Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Recently a friend of mine came back from vacation. All she’d said before going was that she was going to be unreachable. When she got back I asked where she’d been.
“Just camping,” she replied. “This year has been so awful. I just needed to be away.”
My eyes snapped open. “Camping!” I shouted. “That’s great. I’m doing this sermon series on campfire stories and I’ve pretty much told my congregation all my camping stories. Did anything happen while you were gone that would be great for a sermon?”
Because she is a wonderful person, she thought about it for a few minutes. Finally she shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Even the good stories from the trip I can’t tell you. There’s an intimacy around the campfire that I don’t think I should break.”
I told her that was good enough.
There’s an intimacy around the campfire. Perhaps you’ve felt it, late at night or early in the morning. There’s a closeness, a connection, a willingness to say things we might not otherwise say. To break the trust of the campfire circle would in fact be desecration.
We tell our most important stories by the campfire. Not just ghost stories, but stories about who we are and where we’ve come from. Many of the stories in our Bible probably began as campfire tales, late at night, when the work was done, stories passed on from camp to camp, family to family, generation to generation. Imagine hearing about God calling from the burning bush while sitting in front of a fire, almost listening for a voice despite yourself. Or imagine someone telling you the story of how God led the Israelites through the desert as a pillar of fire while you watch the flames dance. Eventually all these Bible stories were written down and refined, but I expect they began in the wild. Wild stories of a wild God.
For all that, though, our scripture today is the only time we see Jesus sitting by a campfire. He surely did, and frequently; there’s no reason to think this is the only time Jesus stacked the wood and banked the flames, but it mostly goes unremarked on, the everyday task of preindustrial life. But today the campfire is the point. The gospel of John is explicit that Jesus is sitting by a campfire, in the misty morning light, on the beach of a lake in Galilee.
To fully understand the beauty of this story, we have to go back. Back to a few weeks before this breakfast on the beach. Back to a dark and terrifying night, when Jesus was arrested, and Peter, his most enthusiastic and clumsy disciple, followed him as far as he could go. While Jesus was taken inside and tried for heresy, Peter stood outside, and as the night grew colder, he took his place by the fire the guards had lit, and there those other guards and servants began to be suspicious. Three times someone asked him “Do you know this Jesus?” And three times—three times—Peter, Peter who had sworn he would die for his friend—said no. “I don’t know the man,” Peter said. After the third time, a rooster crowed, as Jesus said it would, and Peter breaks down in tears. Out of his own fear, he has betrayed his friend. And then Jesus is dead, and there is no chance to apologize, to make amends, to reconcile. In an instant, his body floods with shame, and the knowledge that he can never make it right.
Writer Debbie Thomas describes shame as a hot thing, like those coals of fire heaped upon our heads. Her own family, she says, wasn’t good at forgiveness. “I didn’t grow up in a home or culture that practiced restoration,” she recalls. “Despite my family’s best intentions, we never found our way to a language of grace. We never said or heard, “I forgive you,” or, “It’s okay,” or “I still love you.” Instead, we abandoned the wrongdoer in our midst to a thick, damning silence. We withdrew affection to reestablish honor. We avoided eye contact, shut down authentic conversation, and rendered the offense and the offender invisible.
Eventually, after hours, days, or weeks — depending on the severity of the sin — the ice thawed, and life returned to a bruised normal. But a wound still festered below the surface. A thick, hot shame that filled my body and assured me that I was unfixable, unlovable, and wrong.”
And on that beach, even though Peter knows a miracle has happened, and that Jesus is alive and walking around again, even though Peter knows that Jesus died and rose out of love for the world, I think he’s still not sure—still not sure whether that includes him. I think he is still carrying around that thick, hot shame, and isn’t convinced that Jesus’ extraordinary act of love on the cross was big enough to include him, too.
We are always so sure that somehow we—somehow we, out of all the sinners who ever sinned—have managed to totally stump our loving and forgiving God.
I’m not sure Peter could even have heard the words “I forgive you,” or believed them if he did here them. When we are wrapped in shame, when we are certain that we are unworthy and unforgiveable, we can turn even those simple and sincere phrases inside out. “They don’t mean it,” we say to ourselves. “They haven’t really forgiven me.”
