Peter at the Charcoal Fire
The Greek word anthrakia (cf. the English derivative “anthracite”), meaning a charcoal fire, is found only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel according to St. John. The first instance is in 18:18 and designates the courtyard fire where the officers and servants of the high priest stood warming themselves through the chilly night of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. Simon Peter likewise came to that place and stood near a cousin of Malchus. It was there by the charcoal fire that Simon thrice denied even knowing our Lord, going so far as to confirm the denials with an oath.
It is most significant, surely, that that event, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn two lessons that they must never forget:
First, anyone may fall, any time. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake adrenaline for grace. Within a very short time after swinging his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find him backing down, embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages must never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Second, Christians were also to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas. Thus, the Gospel stories tell us, until our very last breath, it is never too late to return to God in answer to the summons of his grace. It is probably Luke’s Gospel that gives the most poignant description of this conversion: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . So Peter went out and wept bitterly” (22:61f). This event is turned into a prayer in an ancient Latin hymn composed to be sung at cockcrow, the very hour of the denial: “Jesu, labantes respice / et nos videndo corrige / Si respicis labes cadunt / et fletu culpa solvitur”—“Jesus, gaze upon those who are falling, and set us right by the gaze. Our sins fall away at your glance, and guilt is dissolved in weeping.”
The second charcoal fire in John’s Gospel is the one in its final scene, the fire kindled by the Lord himself, over which he prepared breakfast for his dispirited apostles (21:9). After breakfast, it was at this fire that Jesus would put to that same Simon Peter his three-fold question: “Do you love me?” The apostle understood, of course, why the question was asked of him three times, for it was the very number of his own denial. At this point the chastened Peter, no longer trusting himself, relies completely on the Lord’s knowledge of his heart (21:17).
But there is more to the story. Simon Peter’s three-fold profession is followed by a reference to his eventual martyrdom, which had already happened by the time that this text was written. Indeed, the author of John 21 clearly presupposes his readers’ familiarity with the event. The story of the apostle’s crucifixion in the mid-60s was so widely reported among the churches that John could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter’s hands as “signifying by what death he was to glorify God” (21:18f). The point required no further explanation. The early Christians were so familiar with the circumstances of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome that around the turn of the century Clement of Rome (Ad Corinthios 5.4), writing from Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch (Romans 4), writing to Rome, felt no need to elaborate on the details and circumstances. That this Johannine passage (“thou shalt stretch forth thy hands . . . signifying by what death he was to glorify God”) did in fact refer to Peter’s crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian, writing in Africa slightly after the year 200. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: “Then was Peter ‘bound by another,’ when he was fastened to the cross” (Scorpiace 15.3).
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