Conversations By Firelight

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and John 21:1-25 preached on April 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

There was a light in the distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the rest of the disciples had spent the pre-dawn hours just 100 yards from the shoreline. That’s when the fish are biting—very early morning—with dark still cast above the surface of the water. Their nets had been dragging beside the boat for a few hours now and to their surprise, they were catching nothing. Not one thing. At least nothing worth keeping.

It was still Easter. The disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus appear to them over and over again. The first time was in the upper room, all bolted up and shut tight around them. The second time, Jesus came again to the empty room, this time to quell Thomas’ doubt. But the questions still remained: What do you do when you’ve lost your leader? How do you start something all on your own when all you’ve done for the last three years is follow? Well, what you do is you return to something familiar, and for the disciples, what was familiar was fishing. But for some reason, not even that was working out all that well. By this time in the morning, they’re usually dragging in loads and loads of fish, but that morning, all they had to show for it were empty nets. Something wasn’t right. Even the most familiar things didn’t feel the same anymore.

Peter was the deck captain. It was his job to make sure that before they set off from the shore the nets were mended, that they had enough bait, and the boat was in working order. But Peter’s mind wasn’t in the game. He seemed distant, almost like he was caught in some kind of net himself—unable to find his way out of it. It was near the end of this terrible, no good morning when they saw a flickering light against the shoreline—a small campfire, maybe. There was a man standing next to it, some dark figure moving along the beach. Then a voice:

Children, have you caught anything yet?

No,

they replied to this mysterious figure.

The man standing along the shore yelled back,

Try the other side of the boat!

Whoever he was, he must know his stuff, because his fishing tip worked out. Once the disciples hauled their net to the other side, they were glad they took the time to mend their net before setting off. It was so full, there was no way for them to bring it back up into the boat. They had to drag it to shore. And as they got closer, it was the unnamed, beloved disciple who recognizes that this mysterious man along the shoreline is Jesus. He says so to Peter, and at once, Peter leaps out of the boat and into the water (Peter, it seems, is prone to jumping off the sides of boats!), and he swims toward Jesus.

ρ

The last time Peter had seen a charcoal fire was on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter gathered around it for warmth, bundled up, hoping that no one would recognize him or figure out his accent. Peter’s shame for what he did that night had been an anchor around his neck ever since. That night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even knew he would before it ever happened. For days and days, Peter’s shame was unbearable, and seeing the flicker and spark of another charcoal fire sent shivers up his spine, the smell of it deepened his shame.

ρ

In his gospel, John refers to every appearance of the resurrected Jesus as a sign. Signs point the way. When we’re lost, they can help us find out where we are in relation to things. They grab our attention, turn our heads, help us get unlost, point us in the right direction. But lots of times, we don’t have eyes to see them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was a sign-maker. He created signs for all to see. He existed to show us the way to God. He pointed all who met him in the right direction, but most who encountered Jesus couldn’t decipher His signs. They couldn’t recognize them.

This time, though, the resurrected Jesus shows up along the shoreline to help Peter find his way again—to lead him out of his haze, out of his lostness and despair—to give him new purpose and direction.

A fish breakfast sizzled over the charcoal fire along the beach that morning. Peter was soaked from diving off the boat, so he huddled around the fire for warmth, sitting next to Jesus. Another fire. Another cold shiver. Another conversation by firelight…

Peter, do you love me?

Jesus asked.

The question must have caught Peter by surprise, but that Jesus asked it of Peter three times must have offended him.

‘Peter do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’

Yes, Yes, Yes,

Peter answers.

It wouldn’t be ‘til later, that Peter would recognize what Jesus was doing. With each question, Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself, to undo each of his three denials. Jesus visited Peter in the early dawn of the morning to turn those old No No No’s into new Yes Yes Yes’. Jesus has returned to take that anchor off from around his neck. To free him from his guilt and shame. To rehabilitate Peter. To make him whole again. That morning, during a conversation by firelight in the dim dawn of that early morning, Peter was lifted out of his fog. But not only that! See, when the risen Jesus appears, He not only forgives and unbinds us, He calls us to something—gives us purpose and direction! This isn’t just another Easter resurrection Jesus sighting; this is a call story for both Peter and those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. After each time we tell Jesus we love Him, He says prove it.

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then feed my lambs.’

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then take care of my sheep.”’

‘Since you love me, feed my sheep!’

That is love’s fruit. If we love Jesus, then we will feed his people, because love isn’t just something we feel. Love needs purpose. And if the love we love with doesn’t compel us to action and call us to feed and care for others around us, then we’re not being faithful to Jesus, and the call and voice we hear is not the call and voice of the Gospel but some lesser call. This is Jesus saying to Peter and each and every one of us,

Don’t just sit here with your love for me! I need you out there! Enact your love for me! Don’t do this ‘follow me’ thing with lips only. Do it with your lives!

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When my Aunt Peggy was a teenager, my grandfather took her fishing out on Kueka Lake in upstate New York. My grandfather had some property there that he retreated to often, and he thought Peggy was old enough and experienced enough to fish with him without being too much of a bother. So, they cast out onto the lake with their fishing rods, bait, and candy bars for snacks, and sunk their hooks underneath the surface.

My aunt Peggy was in the front of the boat; my grandfather in the back. And at some point that morning, Peggy threw her rod around her shoulder to cast her line out, and she hooked my grandfather clear through the nose, and before she realized she had done that, she pulled on it. Now, Jordan noses are pretty big, but my Aunt Peggy couldn’t have done what she did twice!

The line didn’t yank my grandfather out of the boat, but I bet a fishing hook through the nose rattled him for a time. I’m sure it took my grandfather a few minutes to get the thing out of his nose, but once they got it out, he just kept on fishing. I’m not sure if my aunt Peggy reeled in anything other than my grandfather’s nose that day, but they did catch some fish.

To add insult to injury, that night they made their own shoreline campfire, and as he cooked the fish they caught, my grandfather spilled boiling water on his bare feet. But he kept on cooking!

I wonder what the conversation around the firelight was like that night!

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Seeing Jesus upon the shore, yanked Peter out of the boat. It dragged him to the shoreline, and together they sat as the fish popped and crackled over a charcoal fire.

The firelight warmed their faces as they shared in conversation with each other. In a sense, it was a signal fire. The smoke from it was an offering that rose into the sky above them, as Jesus, with His words, gave Peter a new sign, a new purpose and calling, signaling a new vocation for Him, not as a deck captain to a ragtag bunch of fishermen, but as lead disciple, and the Rock upon which Christ’s church was to be built. It served as a signal that even our worse words and actions can’t yank us out of relationship with Jesus.

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The Good News for us, friends, is that this world is full of shore-side charcoal fires! There’s signal fires and burning bushes everywhere we turn. We just have to have Easter eyes to see their spark and flame, and ears to hear their crackle and snap. But the message of the Gospel is that we have to want to see those signs! See, most us completely overlook God-sightings. We don’t recognize them as we should. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, defines love as paying attention to the other person and opening oneself to attention. And discipleship means jumping out of the boat to be closer to Jesus. To risk something of ourselves to follow Him, to take up the vocation to love Jesus by feeding and caring for His sheep. Pastor Mike Foster says that we who are Christ’s church need to risk more of ourselves. He writes,

Our guardian angels are bored. We’re not taking chances with our faith.

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As we know, Peter would grow into his calling and purpose. He would indeed become a rock—a strong presence for an emerging church. He and his fellow disciples would eventually become unafraid and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it would take them growing braver and walking into the world with it. The Way of Jesus is not a point of view. It’s not a religious opinion. It’s not a political or moral position. It’s not a stance we take. It’s a walk. What pastor and author Leonard Sweet calls “a world walk.” And it all started with a conversation around firelight.

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Do you love me?

That’s the question Jesus asked of Peter—of all of his disciples. It’s the question Jesus asks of each one of us.

If you love me, then follow and feed.

Jesus has the same words of purpose and vocation and challenge for us:

Forget about fishing on water. Start looking in different places. Start fishing in different ways. Risk more. Cast your faith out into deeper waters! We’ve got some hungry people to feed and some lost people to care for. Walk the Gospel Way…and follow me!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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