When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it … (John 21:9)
Jesus fixed campfire food which He cooked over a charcoal fire. Who really cares whether it was a charcoal fire (apparently made from chunks of anthracite) or whether it was one inflamed from gathered sticks and driftwood? It probably doesn’t matter, until we realize that precisely this kind of fire was already mentioned earlier in John’s Gospel. This Greek word (“anthracite”) is only used in only two places in the New Testament. John 18:18 is the first time it is used: Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. Warming himself next to the charcoal fire, Peter proceeded to deny Jesus: Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed [vv 25-28].
Peter’s denials of Jesus were voiced next to a charcoal fire. So it is certainly no coincidence that John records how Jesus appeared to His apostles after His resurrection next to a charcoal fire. This was uniquely meaningful to Saint Peter. When studying this Sunday’s 3-year gospel reading one observes that John records it to emphasize the Apostle Peter. Consider that the list of Apostles in attendance on that seashore begins with Simon Peter. Then Simon Peter is the one who instigates the fishing excursion. After John then recognizes who is on the shore, he first tells Peter, It is the Lord. Observe then that it is “naked” Peter who garbs himself and plunges into the sea to meet Jesus ahead of the others. Peter is the first to encounter the charcoal fire…which likely was meaningless to the other Apostles. All of the Apostles had deserted Jesus in His time of need, but uniquely Peter, next to a charcoal fire, had denied him with a certain vulgarity, even though he had vowed that he would never deny his Lord.
Over a charcoal fire the resurrected Savior now broils a meal for these unfaithful disciples. He is going to eat with them, and agreeing to eat with others in that culture meant that in some way you were accepting them. From such thinking one realizes why the question was posed to Jesus relative to His sinful dining companions: When the scribes who were Pharisees saw Jesus eating with these people, they asked His disciples, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” [Mk 2:16]. This question was posed precisely because by eating with these folks Jesus was indicating that in some way He was accepting such “sinners”. Indeed He was receiving them, for He came to save sinners! When someone ate with Jesus it was a form of communion with Him.
Now Jesus offers a communion meal (not the Lord’s Supper per se) with the guilt-ridden Apostles. This meal of fish and bread demonstrated Christ’s acceptance of these denying diners, and even more so it indicated a renewal of their apostolic commission to be His official witnesses. But what about that Apostle who, while standing next to a charcoal fire, had most blatantly denied Jesus? The charcoal fire he now stands before, like the picture of a woman with whom an accused man has committed adultery, burns in the gut of this formerly proud apostle, reminding him of his horrible fall into sin. The Lord realizes that His eating with Peter will not be enough of a statement to convey Peter’s renewed acceptance, so in the continuation of this account Jesus mimics Peter’s triple denial with a triple reaffirmation of Peter’s commission as Apostle. Peter would realize in forgiveness that he is restored to do the work of tending and feeding Christ’s sheep. Peter is forgiven to serve the Lord.
Now we each have the “charcoal fire” of the Ten Commandments. These rightly remind us of our sins and our sinful condition. We then have the great Communion meal, eating with and upon the resurrected Christ, receiving His acceptance/forgiveness. Like Peter, we often need to hear an additional affirmation of our forgiveness, and thus from the mouth of a Pastor one can hear the absolution—forgiveness bestowed publicly and/or privately. We thus realize that, like Peter, we are forgiven to serve the Lord.