Third Sunday of Easter
“The Fire of Forgiveness” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today I will tell you two stories. One, the story we read today from John’s Gospel, took place on the shore of a lake in Palestine; the other, in a church in Bowling Green, KY. One story is ancient, the other contemporary. The first story is an encore; the second is an invitation. So, with that to guide us, let’s jump right in.
John’s story is the encore. It’s an epilogue. Every commentary says it’s odd John put this story where he did. Chapter 20, that’s the climax of the book — the resurrection and all the post-resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. The last line of chap. 20, the last line of last Sunday’s Gospel, was “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ . . . .” (John 20.30-31) Perfectly good line to end a story — so why does John tack on one more chapter?
Chapter 21 — the story itself — is about Peter and Jesus and fish. If it sounds eerily familiar, it’s because we’ve heard before about Peter and Jesus and fish. Remember, Peter met Jesus in a boat — In Luke 5, Jesus was walking by the same lake, the Sea of Galilee, when he saw some fishermen mending nets. One of those fishermen was Peter, and Jesus got into his boat, told him to put out into deep water to let down his nets. Peter said “Master, we fished all night and caught nothing,” but he does it anyway, and the nets come up so full they’re breaking and swamping the boat!
Peter, meet Jesus.
Peter was so blown away by the whole thing, that when Jesus said “Follow me,” Peter left everything he had and followed after this fish whisperer.
But by John 21, by today’s story, so much has changed. Peter followed the best he could for 3 years, but at the last, when it counted and the chips were down, he turned his back on the man who climbed into his boat and into his life so long ago. In chapter 20 Peter saw Jesus alive, but we don’t know what they said to each other. The betrayal still hangs between them.
And that’s why this story is here. John tacks this story on because there’s one more act — Jesus has one more thing to do. Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel exists because Jesus is coming after Peter. Jesus reenacts the scene from when he first met Peter, and Peter leaps from the boat, but I wonder — You think maybe he’s surprised he sinks? Maybe he thought he could walk on the waves like he did last time? And do you wonder if his strokes slowed as he neared the shore? Because things are different now — Jesus once called him the Rock, but he cowered before a slave girl when she fingered Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe Jesus is disappointed, even angry at Peter’s betrayal. What will Peter find waiting for him on the shore?
See I think the whole story is here because of what Peter finds on the shore. Jesus isn’t just standing there waiting. He’s been building something. The word John uses is anthrikian, the word for a “charcoal fire.” Greek has a number of words for fire, but John chooses this particular word. It’s a word that appears exactly twice in the Bible, right here when Peter reaches the shore, and in John 18.18. At Peter’s betrayal. “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them — Peter who has just denied his master three times — Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.” Before an anthrikian.
Jesus wasn’t done with Peter, so he built a fire. He wouldn’t leave Peter with the smell of that first fire in his memory; he built another one, a fire of forgiveness.
Hold that thought, and let me tell you another quick story:
This one isn’t two millennia old, it’s from just a few years ago. In Bowling Green, KY, there’s a place called Cecilia Memorial Presbyterian Church, named after a freed slave who came there after the Civil War and founded a college for young black women and that church. One Sunday, long after Cecilia Willard died, the members of Cecilia Memorial showed up for their regular communion service. The pastor’s name was Bill Lane, and he didn’t so much preach a sermon that day as stand in front of the people and indict them. He wasn’t playing fair, wasn’t pulling any punches — it was as if he knew what the people in the pews had hidden down deep in the dark places of their hearts. He started listing sins. Their sins.
- “There are young couples here this morning,” Pastor Lane said, “who aren’t married but who slept together last night.” And there were.
- “Some of you students listening to my voice cheated to pass a test last week.”
- “Last week, some of you young men spent hours viewing pornography online.”
- Some of you stole at work.
- Some of you abused drugs.
- You took your anger out on your defenseless kids.
- You lied to your husband.
- You verbally abused your wife.
- You . . .
Then Pastor Lane started at the top and went through the whole list again, one by one. Then when they all thought he was about to go through the list a third time, when he said “If you are guilty of such and such, of this sin or that sin” — they braced themselves — “if you are guilty” — he took a long pause to look into their eyes — “If you are guilty . . . then this is for you.” And he raised his finger and pointed to the communion table. He had dug a pit for his congregation, but when they thought he would push them in, when they deserved to be pushed in, he pointed to the table that was their lifeline.
Those people didn’t deserve a lifeline. Peter didn’t either — he didn’t deserve a meal. He didn’t deserve another chance. But that’s precisely what the story stuck on at the end of John’s Gospel tells us Peter got. One writer said:
He ran to the only one who could heal his memories, who could rewrite the terrible pictures and sounds of his recent past — the courtyard, the charcoal fire . . . . [D]espite Peter’s failings, Jesus was still on his side, cooking a good meal for friends . . . filling nets with fish. Then the invitation to affirm his love three times drowned out the echoes of his betrayal that haunted him. The last time Peter stood over a charcoal fire, he denied Jesus. Now Jesus makes him stand over another charcoal fire and with it, review old memories and remove them.
The same force that drove Peter to jump out and swim for shore was what drove the people that Sunday in Kentucky from their pews to Holy Communion. And it should drive us.
Here’s the application point: It’s one thing to understand you’re forgiven; it’s quite another to taste it. I’m guilty of some of the sins Pastor Lane listed; you are, too. Most of us know we are forgiven. We know it intellectually, we know it in theory. We can even do a fair job of explaining atonement and reconciliation. But we haven’t really tasted forgiveness. The voices in our heads still accuse us. So we live our lives in fear, afraid other people will find out all the things we’ve done. Or maybe they already know. God sure does.
There is good news for us: The gospel never leaves us in our betrayal and in our guilt. Jesus wasn’t finished with Peter, and he isn’t finished with us. If you are guilty . . . this is for you. This meal Jesus left is a reminder not to stop with just knowing intellectually somehow that God forgives us. Taste it. Taste it. And know sweet forgiveness — like Peter did.
Consider that an invitation.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- Michael Card, Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1990): 147-49.
- Gary M Burge, John, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000): 596.
Sermon audio is available online at this link.