When they (the disciples) landed, they saw a fire of burning coals with fish on it, and some bread. …When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
–John 21:9, 15-18 NIV
“It smells burny in here. Why?”
These were my first words to my husband as I walked into the living room one morning this week. Having forgotten that he lit three candles on the table a couple of feet from where he was sitting, he just stared at me blankly. I went into investigative mode until we both realized what was burning and laughed.
Before you wonder if I have OCD tendencies toward smells, you need to hear about our house fire in 1999 that destroyed the entire top floor. I jolted upright in the middle of the night and said basically the same thing, “It smells like something’s burning.” We discovered the fire on an upper floor but had to wait 45 long minutes for the fire department to arrive. Sitting in our van with five children and watching the windows blow out of our house is seared into my memory forever. To this day when we pull out Christmas decorations (some of which survived), I get a whiff of that 23-year-old fire and remember those moments with exact clarity.
I wonder if Peter had a similar experience when he got out of the water on the beach after swimming to shore and smelled the charcoal fire burning. The last time Peter stood at a charcoal fire was minutes before he denied Jesus. The “I’ll follow you anywhere you go” Peter experienced the panicky reality of his world spinning out of control, and his impulsivity led him to deny knowing the One he loved. That moment must have been seared into his mind forever. Peter had been told he was a rock on which God would build his kingdom, but now that rock sat shattered.
After His resurrection, Jesus recreated on that beach an opportunity for Peter to viscerally remember what had happened. For many years I read this passage as Jesus’ opportunity to point out Peter’s sin and to make sure Peter properly repented. Now I better understand that in the memory of the painful brokenness, Jesus enters in with a question, “Do you love me?” Peter responds affirmatively. Jesus, in His desire to restore, then grants him responsibility. Three times Peter needed to hear himself say yes to Jesus and to hear Jesus bestow trust in and responsibility on him. Three times to let it sift down into the pores of his being. When the doubts, confusion, difficulties, beatings, and imprisonments would come, Peter would remember in his body, soul and spirit that he was forgiven, accepted, and trusted to carry responsibility.
I wonder if this moment with Jesus is what Peter had in mind when he commanded, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NASB 95).
I also wonder if every time Peter smelled a charcoal fire his body and mind would remember that he was loved and forgiven. What sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste takes you back to that truth today? What helps you remember that you are in Christ loved, restored, whole, and complete? Let your mind dwell there today.