And they said to Jesus, “What sign do you show us as your authority for doing these things?” – John 2:18
And the sign says long hair freaky people need not apply. So, I put my hair under my hat. And I went in to ask him why? -Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs. (The Tesla Version).
I visited Taos, New Mexico on a daytrip from Santa Fe a few years ago, and I knew I wanted to explore more. I was delighted to have that opportunity on my post Holy Week retreat. I have learned that when I strongly want to make pilgrimage somewhere there is usually spiritual work that I need to do. So, when the wheels went up as we took off from Oakland for Albuquerque, I started paying attention. I began my trip by driving up to Farmington, where I had the absolute joy of taking an archaeologist led tour of Chaco Canyon. I enjoyed spending a couple of days exploring Ancestral Pueblo culture around Farmington/Bloomington and was excited to make my way to Taos for the remainder of my trip. I packed up and drove to the edge of Bloomington and stopped at the stoplight at a major intersection. What I saw made me freeze in my tracks.
There marking the crossroads was a green highway arrow sign that said “Durango, Colorado.”
I had an acquaintance my freshman year in college who was from Durango. I was struggling with a lot of trauma and with my sexual orientation. I was admittedly a hot mess, and she (thinking she was being helpful) reported my struggle to her family friend who was a professor in the school of theology at the evangelical Christian university we were attending. He referred me to the Dean of Students, who referred me to the school psychologist, who I came out to thinking- in my teenage innocence- that I could trust her and she would help me. Before I knew what hit me- I was in an early form of reparative therapy and came to believe under her “care” and through the lens of my trauma that I was beyond help and was probably demonically possessed. My experience with that psychologist, and with that evangelical university sat me on a path of addiction, depression, and destructive behavior (on top of the previous trauma) that I would not recover myself from for a good two and a half decades. And as I sat there at that New Mexico crossroads- staring at that sign with tears streaming down my face- my rage and grief about the series of events that fractured my relationship with God and my young queer self- welled up in me like molten lava.
I have done a lot of work on myself since then. So, I turned around and got something to eat and drink, called my Spiritual Director, and sat by the San Juan river nearby. I ate, prayed, gave myself Reiki, and did some deep breathing. In thirty minutes or so, I drove through the crossroads and continued my journey. But it was an upsetting experience as I wrestled with those long-ago experiences and emotions that were coming up in me. Yes. I was a victim. But I had made some really wrongheaded decisions because of those wounds that hurt myself and a lot of other people I cared about too. Through my wiser 55 year old survivors lens, it all seemed very messy and complicated.
It was a sign at an intersection stoplight. It had no energy by itself. The Pastoral Counselor in me knows It served as a trigger that brought up some powerful old emotional stuff the Holy Spirit wanted me to grapple with and heal as part of my spiritual journey. It was nothing more than that. Or was it?
The Gospel of John is full of signs of a different sort. From the opening of Jesus’ ministry at the Marriage Feast at Cana, people are all really interested in Jesus giving them a sign. Some of the signs in John’s Gospel are easy to see. And some aren’t. Peter gets a very interesting sign in John 21 as he and the Disciples encounter Risen Jesus on the beach at the Sea of Tiberius/Galilee. To see it, you have to be able to read a little Greek.
The word ἀνθρακιὰν or anthrakian shows up twice in the Gospels. The first time is in John 18, when Jesus has been arrested and Peter is standing outside talking to those who are gathered around a nearby fire. It’s not just any fire. It is a charcoal fire- a fire made from heaped coals. In Greek that kind of fire is called anthrakian. And it is at that fire that Peter proceeds full bore into what must be the biggest screw-up of his life. He betrays and denies Jesus, not once but three times. The cock crows, Jesus is sentenced, and Peter is probably filled with spiritually crippling shame and grief that will affect him on every level, and probably never wants to go near that place again.
Roll ahead to John 21. Jesus has showed up, in his 3rd Resurrection appearance with the Disciples on the beach on the Sea of Galilee/Tiberius. He helps them out with some bad fishing and makes them breakfast- over a fire. But it’s not just any fire. It is anthrakian. The breakfast fire is a charcoal fire.
Can you imagine being Peter, standing across from Risen Jesus at that fire, and looking down into those coals? Can you imagine what he is feeling? It probably went something like this: “OMG. He knows what I did... OMG. He knows I denied him that night... OMG. He hates me. OMG. I really want to drown myself.” And with it comes the grief. The horror. The overwhelming shame as Jesus takes him back. To that place where he veered off the path. The pure grace that happens next is a lesson for all of us in forgiveness, healing, and repentance.
After they ate breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Master, you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
He then asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Master, you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Shepherd my sheep.”
Then he said it a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, “Do you love me?” so he answered, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then Feed my sheep.” (John 21: 15-19)
Three betrayals at a charcoal fire in John 18. Countered by three declarations of love, forgiveness, taking responsibility, and commission to ministry- at the charcoal fire in John 21. And Peter steps into his power in coming days. A short time later in Acts 2, we find him preaching from the Prophet Joel, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy! Your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams!”
That is not preaching based in shame and brokenness. That is the preaching of what Henri Nouwen called “a wounded healer” stepping into power. Peter is transformed. Peter has become an instrument of Resurrection.
I believe that this story shows us that Jesus wants healing and wholeness for Peter and all of us because we are called to do greater things than we can imagine. I also believe Jesus loves us so much that sometimes he will take us right back to that charcoal fire, to that crossroads, and to those Durango signs in our lives where we veered off the path- whether we were victim, perpetrator, or both. The spiritual practice of forgiveness that Jesus models moves in all directions so we can heal, have some peace, and be a force for justice and transformation in the world. Being led to the sign is a Sign. A sign of forgiveness. A sign of love. A sign of hope- even and especially for all of us who at one time or another have tucked our hair up under our hats and opened the door at the crossroads, because we were trying to find our way home.
Thanks be to God. -Rev. Jeanne