A sermon on John 21; Third Sunday of Easter
Haven’t we been here before? Is it just me who has some deja-vu? There’s a fire, there’re lots of questions aimed at Peter, he seems to be getting defensive as the line of conversation continues — this just happened, didn’t it?
Yes, there are significant similarities with the scene outside the courts the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, it’s a generally-accepted interpretation that these parallel narratives have a relationship to each other, and that’s what I’m curious about this morning. What does it mean to link these two events, what do we learn about how God works — what do we learn about his character — through this scene on the beach in early morning?
If,perchance, you weren’t at a Good Friday service a few weeks back, just like I missed them, here’s the story we’re working with. In chapter 18 of John (vs. 15-18; 25-27), as night wears on, Peter stands with servants and officers gathered outside by — you guessed it — a charcoal fire. He’s asked three times, once by each of three different people, “you’re one of that man’s disciples, aren’t you?” “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Each of the three times, Peter quickly and easily says, “oh no, that wasn’t me.” Now Jesus had told him that this would happen, that Peter would deny Jesus, and that it would happen before dawn came, “before the rooster crowed” (John 13:38). Understandably, Peter wrankled at this prophecy when Jesus gave it at the Last Supper table, just a few hours before these events unfolded.
So at the most obvious level, this second charcoal fire and second set of three of the same question, serves as a reversal of what took place on the darkest night of history. And of course it’s not lost on the careful reader that the first fire and conversation happens in the dark of night, while the second takes place after dawn has broken and the light has come back to the world.
But what meaning can we, 2000 years on, take from this; at the end of this chapter of John, which is the conclusion of his entire witness of Jesus’s life and works on earth, he writes, “Now there are also many there things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” So why were these two stories important to bring in? Why did these companion pieces make the cut when hundreds of others didn’t rise to the level our Gospel-writer set?
There’s much to be said about the symbolism of the three-fold renunciation and the three-fold affirmation, three being that all-significant number of completion and fullness in Scripture and in Judeo-Christian religion; there’s plenty to be curious about when it comes to the charcoal fire used as central scenery in both stories, the way that fire reveals and purifies, the way that fire transforms things it comes in contact with — whether it be the roof of a great cathedral, or the carcass of a freshly-caught fish; there’s a lot of explore in the witnesses and companions named in each of these stories, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the presence of the other fisherman-disciples, and the way that Peter reacts to the revelations in both situations — his feelings of shame, his wrankling at the prophecies, his eagerness to be with the Lord, his typical awkwardness of enthusiasm.
I’m curious to shift the focus out a little bit, from this particular post-resurrection story to the others that our Gospel writer chooses to include. His words about all the stories that could have been included, and his words in verse 14, that “this was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead,” make me wonder about what Jesus is trying to show us about who God is through the stories that are preserved, and through the way that Jesus revealed himself to his beloved companions after his resurrection.
When Peter denied Jesus three times in the dead of night, we can imagine he was ashamed as he’d ever been in his life, full of despair, perhaps, at the lack of courage he’d shown, at the betrayal of his best friend and Lord. I remember when I first saw a film version of this scene, probably the Jesus Film from the ‘90s, though I knew the story and how it ended, when the actor heard the rooster crow and the camera panned to his face, and then to him running away down a city street, I thought for sure that he was going to kill himself, that he would literally die of shame. And indeed, isn’t that exactly what his companion, Judas, did? They face the same question, one that perhaps some of us have faced at moments in our lives — “Where can we possibly go from here?” “What hope can conceivably come from this place of despair?”
Peter and Jesus’ relationship suffered a fatal blow that night. Peter must have imagined that he’d never see Jesus again, that he’d carry that guilt to his grave. The rupture of their companionship was surely thought to be complete. Peter wasn’t there when Jesus was crucified, he didn’t stick around. Peter left the warmth of the fire and was alone, hungry and cold.
What about the other stories from that night and the day that followed? There’s the story of the women, those quiet characters whose presence is immortalized in hundreds of paintings and depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion, of his being lowered from the cross into the arms of his mother, of his body being taken to its tomb. The women stay, the women watch, the women are there. That’s how their story resolves as the stone is rolled into place, as they imagine that they’ve carried their Lord to his final resting place. They’ve borne one more body to the grave, they’ve companioned and midwifed one more beloved leader to his death. They know how to care for bodies, young and old, live and dead, healthy and unwell, and Jesus’s flesh is added to the number, just the latest in their rhythm of cleaning and nourishing and journeying and witnessing to the bodies and lives of the people for whom they care, and whom they lead, and whom they follow.
So what happens early on the first day of the week, while it is still dark? The women do what they’ve always done; they go to the tomb to pack the body with spices and preserving salt, just as they’ve done before for beloved companions, and just as they know they’ll do again. It’s all the same, it never changes or deviates. Death comes, and they tend the body, they walk through their grief and mourning.
But behold, brothers and sisters — isn’t it different this time? Praise the Lord, Hosanna, death does not greet the women at the tomb. Life greets the women at the tomb. After the resurrection, after the defeat of death once and for all, the women’s story is changed, and they are not just the silent observers or the faithful witnesses, they are the first evangelists. Their faith is rewarded with the first-fruits of new and unending life. The quiet, humble, obscured rhythms of these women’s lives, in all their ordinaryness, is catapulted to the blinding light of salvation. Their faithfulness and in the dark, their work as unsung heroes of centuries, is exposed and lifted up as the very first ones to hear and know and see the new world that was dawning for the first time that Easter morning. Jesus honors their quiet faithfulness with the greatest revelation that has ever been made.
So if this is what God shows us of those whose work is unsung, ordinary, silent, common; what does God in Jesus show us of himself in the revelation and reconciliation of Peter, and that fire on the beach at dawn, and the three-fold affirmation, and even the disturbing prophecy of what awaits Jesus’ most-eager apostle?
Peter was not too proud to race to Jesus’ feet, Peter longed for communion and companionship and forgiveness and redemption, and in his longing, on the other side of the grave and death, God in Jesus Christ gave him exactly the thing for which he so longed, the thing that Peter must have been asking for in his heart every moment since his great betrayal, had been seeking in his every thought and action in the days following the trial and crucifixion, had been knocking at the door of God’s heart to receive redemption. And so as disciples ourselves, we are promised in the actions of Jesus written here, that we, too, will receive whatever restoration for which we long, that we will gain whatever forgiveness for which we strain, that we will enjoy whatever redemption it is that we seek, whether this side of heaven or the other.
God in Jesus reveals to us in this season of Easter, in these post-resurrection stories, that the distance, the veil, the division between death and eternal life is short and inconsequential compared to the power and love and life and salvation of God in Jesus Christ.
Bask in this truth, brothers and sisters, may we rest in, and know God’s redeeming love in our lives today and always. Bring this Good News to your weary traveling companions, and know that God sees all, redeems all, forgives all. Amen.