Sunday, 10 April 2016

Easter 3: The charcoal fires

Today’s Gospel reading is really just a P.S. – a post script -to John’s account of Jesus’ life, Chapter  20 finishes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Chapter 21 is very obviously a later addition. Soon after the Gospel was finished, someone, maybe even the original author, decided that it really needed one more story to be complete.

The post script – P.S. -  is a common feature of handwritten letters, of course. It’s far easier than rewriting the whole thing if you need to add in an afterthought. You might think, that in the days of email and text messages and letters composed on computers that they would have died out – it’s so easy now to edit what you’ve written. But it’s not so.  In fact, some marketers recommend putting a P.S. on the end of every advertising email because they’ve discovered that this is one of the few bits people actually read. Somehow, deep down, we assume a P.S. must be especially important, because someone has taken the trouble to add it.

We don’t know why this final chapter of John’s Gospel was tacked on, but the fact that it was suggests that the writer felt very strongly that there was something in it his readers needed to hear.
So what was it, and was it just important for them, or do we need to hear it too?

The disciples had gone fishing in the Sea of Tiberias – that’s Galilee by another name. It was a place they knew, and an activity they knew too. After the emotional roller-coaster of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems like they wanted the comfort of familiarity. But it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. They fished all night, but caught nothing.  

When dawn broke they spotted someone on the beach, but didn’t recognise him. When he suggested throwing the nets on the other side of the boat you can imagine them thinking, “who does he think he is? We’re the experts here!” But their expertise didn’t seem to have got them very far, so they took his advice, and when they hauled in a huge catch of fish, they suddenly realised who this stranger was. He was the one who’d produced abundance out of nowhere before, the one who’d fed five thousand on five loaves and two fishes, the one who’d turned water into wine – gallons upon gallons of it.

Greek Orthodox Church in Capernaum, Galilee
Simon Peter, too impatient to wait, jumped into the lake and swam towards Jesus, as the rest dragged the nets full of fish towards the shore. As it turned out, Jesus didn’t need any of their fish, though. He already had some, cooking on a charcoal fire on the beach. 

This story of the miraculous catch of fish isn’t unique to John. Luke tells it too, though he sets it much earlier in his Gospel. But the breakfast on the beach, and the charcoal fire on which it is cooked, are only found in John’s Gospel.  And John is very specific. It’s not just a fire, it is a charcoal fire. So what? Well, there’s another charcoal fire in the Gospel, just one, and it too is in John’s Gospel, only three chapters before this.  It’s the charcoal fire that was burning in the courtyard of the High Priest where a hastily assembled court was meeting to try Jesus on trumped up charges. It’s the fire that Peter was warming himself by when some other bystanders asked him three times “Aren’t you one of his followers? Aren’t you from Galilee too?”. It’s the fire he was standing by when, three times, he denied even knowing Jesus.
The Denial of St. Peter by Nicolas Tournier, oil on canvas, c. 1630,

Dawn was breaking then too. The cock crow was the sound that brought Jesus’ words back to Peter. “Before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.” (John 13.38) This was the moment of Peter’s greatest shame, the moment he longed to forget, the moment when he suddenly saw his worst self.

We’ve all done things we bitterly regret, said things we can’t unsay, things we’d like to consign to oblivion. All we want to do is forget them, and surely Peter did too. Maybe he thought he could. After all, Jesus had appeared several times to the disciples by this stage, and he’d had never mentioned it. Did Jesus even know what he’d done? But now here was another charcoal fire, and another dawn breaking. The echoes of that earlier story are unmistakeable, and I am sure they are deliberate. Nothing is spelled out, but this is the moment of truth for Peter. 

Jesus’ question to him seems almost cruel. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks him this, not once or twice but three times, just like that first  threefold question he’d been asked by that first charcoal fire. But it was vital that Peter heard the answer coming out of his own mouth, just as he’d heard his earlier denial. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” It was even more vital that he heard Jesus’ response to him.

One commentator on this passage, David Lose, said that Jesus’ answer gave Peter the two things that he  most needed, two things that everyone needs; a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

First Jesus restores his relationship with Peter. Without this painful conversation , Peter’s failure would always have been an elephant in the room; he would never have felt that he fully belonged as a disciple. Perhaps, at best, he’d have felt tolerated, but that’s not enough. A grudging welcome can feel worse than no welcome at all. But Jesus makes it clear, both for Peter and for the rest of the disciples there; Peter belongs in the family of the Church. And more than that, Jesus gives him a job to do. “Feed my sheep” he says. Peter isn’t just brought back into the fold; he’s made its shepherd, a leader of the Christian community. You don’t do that if you don’t trust someone.

The reason why this story was tacked onto John’s Gospel almost certainly reflects disputes within the early church. At the end of the first century when, this gospel was written, it didn’t have a settled structure or hierarchy. There was no central council, no Pope, no General Synod or Archbishop. Each little community of Christians decided for itself whose lead it would follow – often their faith was shaped by whoever had first brought the message of Jesus to them. By this time, though, the first generation of apostles had all died – Peter, Paul,  James, John  and the rest, and the second generation were squabbling about what Christian faith should look like, and in particular what it’s leaders should look like. Peter had had a prominent place, right from the outset, but was his example really a good one to follow.  really a good example to follow? Could Jesus really have meant him to be the leader he became? The story of his denial of Jesus could only have come from Peter himself, of course, but it didn’t look good.  If this new faith was going to grow and thrive, surely it needed leaders a little less flaky than this?

This addition to John’s Gospel, though, is the answer to those questions. Yes, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Yes, he failed. But Jesus still emphatically and definitely chose him  - as he was – and commissioned him as leader.

The story of St Paul – another prominent early leader of the faith - is equally unlikely at first sight. A man who had been hell-bent on slaughtering Christians until his conversion on the road to Damascus. We heard his story in our first reading. He ended up being healed by one of the very Christians he’d set out to kill, Ananias, whose courage  and love shines through the story.

By telling these stories of Peter and of Paul the New Testament
writers remind us of the priorities of God. Worldly success means nothing to him. People with tidy lives are not necessarily any better or more suitable to lead and to serve than those whose lives have been mess, whether that mess was of their own making or imposed on them by others. The early Church united people across the divides of wealth, ethnicity, gender and family background; prostitutes, tax collectors, slaves and outcasts were equally welcome, equally valued, and equally called – even flaky fishermen. It was revolutionary then, and it’s still is. We still struggle to live out the Gospel message that it isn’t where you’ve come from, but where you are going to that counts. But when we do, it can have profound effects.

We’ve seen an example of this this very weekend. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has discovered his biological father isn’t who he thought he was. That’s not his fault of course, but until even quite recently it probably would have made some people look askance at him. That’s why it has made the news. But in the beautiful statement he wrote in response to these revelations, he states a truth that applies to all of us. His true identity is found in Jesus Christ, he writes, not in genetics, and that that identity never changes. As part of the liturgy of his inauguration as Archbishop he says, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said these words to him: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?”  He responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed?” he asked, after this weekend’s revelations. Nothing!” he answered.

Whether you’re St Peter, St Paul, the Archbishop of Canterbury or just Joe Bloggs, whatever the world thinks of you, whatever mishaps there have been in your life, whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, you belong and God has a purpose for you. It was true for Peter, who denied Jesus in his hour of need. It was true for Paul, who set out to kill his followers. It has been true for countless unlikely people over the ages who have found themselves called to the service of God . And it’s true for us. That’s what this P.S. to John’s Gospel tells us, and it’s a message we all need to hear.

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