Sunday, April 21, 2013

The flame of our Memories

Third Sunday of Easter Year C

There's an old saying which posits that, if you want your children to remember you, then cut them out of your will.  There is both truth and irony in knowing how the most painful memories are usually the ones that stick, no matter how much you try to forget them or suppress them. I agree with what Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the award winning novel ‘The Fight Club’, wrote in his Diary, “It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.” But sometimes, as Jesus taught us in last week’s gospel, we do have scars to show for happiness, which also provides us a lesson on peace.

In today’s gospel, we see another encounter between the resurrected Lord and his disciples. Last week, Jesus met his disciples in the upper room behind locked doors. This week, the disciples have emerged into the open, in and around the Sea of Tiberias (or Galilee). In Chapter 20, the disciples were stricken with fear, they were frightened for their own lives, but in Chapter 21, we see a group of disciples who have grown despondent, who have forgotten their original mission, who have decided to return to the careers and preoccupations they held prior to meeting Jesus. It was as if Jesus had been written off the slate and the whole story of discipleship a mere dream. Right at the very centre of today’s lengthy gospel story is the story of Jesus sitting on the shore cooking and warming himself beside a charcoal fire.

Even if you are not a student of Biblical Greek, you may be interested to note that word use for that charcoal fire, anthrakia, only appears here and in another place in John’s gospel; John 18:18. This other scene takes place in the courtyard of the High Priest, precisely at the point where St Peter denied Jesus. Peter cozied up to Jesus’ captors to warm himself by the charcoal fire. But now in this Post-Easter scene, Peter drags himself up shivering on the beach and finds the same charcoal fire. If you were a director of a movie, imagine the camera zooming in and lingering on this shot – Charcoal fire – and another scene emerges from its flames.

The fire is a source of warmth in the chilly half-light, but it also illumines the darkness. The fire evokes once again the scene of denial in Chapter 18, the scene where Peter once stood by the fire and said, “I am not his disciple.” The past comes rushing back. Perhaps in the distance we can hear the cock crowing. There in the high priest's courtyard, surrounded by temple soldiers, Peter sits. If he is recognised as a disciple -- particularly, as the disciple who has drawn blood resisting them in the Garden -- he is likely to be arrested. It is a precarious place in which to be. On the one hand, we see a Peter who is courageous and bold -- he wants to be near his Lord in his hour of need. But Peter is terrified, also. He is in danger and knows it. And as he sits near the fire, he begins to wonder what might happen. As long shadows dance in the firelight, Peter's fears continue to grow. What if I'm recognised? How can I hide when it becomes light? What should I do if I'm identified by someone who was there? And so Peter's courage and bravado give way to fear.

So this dramatic scene at the end of the gospel turns out to be a story of memory and restoration. Many readers would recognise immediately the three fold question of Jesus to Peter offers Peter a way of retracing the steps of his earlier threefold denial. “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Three times, one for each knell of Peter’s denial, Jesus offers a corresponding invitation to Peter to confess his renewed love and loyalty. But this healing confession does not come without pain. In fact, it may reopen the scars which Peter has been desperately trying to conceal and exclude from memory. Confronting the Risen Jesus is not easy, especially for those who have betrayed him. Standing in the flickering light of the charcoal fire, Peter must first remember his failure and then own it. Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, once preached “Simon has to recognise himself as a betrayer; that is part of the past that makes him who he is. If he is to be called again, if he can again become a true apostle, the ‘Peter’ that he is in the purpose of Jesus rather the Simon who runs back to a cozy obscurity of ‘ordinary life’, his failure must be assimilated, lived through again, and brought to good and not destructive issue.”

To exist without memory can be to live a life that is, in a sense, anaesthetised.  Our humanity is arguably defined by, and certainly enhanced by, our capacity to form and then transmit personal memories. I've learned over the years that guilt can be a terrible taskmaster. That may be the reason why we deliberately choose to suppress memories. By forgetting, we attempt to exile and banish the guilt that comes with that memory to the dark recesses of the mind. But guilt itself cannot help us conquer sin. Guilt is the burglar alarm of our conscience, and while it can ring incessantly, it cannot heal. Only the love of Jesus for us and our love for Jesus can heal us. This is what St John meant when he said, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18). But if we choose to bury our memory and the guilt that goes along with it, we may risk the danger of also burying the memory of Jesus’ love for us.

And so, we are invited to gaze deeply into the flames – we see in the flames not only a reflection of our worst failures but also future path of our redemption. Though tempted to look away, we must return our gaze to the fire that burns brightly before us. The fire may reveal the dross hidden in our hearts, but the fire also dispels the darkness of the night. In the burning flames of God’s love, we recognise both the wounds caused by our sinfulness, and the healing offered by Christ. As we look into the flames, we see Jesus looking back at us. In the flames, in the memories of our past faults and failures, we see Jesus forgiving our offenses, taking our penalty, healing our sin-damaged souls, and restoring us to communion with God. In the flames, we will discover our healing at the hands of Jesus.

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