Sermons

Two Coal Fires and One Cock’s Crow

bonfire burning camp campfire
A sermon on John 18:12-27 and John 21:1-19.

Have you ever done something and then instantly regretted it? I certainly know I have. When I fourteen I was in my first PE lesson since coming out of plaster cast for two broken wrists. My teacher asked me and my friend to sort out the equipment cupboard. Students weren’t normally allowed in the equipment cupboard and we were delighted to discover all sorts of balls for all the games we curiously never played in PE, including volleyball. So, my friend and I had a quick game of volleyball in the cupboard. Then we thought, what if we tried the same game but with different balls? It worked well enough with a deflated football and the only complaint we had of the basketball is that it was scratchy to our skin. When it came to the cricket ball, however, I heard a resounding crack and then came an immediate sensation of regret, quickly followed by a pain in my wrist which was all too familiar.

I would go on to break my wrist again the following year in another fateful PE lesson, resulting in four broken wrists in just two years. I became known, reasonably correctly, as accident-prone, clumsy, and unfortunate. On my last day of school, I was given a prize for ‘Most Number of Broken Bones.’ A handful of moments, which didn’t showcase me at my best, became something I was defined by.

Simon Peter will forever be remembered as the disciple who betrayed Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. As the high priest interrogates Jesus, striking him after Jesus responds his followers should be asked the same question, Peter is huddled round a charcoal fire and is himself interrogated: ‘”You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”’ Again, around the fire he is asked, ‘”You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”’ A third time he is asked, ‘”Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again, Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.’

The other Gospels tell us that the sound of the cock crowing and its heralding to Peter the full weight of what he has done, causes him to weep bitterly. Just a short while before, he responded with utter indignation when Jesus told him that Simon Peter wasn’t yet going to follow him and that he would, in fact, deny him three times. Simon Peter claims he would lay his life down for Jesus, but at the point where Jesus needed him most, Simon Peter denied him, not once, not twice, but three times.

Just a few days later and Simon Peter is out fishing and he catches nothing. How short his memory is! Just a few years before he was out fishing again and again caught nothing. Simon Peter has many gifts and skills but sometimes fishing isn’t his strongest. And, again, Jesus says to him to cast out his nets and then comes the vast aquatic haul. Simon Peter comes to the shore and then he’s right back in the courtyard, his whole body heavy and sick with guilt.

Because have you ever been going about your day when suddenly you smell something, and that smell reaches your brain and it transports you to a specific memory. It’s funny how it unlocks the most precise memories, how smells ring bells. And as Simon Peter meets Jesus on the beach, the smell from the charcoal fire hits him. It’s a smell he’s encountered once before – in the courtyard of the high priest and he’s alerted to a memory of the biggest mistake he has ever made in his life.

And what does Jesus do? Does he berate Simon Peter? ‘I told you would you deny me three times! I was being beaten and tortured and you said you didn’t know me. I thought you said you’d lay your life down for me? Well, I’m done with you.’ No, he breaks bread with him, they have breakfast together on the beach, by the fire and now, should Simon Peter smell such a smell again, his memory won’t flood his body with guilt, but with the sweet relief of mercy.

It’s so easy to define to ourselves by the worst moments in our lives, by the mistakes we have made, by the sins we have committed. As human beings, we all too readily judge ourselves by our failures and failings. When Simon Peter hears the cock crow, it is the sound of condemnation. It heralds his failure, proclaims his mistakes, and declares judgement against him. But what does a crowing cock normally mean? It means that a new day is dawning.

What we believe pronounces our condemnation, God uses to declare his mercy. Simon Peter is not defined by his thrice denial of Jesus any more than we are defined by our biggest mistakes; like Simon Peter we are defined by God’s unrelenting mercy, new for us each day. If Simon Peter had denied Jesus a thousand times, the strength of God’s mercy for him would still not have diminished even the smallest amount. Because God’s mercy is not dependent on the highest perfectionism we can attain but on the depth of the grave he went to in order to save us. Instead of remembering Simon Peter the denier, remember Simon Peter the forgiven. For yourself, forget your mistakes but remember God’s forgiveness. When the cock crows, hear mercy, not condemnation. Allow yourself to be defined by God’s mercy.

Back on the beach and Jesus takes Simon Peter away from the other disciples. ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus asks. ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Simon Peter replies. ‘Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A 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.”’ A third time Jesus asks him ‘”Do you love me?’” “‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”’ Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves him, and not once, not twice, but three times Simon Peter says that he loves him. Simon Peter doesn’t need to ask Jesus if he loves him, he already knows how perfectly, overwhelmingly, and spectacularly Jesus loves him.

This love transforms us – it certainly does Simon Peter, he takes on the mantle of the Good Shepherd first held by Jesus and as we read in Acts he truly becomes the shepherd of the early church. And he is only able to be the shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep because he is able to love them with all he has. No matter the mistakes we have made, what God wants from us – in this passage three times commands us – is to use our love for him for to serve others, the love for him which we draw from the wellspring of his love for us. We will still stumble, and we will still make mistakes; it was the same for Simon Peter. But out of his identity in Jesus’ love and his love for Jesus, he feeds and tends his sheep, not inhibited by if he will measure up but empowered by his worth set by God. Love imperfectly, serve imperfectly, because you are saved perfectly, and be defined by God’s love.

I went to Rome for a few days over the summer and visited St Peter’s Basilica. It’s a stunning building with resplendent golds and vibrant reds, on one part of the Dome are inscribed the words ‘To the glory of St Peter.’ If Simon Peter had been there at the time, I imagine he’d have said to the man with his inscribing tools primed: ‘To the glory of God.’

God’s glory does not look how we expect it to. If it did, creation would not have begun with a whisper and Jesus would not have arrived via a young girl in a Judean backwater. Rather, God’s glory looks like being betrayed by your friend, hauled in front of a high priest, denied, tortured, killed, and buried – and then rising from the dead. God’s glory looks like defeating death and then going for breakfast with someone you love. God’s glory was not dependent on Simon Peter’s triumph, but in his failings, God’s glory is revealed. It is revealed even further in their set apart moment on the beach, where in Simon Peter’s utter brokenness, the glory of God is revealed, the glory of grace which is ‘unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver’ and on display and the most unlikely of moments. It was true for Simon Peter and it is true for us, never underestimate the moments and circumstances in which God’s grace is revealed and become defined by God’s glory.

So, if you’re looking for lessons in discipleship from Simon Peter, the man who three times denied Jesus and the who three times declared ‘Lord, you know that I love you,’ then like Simon Peter remember what defines you – remember who defines you. Remember that you are not your mistakes or your failures, and that your mishaps are never the end of your story, rather you become part of the ongoing story of God’s reuniting with his children. Be defined by God’s mercy, be defined by God’s love, be defined by God’s glory.

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