Our visit to the Holy Land a few years ago with Riding Lights Theatre Group was life-changing on many levels, but tracing the steps of Jesus, actually treading on the stones he might have stood on (which had me taking off my shoes a few times to make better physical contact with my bare feet), climbing the same steps, looking at the contours of the land that remained the same for my eyes as His, felt and heard the lapping of the River Jordan on my legs was all so powerfully emotive for me, and connected in my heart in a way I can’t explain.
On the stony shore of the Sea of Galilee before breakfast one beautiful morning, around a fire they had lit, we watched two of the actors re-enacting Jesus’ restoration of Peter after he thrice denied even knowing Jesus during His trial, when previously he had rather brashly asserted that he would go to the death with Jesus, and never ever desert him. Reminds me of some of the passionate and dramatic promises I’ve made to Jesus, to follow Him in some special way or other, usually starting with the words “I’ll always” or “I’ll never” – and failed to keep.
You remember how, after the anguish and ordeal of Jesus’ death and then the roller-coaster high of His resurrection and appearances to them, some of the disciples had quietly gone fishing, but without success. And then Jesus on the shore, already cooking breakfast over a fire, tells them to throw their nets over the other side, whereupon they have such a mega catch they can barely haul it in. Peter, like a little puppy who has displeased its master, begging for approval, leaps over the side of the boat to get to Jesus quicker. After breakfast is eaten, Jesus starts his famous dialogue with Peter.
2000+ years later on the same beach, Ian, the Riding Lights’ chaplain, explained that the word translated “fire of burning coals” over which Jesus was cooking fish, was not the usual word for fire, as in flames, like the burning torches the Temple guards carried to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the glow of burning charcoal, as in the fire or brazier in the high priest’s courtyard, the scene of Peter’s sad betrayal. You know how evocative smells are, and how they can instantly and vividly transport us to memories in the past, whether delightfully happy or romantic ones, or painful ones full of shame or sorrow or perhaps even terror. Well, Ian suggested to us that the smell and glow of the charcoal fire on the beach would have immediately taken Peter back to that courtyard, where there was also a charcoal fire, the same Greek word, and where he had in fear denied he’d ever known Jesus, not just once but three times, and when a cock started crowing, remembered Jesus predicting just that – and he went and wept bitterly.
When looking again a couple of weeks ago at the story of Jesus’ trial, and the three questions Peter was asked about him knowing Jesus, I realised that the first two were phrased in such a way that they anticipated the answer “No”. The third time expected the answer “Yes”. Peter of course denied it all three times. And I wondered if this helped explain what happened when several days later on the beach Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, because the first two times Jesus used the word agape – do you truly love me with your whole personality and will, a steady choice rather than an emotion. The third time he used phileo – a natural, spontaneous affection, in which emotion plays a more prominent role than will. Peter uses the word phileo to answer all three times – although he had claimed in the past a love greater than the other disciples, is he perhaps being more realistic here? And is Jesus, who reassuringly re-commissioned Peter to feed and take care of His sheep and lambs perhaps suggesting that to do so, Peter will need to draw on agape love, the very love of God?
Whatever the case, the smell of the fire and the three-fold questions and then being trusted with such a task must have been balm to Peter’s soul, and deeply healing and reassuring. How well Jesus knows us, and deals with our sillinesses and failures, and is just longing to restore us. Back on our Riding Lights tour, Ian then led us, with the smell of the fire, and the sight of it before us, and the sound of the waves lapping on the large stones, to a meditation thinking where we had let Jesus down, disowned him, spoken against rather than for – and then allowing Him to touch and heal us with his forgiving love – and asking him what he had for us to do in the days ahead.
Not quite the same atmospheric conditions for you sitting at your computer screens – but He is the same Jesus!