Flashbacks are generally not a good thing. The smell of roses to my mom brought back her father's early death and a casket heaped with roses. The smell of snuffed candles in a Lutheran church took my Disciple of Christ friend back to the days he cooked his heroin. The site of a school bus, even 22 years later takes me back to a 5 year-old run over by one. Flashback is what Augustine said Jesus is doing to Peter in our text (ACC, IVb, 380). Yet Kenny Chesney's 2004 song "I Go Back" is about good flashbacks. Can that be? For good or ill flashback is what Jesus does to us too.
First Peter: Fishing all night having caught nothing flashes Peter back to 2 years ago when Jesus sat teaching in his boat while Peter was busy tending nets after a night of no fish. The Stranger on the shore telling them to put the nets on the right side of the boat and promising they'll find fish flashes him back to that same day when Jesus told them to let down their nets for a catch in the middle of the day.
But when the flashback really lights him up, it takes him back to overwhelming sinfulness. He had only let down the nets when and where Jesus told him, to humor Jesus. He hadn't believed what Jesus had promised. He hadn't believed Jesus was Lord over fish, fishing and fisherman. So he fell down before Jesus and begged him, "Depart from me Lord a sinful man."
Ever been close to drowning? If you have, virtually every time you plunge into water, you'll have a bad flashback. Peter has one. Peter is taken back to the time he sank into this same body of water. He was fully dressed walking on water toward the Lord who had commanded he come to Him. This time Peter jumps in, but as the water billowed up his clothing and he sank beneath its waves he flashed back to the time he walked on water, almost.
He went back to the time he took his eyes off the Lord who had commanded him to come and so promised he could walk on water. He went back to the time when he had paid more attention to the wind whipping the waves and howling in his ears than he did to the Lord beckoning him forward and empowering him miraculously. He flashbacked to the time his unbelief sank him beneath the waves like a stone and he had screamed like a little girl, "You must save me Lord!" And the Lord did but called him of little faith and confronted him with: "Why did you doubt?"
The flashbacks are getting more vivid, involving more senses; the last involves the sense of smell. The smell of roses forever made my mother nauseas. The smell of a snuffed candle did the same to my friend the former heroin addict. I know you have a thousand smells from Christmas trees to your mom's perfume that flash you back to something good. But if you have a bad one, it's one you try to avoid.
Peter swims to shore flashing back to the time he was overwhelmed with a sense of his sinfulness and the time his faith failed and fear had all but swallowed him. And he gets to the shore and what does he see? "A fire of burning coals." That's a charcoal fire. The New Testament only uses this word 2 places. Here and for the fire in the high priest's courtyard where Peter had first denied his Lord. The charcoal fire smell wafted in the air and followed him as he denied his Lord a second and a third time.
The smell of burning charcoal, a very recognizable, pungent odor took him back not to steaks on a grill, not to barbeque, not to summer or camping or anything good. The smell of charcoal burning everywhere flashed Peter back to his arrogant pride, to being sure he could stand only to fall 3 times, to Jesus' bloody, beaten, bruised face, and the taste of salty bitter tears.
Is Jesus this blatant with us? I think so. I know so. In fact if the law doesn't flash you back to an overwhelming sense of your sinfulness, then you're not hearing it in all its forcefulness. The apostle Peter gets to the point of knowing he is such a sinner that the Lord should leave him, but not you. The apostle Paul gets to the point of crying in despair, "O wretched man that I am," but not you. Yeah, yeah you're a sinner, but Jesus' job is to forgive sinners. If the law doesn't flash you back beyond your excuses and promises to do better, you're not hearing it rightly.
But surely you can be flashbacked to a time when you started out well in the faith only to loose sight of Jesus and fail miserably? Haven't you resolved to trust God, to believe His commands and promises? And didn't you walk on water for a time be it so brief? And then doubt, fear, and worry sank you beneath the waves. Don't you flashback to the time you were positive, confident, fearless about whatever following Jesus required? Don't you flashback to the time when it felt good and clean and empowered to be a Christian? And now how dark the night, how cold the water as you sink.
