April 10, 2016 - 3rd Sunday in Easter - By the Charcoal Fire

I know that we are here on the Third Sunday in Easter, but I am hoping you would indulge me for a moment and go back in time a bit with me. I want us to go back a few weeks to Holy Week. Imagine with me that last night of Jesus' life before he was crucified. The meal he shared with his disciples. The foot washing. The bread. The wine. Judas rushing off to betray him. Jesus giving his new commandment that they love one another as he has loved them. Jesus telling Peter that Peter would deny him three times before morning. Jesus taking a few of his disciples with him across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane up on the Mount of Olives. Jesus praying there. The disciples falling asleep. The back and forth. Jesus in agony. Asking God to let the cup pass from his lips. But not my will be done, but yours, O God. Judas coming. Betraying Jesus with a kiss. The arrest. Peter and the Beloved disciple following as the soldiers took Jesus away, but at a bit of a distance. Do you remember all of this? Can you step away from the Easter joy and get your mind back into that Holy Week mindset with the darkness and the fear and the sorrow and the confusion?

The soldiers at this point would have taken Jesus back across the Kidron Valley to the house of Annas. And there, Jesus goes in, held prisoner. Perhaps there might have even been a prison cell there. The Beloved Disciple knows some of the guards, so he gets himself and Peter into the gate, a little bit closer, into the courtyard, but still, they are keeping some distance. It's late, late at night. On the threshold of morning really. Nights can be chilly in Jerusalem, especially in early Spring. And so, the servants and the guards, the police, they make a fire there in the courtyard: a charcoal fire more precisely, at least in John’s telling of the story. The word here in John's version is not the standard word for fire, which is pyr, a word used 71 times in the New Testament, and is used by both Mark and Luke when they are telling this part of the story. Rather John uses a very specific word, anthrakia, meaning a fire made with charcoal, and it is rare, only used twice in the New Testament (with a derivative of it being used once by Paul). This all may seem a bit detailed, a bit off track, but hold with me. So by this charcoal fire, by the anthrakia, Peter is asked if he is one of Jesus' followers. And Peter, denies it. And a second time. And a third time. Just as Jesus had said. Peter, you will deny me three times before the cock crows. And then the cock crows. Peter has denied Jesus three times, his master, his teacher, the one he loved and the one who loved him. Peter has denied the one whom he had confessed as the Messiah, the one he had confessed as the Son of God. Peter has denied the one for whom he had said he was willing to die. By this charcoal fire, he has denied Jesus three times.

So, come back with me now to today's Gospel. Also taking place in a similar time of day, at that moment between night and day, that sort of moment when a rooster crows to usher in the sun And again, we have a an anthrakia, a charcoal fire, the only other time this word is used in the New Testament. John is a highly symbolic writer; the odds that this is just coincidence is nearly zero. John is using this charcoal fire to link these two stories together. And again we find Peter by the charcoal fire. But this time Jesus feeds him by this fire. And three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Once for each of the three denials. The three-fold denial is met with the three-fold restoration. By the charcoal fire, in the early morning, Jesus restores Peter. In mercy, in grace, in love, Jesus undoes the horrible thing that Peter had done by betraying him. And he invites Peter to follow him all over again.  

This is what the resurrection accomplishes. This is Easter. In Christ, through Christ, by Christ, we are restored. We are brought back into the fullness of relationship with God. And it is done through love. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Is the restorative question that Jesus asks. This connection to Maundy Thursday that the charcoal fire and the three-fold denial and restoration invoke, Should also remind us also of Jesus' new commandment that he gave at the last supper, that they love one another as he has loved them, that we love one another as he has loved us. Love. It really all comes down to love. God's love for us. Our love for God. Our love for each other. It's all intertwined. And of course it is when we think about it. For God is love as we later learn in the First Letter of John. And we, who were made in God's image, as we learn in first chapter of Genesis, the first chapter of the first book of our Scripture, can only be who we truly are, who we were made to be, when we acting in that love, living in that love, when we are dwelling in that love. And so to restore Peter, it has to be about restoring that love. Jesus has to ask, Do you love me? And Peter has to say, yes, of course, I do.

The question for us today is: What part of us is needing to be restored? In what ways are we disconnected, from God, from each other, from ourselves, internally disconnected from who we are, who God made us to be? How have we denied Christ in our lives and in this world? How do we need to love and to be loved? I don't have answers to these questions. These are the questions that each one of us has to ask for ourselves. These are the questions with which each one of us has to sit and maybe wrestle and struggle. This is the deep interior work that we need to do. It's not easy, but it is the work we have to do if we want find that restoration. We have to recognize how we ourselves are like Peter by the charcoal fire of Holy Week - a people who succumb to fear and anxiety and darkness and confusion, a people who have some of those elements in our lives. And then we have to recognize how Jesus is inviting us by the charcoal fire of Easter, by the Paschal light, into a full, restored, life-giving relationship of love. It is not easy, but the work is good and transformative and ultimately joyful as we walk the Easter journey. Amen.