I have thought, for a while now, that you can’t make sense of Peter’s final story in the Gospel of John — where Jesus and the disciples are gathered for food and fellowship on the seashore — without looking backward to another story about a charcoal fire.
Let me take you back to the Thursday before Easter. It’s a cold night, which may or may not be why Peter feels chilled.
All the week’s high-strung emotions – anticipation, hope, wariness, laughter – have frozen into a solid mass of fear that sits heavy in Peter’s gut. The entrance into Jerusalem was filled with such optimism. All of that has deflated like a balloon meeting a pin, with Jesus’ arrest.
Peter should run, run all the way back to Galilee. He should hide in the nearest cubbyhole available. He should get on out of Dodge, out of Jerusalem, out of this looming danger. Because Peter has seen how this story can end.
This time, the soldiers took only Jesus, only the leader. Who knows how long that will last?
No one, once identified as a threat to the Roman Empire, lasts for long. The soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem would have no qualms about torturing and killing a few more Galilean Jews in order to make their point.
Does he even remember Jesus’ awful prediction, that he would betray his Rabbi three times?
Peter enters the courtyard. Almost immediately, the dreaded question comes from the first person he sees: the servant girl who tends the door. She said to Peter, you are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?
Peter denied it. What else could he do? “This man,” that means Jesus, and Jesus is facing the death penalty, and associating with Jesus is akin to a suicide pact.
Now the servants and officers who had made a fire of coals stood there, for it was cold, and they warmed themselves. And Peter stood with them and warmed himself. Jesus was being questioned by the high priest, inside, and Peter was desperate for any information he could hear about his friend without revealing their connection.
Twice more, around that fire, Peter was asked if he was a disciple. Twice more, he denied it. Then, as you well know, the rooster crowed.
Morning had come, and just as Jesus had predicted, Peter had denied him three times through that fear-filled night. He runs away from the fire in shame.
This story hits me hard because Peter so clearly made the wrong choice. He literally denied knowing who Jesus was – and in a story where Jesus is the main protagonist, it doesn’t get much worse than that.
And yet, if I’m honest, I think I would have done the same. I think I would have stood at the threshold of danger, wanting to know and wanting not to be known.
This story hits me hard because it’s so clearly wrong, and because it’s so clearly me.
Later, at the end of that awful weekend, Peter and the other disciple rush into the tomb. They see the graveclothes folded neatly, don’t see the body anywhere. They see Jesus a few times, but there isn’t a clear commission like we find in the other Gospels.
So, those of them who had been fishermen, pre-Jesus, get back in their boat and spend the night on the Sea of Galilee. They fished all night, and they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
No, they hadn’t caught anything, not for the whole night. This stranger Jesus on the shore told them to throw their net over the right side, and they did, and the net was suddenly so full of fish that they couldn’t even get it in the boat.
That’s when it dawned on them that the guy on the shore was the Risen Christ.
And when they got to the shore, they saw that Jesus had built another charcoal fire.
Fish were fried. Fish were eaten. Bread was broken and shared. The warmth of the fire was enjoyed.
But ask yourself, for a moment, what this would have been like for Peter. It’s one thing to be weak in a moment of fear. You might not be proud of the choice, but if you do manage to save your own skin, you can at least take comfort in that.
Here at what we can loosely call the Brunch Date At The End Of The Universe, though, that choice must look really different.
Peter betrayed his friend, who he also thought was the Messiah, because he thought his friend was going to die, and he didn’t want to die with him. But now his friend is sitting on the lakeshore eating fish, and what does that mean for Peter?
There was this wall between them. Jesus was back, and Peter was invited to the brunch, but that doesn’t really fix the wall between them.
This is where Peter has got to be expecting a consequence for his failure. Jesus, though- Jesus understands that what Peter needs is a blessing.
Three times, Jesus lets Peter affirm his commitment. Three times, and with each affirmation, a denial is washed away. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a slap on the hand, or brand him with D for disappointment. Jesus chooses instead, at that second fire, to finish bringing Peter home.
This story leaves me with lots of questions for myself. Chief among them, I suppose, is the question of which fire I’m sitting at. Am I playing the game of blame and shame, or am I practicing resurrection?
And when someone wrongs me, which fire do I invite them to? But also, back at the beginning of the Gospel of John, we read that the Word of Creation, the word who was with God and who was God, was definitively revealed in the person of Jesus.
Definitively, which means: the Word of Creation can be seen in swirling galaxies and in the glories of the intricate workings of a single cell, and the Word can be heard in Beethoven and Sappho and Shakespeare and Kendrick Lamar, and the Word is in every protest against injustice and every anthem raised and every small act of love that will never make the news.
But if you want to see the Word summed up: look to Jesus. The Word is definitively revealed in the life and work of Jesus, which means that all of the other ways in which we see the light are wrapped up in this one human life. Jesus is the answer with the exclamation point, to the question of who God is.
What we see here, in Jesus, is a God who provides a way forward for Peter, even when he has done his absolute worst. This Jesus finds Peter where he is, makes himself known, and brings Peter home. Peter, as you well know, is the stand-in for all of us: brashly faithful, struggling to understand, trying so hard and getting it wrong. Peter stands in all his never-abandoned glory, never enough, and yet never alone.
And to Peter, here on the seashore, after the betrayal and after the resurrection and after the reconciliation, Jesus says the same thing that he said to the disciples at the beginning of the story: Follow Me.
Julie Rudd is Pastor at Wilmington Friends Meeting, 66 N. Mulberry St.
Weekly columns are provided to the News Journal by members of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.