Our New Testament lesson this morning from John chapter 21 is jam-packed with activity. Full to over-flowing with interesting and even astonishing moments.
There is Peter inviting the disciples to go fishing.
There is a long night of catching nothing.
There is a stranger on the shore telling them to try the other side of the boat.
There is a huge catch of fish.
There is the disciples’ recognition of Jesus.
There is Peter throwing himself into sea.
There is breakfast on the shore.
The passage is jam-packed with action and activity – full of interesting and astonishing moments.
As we get into the passage this morning it might be helpful to set out a kind of parallel between the busyness and activity of this passage and the busyness and activity of our lives. This passage is overflowing with activity in much the same way that our lives are overflowing with activity.
There are responsibilities in our work place.
Exams to write or papers to complete.
Our Facebook status to keep updated.
Bills to pay.
The laundry to get done.
Text messages to reply to.
Family events to plan and participate in.
Full to over-flowing is perhaps a good way to describe many of our lives.
But at the same time: at the centre of this passage in John 21 is a moment where time seems to stand still. There is this moment in the narrative when the frenetic pace and the activities kind of blur into the background. There is a moment of stillness and quiet in the narrative.
That moment of stillness and peace is given in a charcoal fire tended on the beach. It is early in the morning – the sun is just beginning to cast some light across the eastern sky. Jesus sits by a charcoal fire, tending to a fish baking on its heat. He turns the fish from time to time. He checks the loaf of bread that is warming there beside the fish.
For just a moment Jesus gets up and walks to the edge of the water – he calls out to some fishermen casting their nets about a hundred yards from the shore. “Have you caught anything? Why don’t you try the other side of the boat?” He goes back to the fire – he blows on the charcoal, encouraging its heat, as he tends to the fish and bread.
There is an old-fashioned word – a word we hardly use any more – that might draw us deeper into reflection on this narrative of scripture. The word is hearth. From ancient times the hearth was a central feature of the home – it was stone or brick fireplace within the home. The hearth was a source of heat – it provided a fire to cook food and to boil water. Through so many centuries, the hearth was a source of comfort and survival, particularly in cold climates. It is not hard to imagine a family gathered closely around the hearth in the cold and damp of winter or early spring.
Arthur Boers, in his most recent book on the spiritual life quotes the American philosopher Albert Borgmann who reminds us of the historic and symbolic importance of the hearth in human cultures. He writes:
In Ancient Greece, a baby was truly joined to the family and household when it was carried about the hearth and placed before it. The union of a Roman marriage was sanctified at the hearth. And at least in the early periods the dead were buried by the hearth. The family ate at the hearth and made sacrifices to the household gods before and after the meal. The hearth sustained, ordered and centered house and family.
As a source of heat and nourishment and comfort – through centuries, the hearth was a symbol and locus of the family’s shared life.
Now Arthur Boers goes on to ask what happens when technology displaces the hearth. He writes: “Central heating displaced hearths so that individuals can now disperse and disappear to separate spaces in our houses. Central heating decentered home life.” The advent of hot water radiators and forced air furnaces meant that heat could be pumped to individual rooms in the house. In the process we lost the hearth as a symbol and locus of a shared life.
So not only are we busy today – not only are our lives full to overflowing with work and phone calls and relationships and text messages and laundry and you name it. In our busyness we are also dispersed from one another. Each of us can take our busyness to our own private space in the house. There is no reason to huddle for warmth and comfort together by the hearth. Central heating means that we can disperse from one another.
My texting takes me off to my own chair in the living room.
Your television program takes you off into the basement rec room.
His web-surfing takes him off to wherever he wants with his tablet.
Filing the tax return take her to the home office.
Our lives are full to overflowing – and technology only exacerbates the problem – we are busy and we are dispersed from one another. Whether in our families or in our neighbourhoods, in our homes or in our apartment buildings, we become in many ways ships passing in the night.
In our passage from John 21, there remains a centre of peace and stillness and of sharing. A moment that is given in a charcoal fire tended on the shore of the sea. Jesus establishes a hearth. The sun is just beginning to cast some light across the morning sky. Jesus sits by the fire, tending to a fish that is baking in its heat – he turns the fish from time to time. He checks the loaf of bread that is being warmed alongside the fish.
When the disciples come onto the shore – Jesus becomes a host to them. Come, gather ‘round the fire. Come, have some breakfast. Come sit down and let’s spend time together. After the fish has cooled, Jesus breaks it apart and distributes it, along with bread, to his disciples. They eat together.
We are invited to find these moments of stillness in our lives.
We are invited to craft these moments of togetherness in our families and with our neighbours and in our church.
We are invited to seek these moments of peace when the busyness, and the frenetic pace can blur into the background.
In these moments of stillness and peace and togetherness, we might discover who we are and find healing in the presence of the risen Jesus.
Healing. Perhaps it feels a little out of place to raise the subject of healing here. But this moment of peace and stillness in the narrative becomes precisely a moment of healing and renewal.
