Scene Two by A Charcoal Fire
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Good Friday and Easter involved many things for those who experienced them in real-time. For the disciples, these few days were a rollercoaster of emotions. And for one disciple named Peter, the most turbulent sections of the rollercoaster were marked by two charcoal fires—one of those fires was made just before the death of Jesus to keep people warm in the middle of the night, and the other fire was made just after the resurrection for Jesus to cook some fish. This all sounds so simple, so utterly without emotion, without consequence, without gravity and significance—right? Just two fires, one for keeping warm and another for cooking fish. But if you think that, you’d be wrong.
This morning, I’m continuing the where pastor Jason left off on Friday night, “Scene One: By a Charcoal Fire.” But if you weren’t here, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you track along just fine. This morning we’ll be studying the last chapter of the gospel of John. There should be some Bibles in the pews. In those Bible’s we’re on page 1,037. “Scene Two: By a Charcoal Fire.”
As I teach through the passage, I’ll read the entire chapter, but for now let me just read vv. 7–9.
7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Please pray with me. “Heavenly Father . . .”
The biggest emotional rollercoasters in my life have revolved around various transitions. I think that’s true for many people. When we moved here four years ago, there were all sorts of emotions: excitement, of course, but sadness about leaving friends; excitement about beginning a new role in a new church, but fear about what all that would mean; excitement about finding a new place to live, and anxiety about finding a new place to live. Maybe you’re in a season that is full of twists and turns.
Often that can make us very distracted. We can end up finding our identity in so many other things than the good news story of how Jesus loves us. But this passage is reminding us that, between the resurrection and the second coming—no matter what happens to you or to others or what transitions might be taking place—our greatest joy comes when we find our identity in Jesus and follow him. That was the lesson for Peter, and it’s the lesson for us.
As we look at the passage in more detail, it seems to fall out in three sections where Peter moves from one emotion to another.
1. From mission drift to joy, vv. 1–8
Let’s read vv. 1–8 to see what’s happening to him. Just a quick word of context before I read: this passage, which you’ll pick this up as we go, is one of a handful of recorded early events after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers, with this passage being the longest continuous story.
21 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
I called this section “from mission drift to joy.” The joy part we see right away—a huge catch of fish! But what’s with the drift?
Mission drift, as I understand it, is when someone, well, drifts off course from his or her stated purpose. Most of the time the change is subtle at first, which is why it’s called drift. And most of the time, the person might even know it’s happening.
This, I believe, describes Peter at the start of John 21. But, again, you might not see that at first. There’s a backstory that’s helpful to re-hash. Several years before this moment, there was another moment that had many similar details: fishing all night and catching nothing; advice from someone about where to find fish and a subsequent huge catch of fish. You can read about it in Luke 5.
In Luke 5, before the catch, Peter says to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (v. 5).
And they do. The fishermen put down the nets and boom! We’re told the boat is about to sink because of all the fish. They get some help, and they head for shore. Nets are breaking, and fish are leaping all around the boat. The fishermen are both happy about the fish but also scared the boats might sink. The crew is giving high fives and shouting. In that story, there’s an audience of perhaps a thousand people on the shore who had been listening to Jesus teach and now, we presume, they are cheering.
Imagine if you owned a donut shop or a furniture store or some other business, and you had a dry patch in business—a season where you caught nothing and you were worried if you’d have to close your business—but then one morning the line of customers is out your door, and your employees are frantic but also giving each other high-fives. As the owner you’d have this joyous panic; you’d greet customers; you’d yell out, “I can help you here, sir, on register 3.”
That’s what you’d do. But what did Peter do when that first huge catch of fish happened? We don’t have to guess. In Luke 5 we read,
8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
This is strange, is it not? What’s going on?
To Peter, fish were dollars. This is not recreational fishing but a professional enterprise. He had been dreaming of better and better business, but when he got it, he kneels down in his money and says, “Get away from me. I’m a sinful man.” When he did that, I think Peter realized that fish, money, career, health, beauty—it’s all perishable.
