Jesus meets us at our “charcoal fires”

When it comes to St Peter, those last days of Jesus’ life and his death on Calvary became pretty intense. “You will never wash my feet!” Peter told the Master kneeling with basin and towel before him.

“I will never betray you!” Peter attested before his brother apostles when Jesus revealed that someone was going to betray him, someone in the room, someone he had known and trusted, someone he didn’t name. What a surge of terror may have passed through Peter as he imagined what that meant, what that might mean if it was him, what that would mean for their future. No. I will never betray you! the burly fisherman asserted if only to keep the potential terrors at bay.

“I do not know the man!” Before a wimpy servant-girl, the self-proclaimed immovable column of fidelity and strength collapsed. Three times. I don’t know this Jesus.

The witness of this intense shame was the charcoal fire around which everyone was warming themselves on that chilly and fateful night.

All of us have our own charcoal fires.

Back in the shadowy cobwebs of memories we wish were not our own, there are plenty of charcoal fires where we have chosen safety, pleasure, conceit over this Jesus whom we proclaim to love with all our hearts. The embers of these charcoal fires still may be warm, the ashes not yet blown away on the winds of mercy.

The charcoal fire appears again in Peter’s story shortly after the resurrection. He was out fishing, unsuccessfully, when a man called across the lake to lower their nets on the starboard side. Immediately the nets were filled to the breaking point. “It is the Lord!” John whispered to Peter.

What emotion must have gone through Peter’s heart at that moment. Without a fear, without a worry, without a memory of the ashes that still smoldered from the charcoal fire that witnessed his betrayal of the Lord, Peter leapt into the water and ran ashore.

And there Jesus stood.

Next to the visual symbol of his betrayal, of his weakness, of his shame.

And it was at that charcoal fire that Jesus asked him one question, three times: Do you love me? In the Passion Translation of the Bible the footnote for John 21:15 sheds some light on this question: The Aramaic word for “love” is hooba, and is taken from a root word that means “to set on fire.” This was the word Jesus would have used to ask Peter, “Do you burn with love for me?”

This time there were from Peter no blustering assertions and self-important declarations. Peter had touched the very roots of his weakness. Those weaknesses and mistakes and even sins that have been witnessed by our charcoal fires become the bridges to truth, to humility, to the trust that children have because they are not able to do anything for themselves.

The footnote continues: It was Peter’s boast that he loved Jesus more than the others, and though everyone else would leave him, Peter never would. That boast proved empty, as within hours of making the claim, Peter denied he even knew Jesus three times. So Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. In essence, Jesus knew how to bring healing to Peter and remove the pain of his denial. Three times Peter denied Jesus, but three times he made his confession of his deep love for Christ. By the third time, the “crowing rooster” inside Peter had been silenced, and now he was ready to be a shepherd for Jesus’ flock.

Here are five things always to remember when you think about the wounds the charcoal fires in your life have witnessed:

  1. Jesus resets the relationship we have with him. After three denials he invited Peter to express his love for him. No shame or guilt or failure or regret. It is about love. It is one hundred percent about love. No matter what you have done in your life, Jesus wants to know only one thing: Do you love me? Right now, here Jesus calling you by name and asking you that question.
  2. Peter and several other apostles went fishing, spending a futile night on the lake. He who had been made to be a “fisher of men,” returned to what he had been before he met the Lord Jesus at the lake’s shore three years earlier. Perhaps Peter thought that was all he was good for after having failed so miserably. But Jesus knew Peter. Jesus knew Peter loved him. Sometimes we are ashamed and we also reduce ourselves to a small life, letting go of dreams, relinquishing hope, sometimes even the hope of eternal life. It seems that there could be no way that God could not be disappointed in us. At the charcoal fire, however, Peter realized that God was not surprised, angry, vindictive or disappointed. When we stumble God is there to meet our failure with grace, a limitless love for all of us limping saints.
  3. Charcoal fires have a distinct smell. When Peter swam to shore and smelled the fire, the memory of the other, so recent and still stinging experience at a charcoal fire still seared his conscience. Jesus invited Peter to follow him into the memory of his failure and betrayal. Instead of leaving Peter to sink in the shame of these memories, Jesus invited Peter to let him into those memories. They could face them together. We all have memories of sins committed, as well as sins committed against us. Shame and guilt surround these memories. Memories that wound, that we want to hide, that we pretend never happened. But Jesus helped Peter confront the memory of his betraying the Master he loved. It is an invitation to not fear the healing process when Jesus stands on the shores of our heart, asking us to let him in, to let go of the past, to allow him to heal and transform our wounds with his glorious mercy. Jesus will often take us into memories where we do not wish to go, but he knows that we are more than we think we’ve become by our mistakes and weakness. By standing in our memories with Jesus, things change.
  4. Peter was hurt when Jesus asked him a third time, Do you love me? God’s love for us doesn’t gloss over our pain, the wounds that need healing in our life. Jesus specifically drew Peter to himself in order to reset the broken places of his denial with mercy. But just as a doctor carefully resets a broken bone (he doesn’t just say, “Oh, you’ll be all right. Everything is just fine.”), Jesus re-sets what is broken within us through the medicine of mercy. Even if the “brokenness” in our life has hardened and our hearts are “deformed” because they’ve never been taken under the Divine Physician’s care, love can make us pliable and whole once more. This is what Jesus does. In some mysterious way he is right now arranging your renewal through mercy and the willingness to love.
  5. When Peter denied Jesus, he also denied himself. He denied his love for the Master, the three years of growth and transformation as he walked by the Master’s side. Peter denied who he had become as the follower of Jesus and his apostle. On the shore that post-Resurrection morn, after a futile night fishing on the lake, Peter had again come up with nothing after relying on the one thing he felt he should be able to do–fish. He was a fisherman, after all. Jesus needed Peter to understand that he could not continue relying on himself. Again and again, with every boastful or desperate attempt to prove himself or provide for himself, he realized the nothingness from which he came and the nothingness of which he, of himself, was capable. “Throw your nets off the starboard side and you will catch something.” “Simon, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Jesus has a plan for Peter who is to lead the Church as Rock. However, Peter needed to lead as sinner, not savior. Only Jesus saves. All of us, everyone of us, needs saving, yet participates in the mystery of the salvation of others. Always, it is miracle. Forever, it is mercy.

This Easter Jesus wants to bring you healing. He wants to turn the charcoal fire of your shame to the place that witnesses your humble love for him, your answer to Jesus’ heart that you will be his friend, that you will let him lead you, forgive you, heal you, and shape anew your life.

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