In the gospel of John, there are two charcoal fires mentioned. The first charcoal fire is mentioned in John chapter 18. It is nighttime, and a group of women and men is gathered close to a fire warming themselves – trying to banish the chill and damp from their bodies. They are standing outside the courtyard of the High Priest. And around that first charcoal fire, someone recognizes Peter – “Hey, weren’t you with him? Weren’t you one of his followers?” Around that first charcoal fire, three times, Peter says, “No, I wasn’t with him. I don’t know him. “
Three times he betrays his friendship with Jesus.
Three times he denies that Jesus was his master and teacher.
Three times he refuses to be a disciple.
Luke tells us that he walked away from that fire and cried bitterly.
In the second charcoal fire, tended by the risen Jesus on the seashore, we have a reminder of that first charcoal fire – and thus a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus – there is a relationship, between Jesus and Peter, that Jesus that cries out, now, for healing and reconciliation and restoration.
Jesus tends a fire. Jesus establishes a hearth – a moment of stillness and peace where a conversation can take place. Jesus establishes a hearth, a place where relationships can deepen and where healing and reconciliation and restoration might be achieved. As all the busyness and activity blurs into the background, Jesus and Peter sit together for a meal and then a conversation. After they have finished their breakfast of fish and bread,
Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me.”
We can understand why Jesus asks the question. When there is a betrayal in a relationship, you can’t get around it with the silent treatment – you can’t get around it by avoidance – you can’t get around it by pretending it’s no big deal. Overcoming the betrayal requires time, patience, and an affirmation of love.
Peter answers Jesus, no doubt remembering the betrayal: “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus asks the question a second time: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me.” Perhaps Peter recognizes the significance of his betrayal, and he knows that one simple ‘I love you’ won’t be enough. So he answers a second time: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus is in no hurry. This business of reconciliation and healing takes time. And so he asks the question a third time. Jesus asks the question three times – once for every word of betrayal spoken by Peter. “Simon, Son of John, do you love me.”
And now Peter is starting to feel hurt. “Why can’t Jesus accept my word? Why is he not letting this go?” There is always pain and judgment when reconciliation takes place. Wherever are real – wherever forgiveness and reconciliation are genuine –wrongdoing is always acknowledged and brought to light. Forgiveness always requires judgment of some kind – and judgment invariably brings pain. The pain is perhaps evident on Peter’s face and in his voice as he responds to Jesus a third time: “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, each time he declares: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus responds by saying to Peter: “Feed my lambs,” or “Tend my sheep.”
In this moment of stillness on the beach, gathered around a charcoal fire – in this moment gathered around the hearth established by Jesus – there is time for a conversation about the things that matter. There is an opportunity to restore a relationship broken by betrayal. There is an opportunity for Peter to discover again his identity and his call to serve the risen Jesus – to live in his love – to follow in his way – to serve his sisters and brothers – to feed the lambs. Jesus ends the conversation with words of hope and invitation for Peter: “Follow me.”
We come back to our own lives, and to our busyness. And not only to our busyness, but to our dispersal from one another. Technology has been a boon to our lives – but technology has also had a profoundly dehumanizing effect.
In children aged 2 or 3 or 4 there is something called parallel play. It’s when children sit beside each other, absorbed in their own toy, perhaps looking at the other child from time to time to see what the other is doing – but the children are not playing together. At that age they’re not able to play with each other. In many ways, we live in a world of parallel play. We live alongside family members. We worship alongside other church members. We live alongside neighbours. We look at one another, and observe one another from time to time. But in so many ways we are living in our own worlds, not connecting, not relating, not growing into deeper relationships with each other.
This narrative of scripture comes to us as an invitation, to develop practices that nourish our spiritual life. This narrative is an invitation to us to seek out time together; to find moments when all of the busyness and the texting and the cooking and work and Facebook updating and you name it – when all of that can be left to blur into the background – when we can find ourselves sitting quietly around a charcoal fire together in the presence of Jesus.
We are invited to this practice that will nourish our personal lives, as we meditate on the narratives and poetry of scripture, seeking an encounter with the one who heals us and calls us to follow him. We are invited to this practice that will nourish our shared live in the various community contexts of our lives – as we, together, learn to find a place of stillness and conversation in the presence of God.
We need it in our families. We need it with our neighbours. We need it in the church. In a most human sense, it is about rediscovering the humanity that we have allowed to be stolen from us by busyness and technology. But in a deeper and truly human sense it is about discovering the healing and reconciliation and purpose and calling that we share in Christ. The healing and reconciliation and purpose and calling that we cannot discover or live out if we do not take times of stillness, together, in meaningful conversation and prayer.
On the beach, gathered around a charcoal fire, after eating meal of fish and bread.
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
You know I love you, Jesus.
Simon, son of John, do you love me
You know I love you, Jesus.
Simon, son of John, do you love me.
Jesus, you know everything. You know that I love you.
Simon, son of John. Follow me. Be my disciple.
As we gather around the hearth – as we gather around a charcoal fire – we together become capable of such meaningful conversations and relationships. We draw close to one another – close to the risen Jesus. We learn to follow him, together.