I’m not sure if it’s just a southern thing, but there is something about the smell of a charcoal fire. Add to that aroma the scent of a properly marinated steak and heaven draws near to earth. I know what you are thinking, I’m exaggerating, but tell me you haven’t had that moment when you arrive at a family gathering, and open the door of the car and the smell of a grill meets your nostrils with sweet enticement. We’ve all been there, unless it’s just a southern thing. One thing, however, that is universal, is while succulent smelling food can draw us into an event, the smell of food that’s been burned is equally repelling.
Smells have strong connections in our minds. Much like your favorite song, a particular smell has the power to take us back to a specific moment in time in our lives, for better or for worse. I can hear a song while grocery shopping that transports me from the produce department to a specific moment in my past where that song held some meaning. Maybe it was a night out with friends driving around town singing at the top of our lungs, or a moment lying alone with headphones blaring at the end of a painful day. In an instant, I’m alive in that moment. For me, the smell of Conecuh Sausage (ok, I’m thinking this is possibly a southern thing) sizzling on a grill top takes me back to Friday evening cookouts on the river as a teenager. Forever my senses have synced that smell with that moment, we all do this subconsciously. You don’t think so? The next time you pull out fresh baked cookies, close your eyes and let your mind travel back in time.
Shortly after His resurrection, in John 21, Jesus had a cookout on the beach. His method of cooking? You guessed it, charcoal. I’m not sure what market He picked up the charcoal or what brand of lighter fluid he might of used, but his use of charcoal over natural gas or a wood burning fire was deliberate. Now, I’m sure there was no name brand charcoal, lighter fluid, or even a natural gas option, but still we have to admit, a wood burning fire would have been a much more natural option. Jesus could have found wood along the shore, but he brought his bag of coal with him for two specific reasons, and it’s something that if we are not careful we run right passed in scripture.
Jesus’ disciples, Peter particularly, lost all bearings when their fearless leader (I think above anyone else in history, Christ deserves that title) is taken captive and killed, they all scattered. Peter shortly after taking a sword to a guard’s ear, never quite understanding the whole point was to be captured and put to death, finds himself in a courtyard lit by fires. It was here he famously denied Christ, whom he had just fought to defend, and adamantly argued he would never forsake. Peter cursed God in his darkest hour just outside the cell where Jesus was being held before execution, this night, the sights, the sounds, and yes the smells here would be something Peter would not soon forget.
After Jesus returned to life, His followers were still trying to find their footing. Though things had occurred precisely as Jesus had foretold, things didn’t happen the way some of his closest followers had anticipated they would. His followers were still confused about where exactly Christ’s Kingdom would play out, so they did what most of us do when we need direction. They went back to what they knew best. When we’ve had a bad day or have experienced loss or confusion we all seek comfort in the familiar, for some of us maybe it’s a jog around the neighborhood, a weekend home to “Mom and Dad’s”, or a simple stop for something sweet. For Jesus’ closest followers it was fishing. The very thing they were doing when Christ found them was what they returned to when everything seemed lost.
Here is the first of two miraculous things that happen in this passage. Jesus walks down to the beach, and instead of being the vengeful leader spurned by lack of dedication, he builds a fire and prepares to cook breakfast for the men when they return to shore. I don’t know about you, but when I’m angry at someone for abandoning me, the last thing I want to do is fix them breakfast. Often this is what we do when we are in the wrong, when we are seeking forgiveness from someone we have wronged. Jesus is on the other side of the coin in this situation, yet he sought Peter and his friends out exactly where they were, and set a fire on the beach to cook them a meal.
The passage in John tells us, while they were still a good distance from the shore, Peter saw the fire and realized it was Jesus who was calling to them; he jumped out of the boat and swam towards his friend. I wonder how far Peter was away from Jesus when the unmistakable smell of the fire caught his attention. When I arrive at a friend’s house and immediately am greeted by the fragrance of charcoal and seared meat my heart flutters, and I’m sure Peter’s heart skipped a beat or two when he was confronted with it as well, only for the opposite reason. See in John 18 we are told specifically that the fires in the courtyard where Peter denied Jesus were charcoal fires. It was an unmistakable smell for Peter, one that would be forever linked to the moment of his greatest failure, and that is precisely why Jesus chose this cooking method.
Sitting on the beach with fish cooking atop a charcoal fire, as Peter emerges from the water soaked to the bone, is the opportune moment where Jesus would have been more than justified to gloat. It could have been the perfect, and blatantly obvious, “I told you so” moment. Can’t you hear Jesus slyly say “Well there buddy, does this smell remind you of anything? Smells like burnt loyalty to me.” That’s what we would have done for sure. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus did. He intentionally created an atmosphere to redeem a tragic moment in his friend’s life. It’s like Jesus was saying, “I know you could spend the rest of your life reliving your regret every time you catch the scent of charcoal, but I want you to remember this moment instead.
Jesus takes it one step further. If you grew up around Sunday School, you know Peter just didn’t deny Jesus once, but three times that night next to the charcoal fire. Each time was more defiant than the previous. Shortly after their breakfast on the beach Jesus takes Peter aside and asked him if he truely loved him. Peter had to know this question was coming, Jesus would want to know after what He heard Peter say that he was still committed to Him. Peter responds quickly, and Jesus asks again, Peter’s second response is the same, and then Jesus asks a third time. Once for each denial. After each of Peter’s confessions of love, Jesus reaffirms his commitment to him by reminding him of the job he had given Peter, “Then feed my sheep.”
I’m reminded of the old testament verse in Genesis 50:20, Joseph spoke to his brother’s who had intended to kill their younger brother, yet later in life needed his help.
“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” (ESV)
See the enemy had intended to wreck the future God had for Peter, he had set him up for a humiliating fall, and was able to tie one of Peter’s five senses (smell) to this failure, it would be something he could never forget. Yet Jesus came along and redeemed both the smell and the denial. Jesus took Peter’s shame and regret and gave him peace and a future.
In our own lives, Christ is doing everything he can to reach us. He’s not sitting on the shores of our hearts to remind us of how great our failures are, we have no problem reminding ourselves of those facts. He is sitting waiting to redeem those moments, and replace them with a hope of what he still has for us to do. He doesn’t want us living forever in our failures, but living in Him and what he’s done for us. And once we have done that, He wants us to be his ambassadors, a word we use in the church to mean “do what he would do to the people around us.” He wants us reaching out and meeting people where they are hurting, and using every opportunity, not to taunt them that they are getting what they deserve, but to redeem those moments in their lives so Christ can redeem them. It’s why he came. Let Him do it for you. Then go help Him do it to the people we encounter. This is his purpose:
“I will TURN their mourning into JOY; I will COMFORT them, and GIVE them GLADNESS for sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:13 ESV emphasis added)
Grace and peace to you.