Friday, March 23, 2012

Two Charcoal Fires:

The Rehabilitation of Peter
© 2010 Bert Gary

If you go to a therapist for traditional psychoanalysis, one of the things you will be asked to explore is the way in which the unhealed wounds from your past are still hurting you today. The goal of the analyst is to help you find and reenter the pain of unresolved traumas. Like a physical wound that will not heal without treatment, emotional wounds that are ignored or denied will fail to heal.

A key purpose then of psychoanalysis is to help you find the courage to scan your past for memories that are unhealed and unresolved, then to help you reexamine and re-experience those wounding moments so as to acknowledge and release the pain. Sigmund Freud is credited with developing psychoanalysis in the 19th century, and modern counselors of all varieties today still operate under the basic assumption that those who are cut off from their pasts cannot heal.

Should Freud be credited with the insight that one has to revisit one’s trauma in order to heal? I seriously doubt it. There is a story in the Bible that suggests that this notion was alive and well in the 1st century. And it is John 21:1-17 that tells us that Jesus had this kind of healing in mind for his disciple, Peter. The “therapy” took place on a beach before a charcoal fire.

The First Charcoal Fire

Peter and an unnamed disciple (usually presumed to have been John) followed Jesus and the temple police who arrested him at Gethsemane. Jesus was taken by night for questioning to Annas’ house; Annas was the high priest Caiaphas’ father-in-law. Because John was known to Caiaphas, he was allowed into the courtyard of the house for the proceedings, leaving Peter outside the gate. But because John was already “in,” he was able to influence the woman guarding the courtyard gate to admit Peter. It was a cold night. Peter joined some of the priests’ slaves and policemen warming themselves around a charcoal fire.

John 18:18  Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Imagine, he's warming his hands with slaves and policemen. This is the context—Peter at a charcoal fire—for an event that Jesus predicted in all four gospels.

John 13:37-38   Peter said to him, "Lord, . . . I will lay down my life for you."  38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” (See also Matt 26:34, Mk 14:30, and Lk 22:34.)

By the glow of charcoal embers, Peter, according to all four gospel accounts, denied three times that he knew Jesus.

John 18:26-27   One of the slaves 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 [A third time] Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Luke 22:61-62   The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times."  62 And he went out and wept bitterly. 

Peter left that place weeping bitterly (Matt 26:75; Lk 22:62). This event had immediate and lingering effects on Peter, as the Bible tells it.

Peter Resigns

Mark records that, in the tomb of Jesus, Peter was mentioned by name by “a young man dressed in white,” whom we presume was an angel. The young man was seated in the tomb when the women entered it. He told them not to be alarmed, that Jesus had risen, and then he gave them an assignment:

Mark 16:7   “. . . go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (emphasis mine)

Apparently Peter had “quit.” The young man told the women to give a message to the disciples, and to also give the message to Peter. If Peter still considered himself to be a disciple of Jesus, there would have been no need to mention him separately.

There is no way to read Peter’s mind concerning this. However, because he is not named as a disciple by the young man, the strong implication is that, in Peter’s mind, no one who denies a man three times can consider himself to be a disciple of that man; to deny Jesus is to deny discipleship.

So Peter left the charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Having denied his Lord, thereby canceling his discipleship, Peter was no longer an associate of John or Andrew or Matthew or the others. He was isolated with only his failure and grief for company. That is a lot of pain to be carrying alone.

The news of Jesus’ resurrection, however, caused Peter—against all odds—to reunite with the disciples. Peter lost a footrace with John to the empty tomb. The Lord later appeared to them all behind locked doors, with Peter present. What brought him back? What made it possible for him to show his face?

There is an appearance of the Lord, often overlooked, that may have brought Peter out of hiding and back into the circle of old friends. Luke tells us that Jesus, on the day of his resurrection, appeared alone to Peter, though Luke does not record the details of the event. Cleopas and another disciple were going home to Emmaus when they were visited by the risen Lord (Lk 24:13-33). They ran back to Jerusalem to find the apostles to tell them. The disciples from Emmaus seemed surprised to find the eleven all gathered together in the same place, and before they could share their good news, the eleven told them that the Lord had appeared to Simon Peter.

Luke 24:33-34   That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!"

Paul confirms this—that the Lord appeared individually to Peter.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5   For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (emphasis mine)

Jesus nicknamed Simon “Cephas” in Aramaic, which means rock. Cephus in Greek is Petros. Petros in English is Peter. Simon Peter might not have been with the other ten when Jesus appeared to them. But apparently Jesus wanted him there. Perhaps that is why Jesus appeared to Peter alone first. Peter was torn from his isolation and self-loathing by something. And that something would have had to have been something dramatic. According to Luke 24:33-34 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 above, it was: Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to Peter and talked to him. The result? Peter went to see his friends and gave them the news.

Peter Goes Back To His Old Job

Although Peter saw the risen Lord alone and then two more times with the other ten behind locked doors in Jerusalem, Peter nonetheless decided to return to the Sea of Galilee, return to his home, and return to his old job.

John 21:3   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.

I do not want to read too much into this, but his return to former things suggests that while Peter had reunited with his friends, he clearly had not decided to continue in Jesus’ ministry. Quite the opposite! He returned to his trade, fishing. He still may not have considered himself to be worthy of discipleship. He went on no missionary journey. On the contrary, he went back to his former life, almost as if nothing had happened.

Not wanting to project 21st century psychological awareness onto biblical characters, I am nonetheless aware of the yearning of wounded, grieving people to return to normalcy, to routine, as a source of comfort. Perhaps this is in part Peter’s motivation. Or perhaps he just needed the money.

My heart is cheered—though I say this with hesitation—that Peter’s colleagues went with him on the boat. They too could have simply needed the money. Or perhaps they were just bored. But I see more than that. I see Peter’s friends accompanying their troubled friend out of love and concern. Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others heard Peter say, “I’m going fishing.” Peter did not invite them along. He was going whether they joined him. But they did not let Peter go alone. This to me hints at both their concern for Peter’s spiritual well-being and their desire to support him.

Fishermen fished by night on the Sea, and they stripped down to do it. After a full night’s work—work that I hope was therapeutic for Peter and his friends—John specifically records that they caught nothing. This, for me, harkens back to the Lord’s original call on Peter’s life. He is not supposed to be fishing for fish anymore, but to be fishing for people.

Matthew 4:18-19   As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea -- for they were fishermen.  19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

That they caught no fish seems a subtle reminder that Peter’s call to discipleship, his call to fish for people instead of fish, was still in tact, at least from the Lord’s end. Peter may no longer have believed himself to be a disciple, to be worthy of discipleship, but the empty nets may have been a divine message: Going back to fishing for fish is just not going to work, Peter.

John’s Gospel alone (Chapter 21) tells this story of an additional resurrection appearance to seven fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sun rose, and the men in the boat saw “a man” on the beach. He asked the question that torments all fishermen: Did you catch anything? No, they said. Put your nets out on the right side of the boat and you will, said the man.

John 21 reminds us of a previous event recorded in Luke 5, when Jesus was finished teaching a crowd on the shore while sitting in Peter’s boat. On that occasion Jesus told Peter to launch out into deep water and put down his nets. It was the middle of the day, the wrong time to fish. And deep water is not the best place on the Sea of Galilee for a catch. So Peter complained about these absurd fishing instructions given to him, a master fisherman, by a land-loving construction worker from land-locked Nazareth. But Peter did it anyway, and they caught so many fish that the nets began to break and the boat began to sink. Peter’s response is most interesting.

Luke 5:8   But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

Even then, Peter saw himself as unworthy. Given his three denials, how much more unworthy Peter must have felt, regardless of Jesus’ resurrection appearances.

Back to John 21, Peter and the boys did as “the man” on the beach instructed, and they took in a haul of 153 fish (verse 11), yet this time the net surprisingly did not break. The specific number of fish and the specification that the net did not break are interesting details that beg for interpretation, so I will give it a shot.

The interpretations of the 153 fish are numerous and inconclusive. It is interesting, however, that 153 is the sum of the numbers 1 through 17, and 153 dots can be arranged into an equilateral triangle with 17 dots on each side.


