesus repeating the same question, I wonder, “Why are we here again, Lord?” Yet somehow in the presence of Jesus, even over time, things change. Sometimes I change, sometimes my memory changes—revealing new details, new meanings. And sometimes, like Peter, I discover still other memories—of the good that God has done, of His promises made to me, of the miraculous works He can do not only for me, but in me.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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