So Jesus doesn’t go through any trite ritual of forgiveness. He begins by inviting Peter and the disciples to sit with him. “You’re still welcome by my side,” he says. Then he feeds them. Along with the fish, scripture says that Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, in an exact echo of what happened at the Last Supper, when he declared that the bread was a sign of new life and the cup a sign of forgiveness. And when Peter has been welcomed and nourished and reminded that Jesus is in the business of love, then—and only then—does Jesus begin to press.
“ Simon Peter, do you love me?”
“Yes,” Peter replies, and I wonder if he said it with relief or anxiety or trepidation or a little too much enthusiasm. “Yes, I love you.”
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus responds.
Peter must have been puzzled by that answer, but Jesus repeats himself.
“Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.” And a third time. ““Do you love me?” “Yes, you know I do.” “Feed my sheep.”
Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, denied loving Jesus. So Jesus gives him three opportunities to claim the truth: that he does love Jesus, that a momentary failure does not take away a lifetime of faith, that he is not lost or useless. There is a path forward. Peter is still loved. Peter is still welcome. Peter is still a disciple, called to feed God’s people.
Scripture says this back and forth made Peter sad. There is pain in this conversation. Peter has messed up, and he knows it. And Jesus does not brush it off with a “no problem” or “forget about it.” Instead, Jesus goes back to the source of his shame. Jesus doesn’t pretend it didn’t hurt him that Peter’s love faltered. Jesus doesn’t pretend all that shame didn’t hurt Peter. But Jesus also doesn’t condemn Peter, retaliate, or rub salt in the wounds. Gently he leads him down the same path as that cold night around the campfire, giving him a chance to try again. “Do you love me? Yes. Do you love me? Yes. Do you love me? Yes.”
Debbie Thomas found Jesus’ model of dealing directly with shame, hurt, and reconciliation deeply healing. “I wonder,” she writes, “what our failures would feel like if we offered each other the safety Jesus offers his disciple. The safety to return to the heart of our wrongdoing and despair. The safety to wrap fresh language around our failure. The safety to experience unconditional love in the midst of our shame. The safety to try again. What would our witness look like if the Church epitomized Jesus’s version of reconciliation? What would the world be like if Christians were known as the people to run to in times of humiliation? Can we, like Jesus, become sanctuary for the shamed?”
Peter sat with strangers at a campfire in Jerusalem, on the darkest night of his life, and denied Jesus. Now he gets a chance to sit with his friends in the dawn of day, and try again. Love again. Commit again. Jesus reminds Peter—by his very presence—that love is stronger that shame, stronger than self-hatred, stronger that sin. The strength of Jesus’ love for Peter—and truly, miraculously—of Peter’s love for Jesus—can work through the hurt. Jesus’ love is not fragile. It will forgive.
Jesus rose from the dead, walked into a city of people who had called for his death. Yet he takes no revenge. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or call lightning down on Rome, or even take back his torn clothes from the soldiers who robbed his dying body. Jesus is uninterested in endless petty punishments. Instead, he returns to his friends, to let them know that they are loved, that they are forgiven, that he will always be with them. Whatever fear and shame they have about the part they played in his death—even just that they could not stop it—is healed.
Debbie Thomas concludes, “Peter’s shame meets Jesus’s grace, and Jesus’s grace wins. That’s the Gospel story in a nutshell. As writer and research professor Brené Brown puts it, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Meaning, shame cannot survive the living Word. Shame cannot tolerate the resurrection. When shame encounters the God who is Love, it burns to ash and scatters.”
Fire transforms. For good or bad, creation or destruction, fire transforms. It turns wood into heat, gold into liquid, raw fish into breakfast. Campfires turn strangers into confidantes and acquaintances into fast friends.
And so I am not surprised that God comes as fire—in the burning bush, as Jesus the fire-tender, as the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal flames—to transform us, to burn away everything that is sharp and painful and prickly, to soften and warm and nurture us, until we are fully absorbed by the heat of God’s love.
Jesus beckons us still to sit by the campfire with him, and believe—believe to the very depths of our being—that we are forgiven. Will we come?