April 10, 2016
The Third Sunday in Easter
“Fire of Judgment, Light of Grace”
by Rev. Ryan Slifka
There are two places in the whole of the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned. Both come in the same book—the Good News According to John.[i]
The first instance of a charcoal fire burning is in John chapter 18. Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is standing by himself warming his hands over a charcoal fire at the gate of the high priest in Jerusalem. Jesus has just been hauled in for execution. Before Jesus was arrested, he told Peter that Peter would deny him, not just once but three times. Peter thought he was too good, too righteous, to betray Jesus like that. But it happened. Several people recognized Peter as one of Jesus’ followers. And there it happened. By the light of a charcoal fire. Peter denied Jesus three times to make sure he didn’t join Jesus in his fate on the cross. By the light of that fire, Peter’s betrayal was exposed. This charcoal fire casts the light of judgment. And here, by that light, Peter’s betrayal and sin are exposed.
The second charcoal fire is in our passage from this morning. Where the first fire was lit just outside the walls of Jerusalem just before Jesus’ death, this one burns on a beach by the sea of Galilee. In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection.
It’s early in the morning. Seven of Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, have gone fishing. They fish all night and come up with nothing at all. But then there’s this stranger standing on the shore waving at them. This stranger tells them to drop their net on the other side, and it fills with more fish than they can actually bring on board. They recognize him as Jesus. As they come closer to Jesus on the shore, that’s when they see this second charcoal fire burning. Jesus invites them to breakfast, serving them fish and bread that he cooks over this fire.
And after breakfast, Jesus sits down with Peter, the very same disciple who denied him three times by a charcoal fire, for some one-on-one time. I mean, this has gotta be awkward for Peter. No doubt he’s excited to see Jesus alive—he jumped out of the boat, after all. But he did betray Jesus pretty recently. And they hadn’t exactly talked this one out yet. So you can imagine this fire triggers his shame and guilt over selling Jesus out, and you wonder if he’s living that moment of betrayal again. About how when the going got tough for his friend, his Lord, he pretended he didn’t even know who this friend was. This is the first time Jesus gets a chance to speak. And if I were Peter, I’d expect the hammer to come down. Just imagine looking in to the face of someone you’ve totally let down flickering by a fire. It’d be tense.
So this second fire is starting to shape up like the first one. Just like the first fire where Peter denied Jesus, the light glows and exposes his guilt. And his shame. This fire, like the first one, casts the light of judgment. Like I said, Peter’s probably got mixed feelings about the resurrection here. Because if death couldn’t keep Jesus away, nothing can. And it means that there’s nothing Peter can hide about himself in the presence of Christ. Everything is brought to light. Everything.
And if you think about it, it’s kind of a scary idea. Because if Peter can’t hide, it also means that there’s nothing we can hide about ourselves either. There’s no hiding it. It means our whole lives are measured, they come under the judgment of something, someone greater than ourselves. One of the things about following Jesus, and life with the Living God, means that everything about who we are and everything we have done is known. Even the stuff when no one is looking and when nobody finds out. Everything. The light shines everywhere.
Easter is a happy, joyous celebration for us for sure. The resurrection casts a glorious light of hope and new life and new beginnings, its light is the dawning of a whole new day for the whole of creation. But it also means that we, like Peter, can do nothing to escape our pasts. Like Peter by the charcoal fire, the light of its glowing embers also reveal in us everything that does not live up to God’s purpose and intention for our lives. We might try to hide them the best we can. Lie, avoid, make excuses to others and excuses to ourselves. About our betrayals, our denials, our little misdeeds, and our greater sins. But there’s nothing we can hide about ourselves in the presence of Christ. Everything is brought to light. Everything. And that’s not good. Because we, like Peter, fear that if everything about us were exposed, it might spell the end of us.
It’s true that we live in the light of God’s judgment. Everything is exposed. But it’s not the end of us, not the end of things. Despite the fact that some Christians speak of judgment as if it were the last word, the sole purpose of God. No, for us, judgment does not signal the end. It’s just the beginning.
Because for Peter it’s just the beginning. In As they sit by the fire, no doubt Peter expects the worst from Jesus, that he’s going to get burned. But that’s not how it goes. Instead, Jesus is kind of confusing. Jesus asks him the question, “do you love me?” And he asks him it three times. And Peter answers the question “yes, of course” three times. By the third time around his feelings get hurt—Jesus, you know everything, man. Why do you have to make me say it? And every time Peter says “yes, I love you,” Jesus responds with a mission. The first time, “feed my lambs.” The second, “tend my flock.” And the third, “feed my sheep.” And finally, as the fire flickers away, Jesus makes a prediction: that when Peter is older, he will give his life in service and as witness to Jesus. We’re not quite sure what kind of death Peter will die. But in his death all will see the light of Christ. “Follow me,” Jesus says.
By the light of the first fire, Peter denied Jesus three times. He betrayed and abandoned his friend, his own brokenness exposed. And it’s the same by the light of the second fire. The light of Christ exposes the truth, it’s a light of judgment, this is true. But at the same time, that very same fire, out shines the light of forgiveness and new life. Peter is given a second chance, and rather than denying Jesus, he affirms him. And rather than running from his friend in and betraying him in the hour of his death, the rest of Peter’s life will be devoted to sharing Christ’s light with the world. The rest of his life will kindle with the fire of the Holy Spirit, and be spent filling hungry bellies and feeding hungry hearts. And that fire will burn so brightly, that the powers that be, the darkness in the world, will do its worst to stamp it out. The same light that exposes Peter’s brokenness and sin, is the one that shines forth in forgiveness, creating for him a whole new future. The grace of Christ transforms a betrayer and a denier in to a powerful witness for God’s love and mercy. Judgment is not the end of things. It’s just the beginning.
Judgment is just the beginning. For Peter, and for us. This whole scene shows us the pattern of our own lives, what it means to walk the Way of Jesus Christ, and to live in the light of the living God. The bad news is that the light exposes who we are, and what we’ve done, our fragility, our mortality. No getting around that. But this bad news is also Good News, maybe even first and foremost good news. Because to be known, to have that light shine on every part of our lives, and in every dark place in our world, also means to be forgiven. The light of judgment is also the light of life, and in our lives, like in Peter’s life, God is as work transforming our darkness in to light. We are being freed from our self-denial, our self-pity, and our self righteousness. But most of all, we are being freed from our fear. And like Peter, we are being freed to feed the sheep of the shepherd. To join in with God’s mission of healing and reconciling the world. Bringing to the world the same kind of light that has shone on us.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” So now that you know that you are known. Now that you know you are forgiven. Now that you know that you live your life in the light of Christ, which casts out all darkness. All that’s left to do is to follow his light in to the world.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Thanks to Joseph Jeter for this insight in Re/Membering: Meditations and Sermons or the Table of Jesus Christ, 56.