Holy Week Reflections | Charcoal Smell

John 21:1-19

Taste and see that the Lord is good. 

So says the Psalmist, but I bet he never sat by a charcoal fire eating fish sandwiches made by Jesus himself! 

Here the disciples are, on the shore of the lake, eating tasty food prepared by Jesus himself over a charcoal fire. 

And we know the miracles of charcoal. I don’t have a big green egg, but I hear they’re pretty amazing. I have a little Weber for tailgating and I just love the taste of good food off a charcoal grill. The gas grill is great, but doesn’t quite get at that charcoal taste. There’s just something about the taste and the smell of cooking over a charcoal fire. 

For me, as I’m sure it is for you, the smell brings back strong pleasant memories. Times of family gatherings on sunny days on the back porch, times of get togethers with friends, lingering over the dinner, times of rest and relaxation. 

Smell has a way of doing that. As the sense most strongly connected to memory, smell can quickly transport us back in our minds to a previous time, a place, a moment in time. 

Smells often transport me back in time. Many smells, even the ones linked to bad memories, were part of my childhood growing up next to a wildlife refuge. I grew up on the largest college campus in the world: Berry College. It’s the largest not because of it’s physical plant, but because of the land it owns. Berry owns a mountain: Lavender Mountain, most of which is preserved as a wildlife refuge. 

Very often growing up, I had encounters with wildlife out in the woods and on the trails. Rattlesnakes awoke and rattled at me from their sun-soaked rocks as my bike flew by. Deer ran away from me as I walked the trails in the woods. Fox skirted through the underbrush. And skunks hid in bushes.

This one I almost learned the hardway. One night, walking around the campus proper, I smelled a new smell. This one I couldn’t place, so I decided to follow my nose. As I walked in the direction, the smell got stronger. It was an odd smell, increasingly unpleasant, but intriguing enough to keep me moving forward. My nose led me to a bush by the library. Still intrigued, and still naive, I pushed into the bush and discovered a furry black animal with a white stripe down it’s back, tail raised in my direction. 

Needless to say, I ran as fast as I could away from the skunk. It sprayed, but it missed me. Ever since, I can smell a skunk a mile away. I smell it sometimes on the interstate, sometimes on back country roads coming home from clergy meetings, and whenever I do, my experience instructs me to get away from the smell as fast as possible. 

We learn from experience. The only way we learn to drive is through experience, no matter how many times we read the manual. The only way we learn to ride a bike is through experience, no matter how many times we fall off. The only way we learn to read is through experience. The only way we learn to practice our profession, no matter how much schooling, ultimately comes down to experience. 

And the only way we learn to live the life of faith is through experience. No amount of listening to preaching or teaching, no amount of sitting in church services or attending small groups, no amount of service to the community or service on committees, can teach us how to live the life of faith. Only experiencing Jesus for ourselves can teach us how to be a person of faith.

At some point, we have to make a choice to experience faith. We have to practice what we preach. We have to put into practice spiritual disciplines, habits, to taste and see for ourselves that the Lord is good. 

We all face the same choice to experience faith as the disciples did in the middle of the lake. They’ve fished all night, they’re tired, weary, and worn. From the shore as day breaks comes a call from a stranger, an unrecognizable figure, suggesting they throw their nets to the other side of the ship. Certainly, they’ve tried that already. They’ve done everything they know how to do, and they’re still coming up empty. What does this guy, standing on the shore, know about anything? Who says he’s a fisherman? Clearly, he’s not in the middle of their struggle, so he must not know anything. 

At times, we cast our nets into the water of life and catch lots and lots of fish. These times seem abundant with blessings, with provision, and life is good.

But at other times, we, like the disciples, cast our nets into the water of life and catch nothing. We spend the nights of our lives, living in darkness like the disciples on the ship, waiting, watching, hoping for provision, hoping for blessings and abundance. We wonder, where is God in this moment? Where is Jesus on the shore of my life with an abundance of fish and bread: the essentials of life? In the nights of my life, when will the day break, revealing Jesus on the shore, ready to give me what I need? 

These are natural questions of the life of faith. Doubt creeps in at times, especially those dark, difficult, times of life when Jesus seems far away, barely visible to us, seemingly 100 yards away from our reality. Sometimes in life, it feels as though we’re sailing our ship through the waters of life all on our own. Perhaps there’s a faint image of someone 100 yards away on the shore, beckoning us, but what does that person know? We’re the ones in the middle of the waters, trying hard to find our way and provide for our needs. 

