FIRE OF LOVE
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON April 18th, 2010
John21:9 “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there with fishing lying on it, and bread.”
This Eastertide scene of the risen Lord cooking breakfast for the very amazed apostles is one of the most interesting and lovely scenes in the New Testament. They had spent a fruitless night fishing; it was just like the first time Jesus had called them all those years ago. He calls out to them, “Cast the net to the right side.” They do not immediately recognize that it is Jesus – for the truth of the resurrection had still not sunk in. But following his advice, they pull in a huge catch of 153 fish. St. John, the beloved disciple, realized it was Jesus and tells Peter it is the Lord. Then Peter, in his enthusiastic way, wades into the water and rushes to shore.
There on the beach is breakfast cooking on a charcoal fire. The charcoal fire is significant. Jesus invites them to eat. We know that meals were important to Jesus in his ministry. We think of this meal – and its predecessor, the Last Supper. There were other meals. Sometimes Jesus had them with the important and the powerful. But mostly they were with the outcasts and the sinners. Now, Jesus eats with the disciples.
It’s a pity that our gospel reading finishes today at John 21:14. The next five verses are highly important. Following this breakfast at the charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Peter, increasingly frustrated at each question, says: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” Although he knew he loved Jesus, he knew he had denied Jesus before. So now Jesus asks three times, which serves as a threefold reconciliation.
There on the shore, Peter is forgiven his earlier denial. Then at the end of these three questions Jesus says to Peter: “Follow thou me.” This is the same call to follow, as on the lakeside way back at the beginning of it all – when they were also fishing.
All through this marvelous scene, in the background burns quietly and unobtrusively, a charcoal fire. In St. John’s gospel words are very important. He begins with, “In the beginning was the Word” and he tells us that Jesus is the Word of God. All through his gospel words are important. Like when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection”, and “I am the bread of life”. The word for charcoal fire that John uses is significant. It is anthrakia in the Greek. Anthrakia is only found twice in the whole New Testament – and both times it is in St. John’s gospel.
Here on the lakeside this anthrakia, this charcoal fire, is both welcoming and comforting. The other occasion where Jesus uses the Greek word anthrakia is on Maundy Thursday. It is that scene in the courtyard when Jesus is being tried and condemned. It was a cold night. The officers and the servants were warming themselves while they waited for the judgment.
Peter draws near. At that charcoal fire, the charcoal fire of Maundy Thursday, Peter denied Jesus three times. The charcoal fire of that night was not comforting; for it was a fire of denial, rather than a fire of love. Now in Eastertide on the shore, Jesus reconciles Peter three times before another charcoal fire.
Two charcoal fires – what a contrast! The first fire, on Maundy Thursday, tells us that anyone can fall at any time – and even betray the Lord. Don’t forget, that was the last thing Peter thought was possible. In Mark 14, Peter says to Jesus, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” In the garden, just before Jesus was arrested, Peter was as good as his word. He attacked the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus. So even though the other apostles fell away, Peter did not. His fire and enthusiasm for battle would soon disappear in the light of that Maundy Thursday charcoal fire. Whatever fire was in Peter’s belly in the garden, soon dissolved before the charcoal fire – and at the pointing of a servant girl.
As another converted sinner, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 10: “Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” And Peter fell. But Peter was not a lost cause. In Luke 26 it graphically records: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and he went out and wept bitterly”. Tears of contrition, of sorrow for his denial, and of penitence. Peter’s tears are so different to the tears of despair that led Judas Iscariot to hang himself. From that charcoal fire of Maundy Thursday we learn that it is never too late to repent and return to the Lord.
All of this is contrasted with the second charcoal fire on the beach. This is the final scene in St. John’s gospel. This time the charcoal fire is kindled by Jesus himself. It is the fire of love, the fire of reconciliation. Here, by this fire of love, Jesus addresses Peter with the most telling of questions, “Do you love me?”
It seemed obvious to Peter that he loved Jesus – yet he had already denied him. “Do you love me,” says Jesus? How many times have we asked that question of others, even if only in our minds? How many times has it been asked of us? But none so significant as by that fire on the shore. And not once, but three times. Peter understood why the question had to be asked three times – for this fire of reconciliation is to witness the canceling of Peter’s threefold denial at that earlier fire.
The fire of denial and the fire of reconciliation combine to remind us about the reality of being human – and the reality of God’s reconciling love. Now on the shore, for Peter, there was fresh and unexpected life on the other side of failure and loss.
Easter makes all the difference. On the cross, Jesus bore all the consequences of our sins, wrongdoings and denials. His resurrection is the first fruits of God’s new creation, which was remade through that cross.
St. Peter was the first person to experience this reconciliation, this new creation. But he was, most certainly, not the last.