The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

Life between two fires

Week of Sunday April 10 - Easter Two
Bible: John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon 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 after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to 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 there were so many fish.7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt 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. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not 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 testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

 ...

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger,
you used to fasten your own belt
 and to go wherever you wished.

But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will fasten a belt around you
and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 

Out of the mouth of Jesus and away from the Gospel of John, this little verse is a sharp summation of what we learn about life as we grow older. As we take it back to the alternative ending of John's gospel, what does it say to our life of faith?

When I first read the Gospel of John, before I had any critical tools, I read Chapter 20:30-31

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

and, as an avid reader, knew I had come to the end of the book. But then… more! Raymond Brown, (The Gospel According to John x111 – xx1 pp1078) with most commentators, concludes that Chapter 21 was another resurrection appearance story known to John's author. It's an independent ending, so that we could almost read John like one of those "choose your own ending" books!

Chapter 21 is not merely an afterthought that John felt he needed to tack on somewhere; it is an alternative ending: it is connected to the main body of the gospel by a charcoal fire and the number three. In the night, as all is being lost, Peter stands for us all at someone's charcoal fire and denies Jesus three times. In the dawn of a new day, Peter stands at Jesus' charcoal fire and reaffirms his faith three times; indeed, he is forgiven and given a task, three times: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.

The number three matches and reverses the three fold denial; it rhymes rhetorically with the 3 days in the tomb, and it is the threefold repetition of an solemn oath or charge before witnesses. (Brown pp 1112)

The text clearly means us to refer back to the previous chapters. In the conversation on the beach (13:20)

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’

In that chapter Jesus said, "Where I am going, you cannot come … Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards." In his naivety, Peter had said, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." And Jesus told him the truth of our human frailty. "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times."

The irony of Peter's question— he asks the disciple whom Jesus loved to ask it, and it is repeated so we don’t miss it— is not subtle. There comes an age when we know that our shortcomings in faith have been denials, and that our denials have been betrayals. Judas has already gone out into night, and Peter will soon follow, seeking some warmth from the darkness at a fire.

T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding” said that we will be consumed by either fire or fire. The two charcoals fires in John show us the two fires: the sacrificial fires, or the fire of the Spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, which is the Spirit of the resurrection. One is the fire of the Apocalypse, and the other is the fire of the Kingdom coming. (Bailie)

And the fire of apocalypse destroys. It's significant that in the wider tradition, Judas kills himself. But neither can Peter avoid fire.

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger,
you used to fasten your own belt
 and to go wherever you wished.

But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will fasten a belt around you
and take you where you do not wish to go.

We forever live between two fires, and one of them will have us. And as much as we long for the fire of the Spirit of resurrection, our frail self defaults to the 'safe' fire at the beginning of the night.

And our older selves find our hands are bound. We are not in control. There is no getting out of life, only a going on from one beach fire to the next with an awful lot of fishing in unsafe, unknowable night and, sometimes, unexpected breakfasts… or a giving in to the fire of human failure which sacrifices and betrays life.

The grace is that we can live until the morning. We can live the long nights and even the tired mornings when there seems to be no welcoming fire upon the beach. It is likely John uses the poem to refer to the crucifixion death of Peter. But the poem is about the life giving death of all of us who follow. In the binding and taking where I do not wish to go, when I am pulled away from the safe little fires someone has constructed to me, I am finding new life, new fires, on the beach of the morning. We are taken toward the fire of resurrection.

I look at the fires where I once stood, and I look at fires to which people beckon me, and I am glad I am being dragged somewhere else.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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