But Jesus doesn’t destroy Peter. In v. 10 we read, “And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’”
Peter came face to face with The Fisher of Men and is told that he—Peter—will now “fish for men.” Jesus was saying, “No, Peter, I won’t destroy you. I’ve come to catch you up in my mission for something better. And I want you to follow me and love me and spend your life on mission as you share with others about how great I am and how much I love them too.” That was the mission Jesus called Peter to.
Now, let’s come back to John 21. What’s Peter doing? He’s fishing for fish, though not very well apparently. Do you see why I titled this section mission drift?
If I looked at Jason, my co-pastor on some Monday afternoon after some difficult season in ministry and said, “Hey, Jason, I’m going fishing,” Jason would say, “That’s weird because you don’t fish.” But if I said, “Forget it, Jason, I’m going on a bike ride.” Jason would look at me and say, “I get it. Rest up, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” But, if I said to him, “Forget it; I’m going back to engineering” (my former career). And he looked at me and said, “Yeah, me too; I’m going back to education” (his former career). Now, we are talking not about an afternoon to rest but a change, even reversal, of careers. We’re talking about mission drift.
This is Peter in John 21. He’s been called to something, but it’s all confusing to him. So much is swirling around, not to mention his own failures (which we’ll get to in a moment).
But Jesus pursues Peter. He calls him back. The risen Lord reaches out to those who have drifted, and he calls them back. Maybe he’s doing that to you this morning.
On the boat one disciple shouts, “It’s the Lord!” and Peter jumps overboard to swim to see his savior. He’s full of joy again. Not about his fish but because the Fisher of Men has caught him—again.
But for Peter the rollercoaster is not over.
2. From shame to mission, vv. 9–19
In the next section Peter moves through shame and then back to mission. Let’s read vv. 9–19.
9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
There are many interesting details in this passage. Take the detail of 153 fish; it’s very specific. Across the ages, Christians have loved to imagine if there is any symbolism here, inventing even crazy ideas. I think it’s as simple as saying fishermen like to count their catch—they did then, and they do now.
But the first detail to notice is the first thing Peter notices when he comes to the shore. There’s a fire, and not just any fire, but the gospel of John is particular here: a charcoal fire. This kind of fire is only mentioned one other place, and as I said at the start, it involves Peter.
Again, a backstory needs to be re-hashed. If you were here on Good Friday, we read the relevant passages, including John 13 where Jesus tells Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (v. 38).
Peter says, “I’m all in. I’m a rock. I won’t fail you.” Jesus says, “Really?”
Just a few hours after Peter’s confident assertion, when Jesus was arrested, we read in John 18 that only one of them was right:
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus . . . 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. . .
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. (vv. 15, 17–18, 25–27)
It’s funny how smells bring back memories. If you’ve ever visited Chocolate World in Hershey Park, you know they pipe in the smell of chocolate because they what us to come back, which I often do with my children. Years from now, when my children are grown, I know they’ll be many times that I open a chocolate bar and think about those rides and my kids. If you’ve been to the Farm Show, you know that has, shall we say, a certain smell. And you might be somewhere and all of a sudden you smell a Farm-Show-type smell, and you’re immediately thinking about—at least some of you—fried cheese and strawberry milkshakes. Peter jumps out of the boat, swims to shore to see the Lord, and when he gets there, he smells his own denial.
And Jesus, at first, simply says, eat with me. This wasn’t the first time Peter and Jesus had seen each other after the resurrection, but we also know that if the last time you saw Jesus alive before his death you had denied him, then we also know that when Jesus comes back from the grave, he’s going to want to talk do you about that.
But here’s the thing with Jesus: he doesn’t poke a wound to make it worse. If the risen Lord pokes your wounds, he does it so that it can heal. I’ve had several bicycle accidents over the years, and when they’ve happened on pavement, I know that as much as it hurts, the gravel has to come out of the skin before I can heal.