In those moments, how are we to taste and see that the Lord is good? There’s nothing to taste: no charcoal fire for fish sandwiches for us. And there’s just the faint image of someone on the shore; nothing to see. 

But the disciples make a choice. Trust the voice they hear and give it a try. 

Jesus calls to us still from the shores of our lives. We find ourselves often in the middle of the dark and difficult events of life, trying everything we know to do and yet still coming up empty. From the shore, from the unexpected places, comes a faint voice we can’t quite identify that suggests we cast our nets elsewhere, that we try something different, something new. From the shore comes the call to spiritual discipline, to try out the life of faith, to follow Christ. 

The question is, will we make the choice? The disciples could have written off the man they couldn’t recognize. They could have kept on with what they knew. Afterall, they’re the experts in the water. As Theodore Roosevelt might say, they’re the ones in the ring, fighting the fight. Why should they listen? Why should they follow? 

But they chose to follow. They made a choice to put faith in this man. And their experience proves instructive. 

After their choice to put faith to practice, they recognize the call of Jesus and know their master’s voice. They recognize Jesus! They sail the ship to harbor and get off to have breakfast together. 

When we feel lost, adrift, in the seas of life, we too must make the choice to put our faith to practice. That’s when we learn to hear our master’s voice, to separate it from all the competing voices in our heads. That’s when we learn from the experience of faith. 

Faith is an interesting concept. It needs constant attention, constant discipline, constant learning. That’s part of why we go to church, it’s part of why preaching is a part of our weekly worship services. But we can only truly learn it if we try it out ourselves. If we taste and see about faith.

So often in the hard moments of life, we want Jesus to give us fish and bread: to give us what we need in that moment. We’re tired, we’re weary, we’re worn. But this story tells us that we must make a choice of faith, to hear and respond to our master calling us from the shore, to find the fish and bread we need. God is constantly reaching out to us with provision, but we need faith to see it, to realize it, to grasp it. We need to make that choice to try out faith, to try out spiritual disciplines, find what works to connect us to God, and make a habit out of it. For the only way to truly learn faith is through experience.

The question then remains, what keeps us from making the choice? What keeps us from choosing to experience faith? 

For Peter, the choice was difficult because of the smell of the charcoal fire.

Just a few days before the fish sandwiches with Jesus, Peter found himself around another charcoal fire. The police and slaves in the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas had lit a charcoal fire on the evening of Maundy Thursday to warm themselves. Peter walked over to this fire to warm himself as well, walking away from a woman who had identified Peter as one of the disciples. To her, Peter denied knowing Jesus and went to warm himself. Twice more, standing around this charcoal fire, Peter denies knowing Jesus until the cock crows.

Three times, Peter is asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples. Three times Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus will build his church, is called out for being a disciple and, three times, while Jesus is being questioned and put up for execution by Caiaphas and Pilate, Peter denies it. 

As Peter approached Jesus from the boat, smelling the charcoal fire burning, his mind must have immediately raced back to the last time Peter smelled a charcoal fire: when he had denied Jesus three times.

I, like Peter, have had smells take me back down memory lanes I’d rather forget. Maybe you can relate. Times of failure, times of rejection, times of brokenness, times of despair. These moments, as much as we might like to forget them, or live in denial of them, visit all of us when the right smell comes along. 

Guilt can trap us into thinking that Jesus doesn’t forgive us. Failure in our relationship with God can lead us to think that we won’t be welcomed back into relationship. Despair can leave us with no hope that Jesus’s arms really are truly open. 

But consider how welcoming Jesus is to Peter. He prepares a feast before him and declares he has a delightful inheritance. There’s a love here in the thrice asked “do you love me more than these?” The question sounds complex but is remarkably simple: Peter, do you love me? That’s all that’s needed for relationship with me, because I’m ready to welcome you back with love. 

That’s the power of the love of God. It transforms us, even if we’re racked with guilt over failures, despair, or guilt. Jesus is always holding out his arms, ready to provide for us, ready to welcome us back into relationship, no matter how many times we’ve denied him. 

And we find this truth, this reality, through choosing to experience faith.

We need to taste and see that the Lord is good. For only by experience will we find the provision we need. Only by experience will we know the sound of our master’s voice. 

This week, seek out experiences of faith. No matter how far you’ve strayed, may you taste and see that the Lord is good.

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