The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kumbaya: Fire in the Fourth Gospel

I'm listening to Zac Brown Band's "Stuck in colder weather" and it got me thinking about the changes our beautiful earth will cultivate over the next couple of months. Here in North Carolina, we'll go from hot to cool, with leaves abounding, and although I'll continue to dress appropriate for work, I'll be wishing I could return to my seminary wardrobe of bluejeans and hoodies. I love the fall. My birthday is fast approaching (I'll be 29- lame) along with football, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Also, the house we are renting has a fireplace. Many people who know me know that I love a good fire, whether roasting marshmallows (one time I cooked an entire Totino's pizza over the open flame) indoors or building a bonfire by placing old Christmas trees through a wood-chipper. I love fires for their warmth, their beauty, and their ability to bring people close together.

When I was a youth director, every year we would take a mission trip to Mexico to build houses. Every night by the campfire we'd sing songs, tell stories, and grow closer to God. When I left that church to head to seminary, it was around that campfire that I said goodbye. Like all fires, this one came, roared, and eventually went out.

The writer of the fourth Gospel (we'll call him John) is one of the best writers I have ever read. No kidding- this guy is better than Shakespeare. The Gospel of John is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. There is so much rich depth, skill, intentionality, and long-running themes unlike anything else ever written.

For example, John opens his gospel with a re-writing of Genesis 1, a theme he is devoted to throughout. He uses the symbolism of still water and running water/ light and dark/ day and night/ up and down/ etc. to show how God reveals God's self most fully in Jesus Christ and throughout all creation. John writes that creation isn't complete until Jesus dies. His last words on the cross, "It is finished" are the same last words uttered by God in Genesis 1.

Jesus is the epitome of God's good creation, and sin (according to John's gospel) is simple disbelief that Jesus is God's son. So when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, he is of course, committing the one sin. And wouldn't you know it, where is Peter when he denies Christ for a third time? He's warming himself by a campfire.

Fire is good when it helps us cook food, sanitize objects, and warm our bodies. Fire is bad when when we let it burn us, when we fear it, when it makes us think of hell. There is no hell, really, in John's Gospel. Just fire.

Earlier that night, Jesus is confronted outside the garden of Gethsemane ( a clever parallel to the garden of Eden) and the guards ask him for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, three times, responds, "I am he" The words, "I am" are big in John as they are in Genesis, because only God says, "I am." Conversely, when Peter asks if he is associated with Jesus, he says, "I am not" because he is scared. He goes to the campfire for earthly comfort and warmth. In the flickering of the firelight someone recognizes him and asks for the third time, this man being a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off. This man says to Peter, "Didn't I see you in the Garden?" Again, such wonderful allusion to the Garden of Eden, as God looks for Adam when he is hiding after his sin. Peter denies being in the garden to the brother of the man he assaulted in the garden, as they sit watching the fire. When Peter denies it this time, the rooster crows. It is now morning. The dark night has passed away. The fire is no longer necessary for light and heat. A new day, a new creation, a new chance to seek God is dawning. Of course, this is the day that Jesus dies. It is the day that He gives up his spirit, his Holy Spirit, which he promised to leave behind when he exits this world. This is the day that Jesus finishes Creation.

We pick up in John 21*

Three (or four) days later, again after daybreak, Peter, John and some other disciples are fishing but not catching. They see Jesus from far away, and he asks them to put their nets on the other side of the boat. When they see all the fish they catch, Peter jumps into the water and swims to Jesus, having now recognized his Lord. And guess what Jesus had prepared for them. Yep- a fire. By this fire he and Peter have "the talk" of reconciliation. Three times- the number of times that Peter denied knowing Jesus- Jesus now asks Peter if he loves him. Peter grows indignant. "You know that I love you," he says. Jesus responds, "Follow me," which are first words that Jesus said to him when asking him to be a disciple.

The circle is complete. Peter was a fishermen, Jesus came and told him to follow him. Peter denies knowing Jesus by the fire, and at the second fire Jesus forgives him.  He again tells Peter to follow him.

The inclusion of the fire is to show the link between these two stories of denial/repentance or fear/trust. In the archetypal sense,  fire represents, "knowledge, light, life, and rebirth," all of which are happening in the second fireside scene. Perhaps this is why I have always liked fires so much.

Have a Happy Fall everybody.

*John 21 was an added text by the editor of John's Gospel. While it follows the same themes as the rest of the book, it also pick up on stories that are in Luke, not John. Peter, James, and John are fishermen at the beginning of Luke where Jesus says, "Follow me." The editor weaves the stories together to form one narrative.

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