Three times Peter is asked if he loves Jesus. Notice the way it’s phrased the first time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (v. 15).
Now, people who have spent their lives studying the gospel of John debate what this word “these” refers to. Could Jesus be asking if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus? Do you love me, Peter, more than these—that is, more than these other disciples loves me? I guess Jesus could be asking this. If we only had the video footage we could see how Jesus gestured and know for sure.
But I don’t think we need the footage. When Peter gets to shore, Jesus told them all to get more fish to eat. And Peter was the one who leapt up and grabbed the huge net and dragged it to shore, so happy about his catch of 153 fish. Fish are great . . . if you’re a fisherman of fish.
I think Jesus looks at this huge catch of fish and says, do you love me more than these—more than stuff? Is the calling that I’ve placed on your life to be a fisherman of men, to be a shepherd of my sheep, to be a follower of mine, enough for you?
Jesus asks one time for each denial—three denials, three questions. The risen Lord is reinstating Peter. Peter doesn’t have to pretend that everything is okay around Jesus because now it is okay—no, it’s more than okay. Peter is on mission again. He’s following Jesus.
And not only will he spend his life being a shepherd of God’s sheep, but he’s going to die a death that glorifies God. There’s certainly a heaviness to that. But there’s also gospel to it. After failing the Lord, Peter might be thinking, I’ll never be able to do anything ever again that could bring glory to my savior. I love Jesus, I love Jesus, I love Jesus, but now how will I ever bring glory to him. But he will, in his life and in his death. From shame to mission.
3. From jealousy to wonder, vv. 24–25
The rollercoaster is almost over. Let’s read vv. 20–25.
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
What would you title this section? I called it from “jealously to wonder.” Right after the risen Lord reinstated Peter to the mission of following him, Peter puts his head on a swivel and says, “Okay, but what about that guy? You gonna tell him about this death stuff too?”
There are many reasons I believe the gospels are true and reliable accounts about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but one of them is that the gospels are just so honest about the human condition, specifically here the way we see how prone we are to be jealous and discontented and distracted. Some of you are distracted from following Jesus because you keep looking over your shoulder and saying, “Yeah, but what about that person? He’s got a better job. She’s got better health. They’re married. They have kids. They are empty nesters and go on vacations. And so on.
I love Jesus’s non-answer answer. “If that guy is alive when I come back—and I am coming back—what does that matter to you? You follow me.”
And after this, Jesus and Peter don’t speak again. John, the author of this gospel, takes the final word, and it’s a word of wonder. I believe it’s his way of looking out from Peter and looking to us.
John’s view of Jesus, having lived with him, having seen the miracles, the love that he showed the outcasts, the veracity with which he engaged the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, and the sacrificial death for sinners, and now his resurrection, and his promise of the seconding coming—having seen all this—John says, these are but the fringes of his glory (cf. Job 26). Walking on water; turning water to wine; healing the blind man; turning over the money changer’s tables; saying he is the way the truth and the life; taking our sins to himself like a sponge to absorb the wrath of God against us because of our sin; rising again triumphantly from the dead, reinstating his fallen disciples, promising to come again in power . . . the world can’t hold all that Jesus is for us. This rollercoaster comes to a stop, and we’re left with wonder.
In popular culture the story of Easter is about new beginnings. And that’s true. Easter is about new beginnings—spring time, bunnies, and turning over a new leaf. But it is only generally about new beginnings because it is first about a particular new beginning—the dawn of a new age, the true spring. It’s the story of how our sin dies with Jesus and we are raised to life with him. Between the resurrection and the second coming—no matter what happens to you or to others or what transitions might be taking place—you find your identity in Jesus and follow him all of our days.
Pray with me as Ben and the music team comes back up. Let’s pray . . .