Is this a veiled reference to the Trinity, or perhaps a symbolic reference to Jesus’ parabolic “fish of every kind,” (Matt 13:47—see below) comparing the kingdom to a complete haul of humanity? If the latter, then we are back to Peter’s call to discipleship being one as a “fisher of men.” Perhaps the promise of the 153 fish is that the kingdom catch will be full, and the kingdom nets will not break.

Matthew 13:47  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind . . .”

“The beloved disciple,” whom we presume to be John, had to tell Peter the obvious. “The man” on the beach was the risen Lord. Was Peter just dim, or does grief dull one’s perceptions? In either case, Peter could not wait for the boat to bring him ashore. Showing that he still had passion for Jesus, he threw on his clothes, dove in, and swam for it.

The Second Charcoal Fire

What did Peter see as he emerged from the cold water? There on the beach was Jesus and a charcoal fire. Was he yet again too dim or grief-stricken to see it? Not likely, because he no doubt also smelled the unforgettable odor of burning charcoal. Smells trigger memories like nothing else. How is it that we have missed this, though many of us have read it repeatedly over the years?

There are only two charcoal fires (anthrakia) in the Gospel of John. Moreover, there are only two charcoal fires in the entire Bible, and Peter is at both of them. Jesus had not gathered driftwood when he got to the beach that morning. He brought charcoal. What was he up to?

Jesus invited them all to breakfast. It is hard to deny the Eucharistic overtones, and this harkens back to “the last supper” when Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. This seems beyond coincidence.

Around the first charcoal fire at Annas’ home, Peter denied Jesus three times. Around the second charcoal fire on the beach, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him three times, and told Peter to feed his flock three times. Certainly the second charcoal fire was no accident. And the fact that Jesus likewise asked Peter exactly three times if he loved him, and commissioned him exactly three times to return to a missionary ministry were not accidents either. This event has been called “threefold grace for a threefold denial.”

The first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, the word for love in the original Greek is agape—meaning the kind of unconditional love with which God loves. In Peter’s two replies to this question, however, he affirmed that he loved Jesus, but the word for love that Peter used in the original Greek is phileo—meaning the kind of loving affection one has for a friend, as in a “brotherly love,” thus the city of Philadelphia means “city of brotherly love.” Yet when Jesus asked Peter the third time—Do you love me?—Jesus gently accommodated Peter. Instead of using the word agape that time, Jesus changed to phileo, communicating that while he wants Peter’s agape, Peter’s phileo will do. And just as Jesus abandoned agape for phileo, note that Jesus also abandoned his fishing metaphor for a new one—shepherding—sensing perhaps that a new image for Peter’s ministry was needed, one that would carry him far beyond the Sea of Galilee.

John specifically says that Peter was grieved when Jesus asked him a third time whether he loved him (Jn 21:17), even though Jesus accommodated him by changing the word from agape to phileo. One might assume that Peter was grieved merely because of the repetitions of the question, as if Jesus did not believe him. But I am convinced there is oh-so-much more to that word grieved. The Greek word is lupeo. It means hurt, pained, injured, distressed, troubled in heart, sorrowful, deeply sorry, and sad. It can even mean “in tears.” What if Jesus’ third question connected Peter to his third denial, to the smell of charcoal in cold darkness of Annas’ courtyard, to the sound of a cock crowing? What if it is indeed tears of grief, the grief of a man returning to an earlier fire to re-experience the bitterness of those Jerusalem tears? And moreover, what if that is exactly what Jesus intended on the beach by the Sea? What if he intended Peter’s return to a charcoal fire to heal him from his crippling lupeo?

Jesus Christ: Psychoanalyst?

Again, I resist projecting 19th – 21st century psychological awareness onto unsuspecting 1st century biblical characters. Yet doing so is unnecessary to make this observation: Modern psychoanalysis and other therapies help people heal from past wounds by returning them to those wounds to face them; Jesus did the same for Peter by literally returning him to a charcoal fire. Call it psychoanalysis or not, Jesus helped Peter to heal.

This story has been called by many “The Rehabilitation of Peter.” I like that. For this story is not just a story of Jesus redirecting Peter back to discipleship and ministry. It is also a story of the Lord’s tender healing of a wounded friend.

[All biblical quotes are from the NRSV.]