These flashbacks may be too powerful to preach on because I only know what mine are. I don't want to push a button that could start a cascading of flashbacks in you. But Jesus does. If there is smell that takes you back to a sickening sense of your pride, to your stupid attempts to make up for your sins, or to letting Jesus down, it can be overwhelming and Jesus want you overwhelmed. But here I must rush in with an antidote. I can't wait. Most of you probably don't know of this smell. After services when the HVAC hasn't run, there lingers in the sanctuary the smell of sweet wine. That's the smell of forgiveness, and it takes me back.
Yes, Jesus flashes us back for the same reason He did Peter: to pull us forward. And to go forward we have to be brought back not to our fears, our worries, or sins, but to Jesus. But it's not like during Jesus' visible ministry. Jesus was in the boat the time Peter was overwhelmed with his sin and Jesus got into the boat the second time Peter sank in doubt. The apostles are being sent out on the seas of life and Jesus won't be visibly in the ship of the Church. But they are to know that they aren't alone. They are to know that Jesus is still with them. They are to know that they can't do it alone.
So Jesus says, "You don't have any fish, do you?" The answer with a sharp No!' the way any fisherman who has been fishing all night would. Then when Jesus directs them to the fish John can see that it is the Lord and Peter can't wait to get to Him. Now lightening bright flashbacks begin to take Peter to his hopeless sin and sinfulness, and it gets worse the closer he gets to Jesus. The catch of fish wasn't enough; the dunking in the water wasn't enough; now Peter comes nose to nose with his greatest sins. If you're really hearing God's Law, this will be your experience too.
But Peter keeps coming and you are to as well. Jesus is doing everything He can to draw you, to preach to you, to get home to you, that you need His forgiveness and His forgiveness is for you. Yes, on Good Friday the Lamb of God carried the sins of the world to the cross and God nailed them to it by nailing His Son to it. There the Lamb who had never sinned died on behalf of, in place of, a world of sinners who can do nothing but sin. But He didn't just die: He suffered in the way your conscience can make you suffer for your sins. He was tortured in the way your failings can torture you. And He was damned the way you fear and know you deserve to be.
All your suffering, torturing, and damning doesn't matter anyhow, but His did and does. They appeased God's anger, they satisfied His wrath, they reconciled the sinful world to the holy God. How do I know this? Because God proclaimed this to the world on Easter morning by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus died to pay the bill the world had racked up by its sins. That's the only reason Jesus died. Being true God death could not hold Him once He had finished paying the bill. The resurrection is the proof that the world's sins have been paid for; Easter is the Paid in Full receipt given to the world; Easter is God the Father shouting "Amen!" to the Son's Good Friday cry of, "It is finished."
But all of that is in vain to the person who lives in the flashbacks of their sins. Peter needs to know that he doesn't have to return to that overwhelming sense of sinfulness. He can go on to Absolution where Jesus sends His sins away. Peter needs to know he doesn't have to live in a flashback where water pours doubt and fear into his soul. He can go on to Baptism where through water Jesus delivers the forgiveness He won on the cross to individuals. Peter needs to know the smell of charcoal burning doesn't have to take him back to pride, denial, a beaten Jesus, and bitter tears. Jesus invites him to ignore that charcoal fire and eat and drink with the Lord who forgives him.
I'm not telling you that what Jesus invited Peter to on the seashore was Communion. I am telling you that Jesus had everything ready for Peter and the rest. He provided bread, fish, and fire without their help, and He invited these sinners who had all let Him down to eat with Him. Boy howdy would they need to know these things for the rest of their lives. Jesus, though not visibly with them like before, could and would still provide for their needs, and He still wanted to eat with them though they were sinful.
These 2 things you are to know as well. Whenever your sin or sinfulness flashes back, flashback to the fact that Jesus calls sinners to Himself. Flashback to the "It is finished" of Good Friday and the "Amen!" of Easter Sunday and feel it in the Waters of Baptism; taste it is the Bread that is His Body and the Wine that is His Blood.
Kenny Chesney says, "We all have a song that somehow stamped our lives/ Takes us to another place and time." A song, he says, that stops us in our tracks every time we hear it. May your song be an Easter one to you flash you back. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sunday of Easter (20160410); John 21: