Haunted by the past

Psychologist Norman Rosenthal tells the story of a traumatic event that will forever be burned into his memory.

He and a date had just enjoyed dinner out. Driving home afterward, they decided to park on a quiet residential street to chat for a while. Suddenly, a man appeared at the driver’s side window. Using a long, sharpened screwdriver as a weapon, the attacker shattered the glass and began to stab Rosenthal repeatedly. His date screamed. But no one noticed; no one came to help. Somehow, Rosenthal fought back and managed to get the car started. They barely escaped. When they reached his date’s house, Rosenthal collapsed from a loss of blood.

But the story ends happily. With emergency surgery and some time to heal, he was eventually as good as new.

Well, almost.

To this day, Rosenthal can’t bear the thought of eating the same meal they had for dinner that night. Darkened parking lots, or even just a whiff of the same perfume his date wore, provoke unwanted feelings of anxiety. He knows where it’s coming from. But he can’t help the feeling.

This is how emotional memory sometimes works; whether we are conscious of it or not, our brains constantly scan the environment for danger. When we find ourselves in situations that are similar to ones which have threatened us in the past, warning signals go off, unbidden: Get out of here. It’s not safe. Most of the time, of course, there is no actual danger. No matter. Our brains operate on the principle of “better safe than sorry.” Even if the alarm is inconveniently false 999 times out of a thousand, it’s the one time it’s not false that we’ll be glad for the warning.

And that, in case you’re wondering, is the background to how some interpreters read the story of Peter in John 21.

It has to do with the fire.

John gives us a simple, straightforward description of what happened. After towing their miraculous catch of fish to shore, the disciples disembarked and approached Jesus: “When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread” (John 21:9, NRSV). There is a common Greek word for fire, and another that suggests hot coals or embers. John uses the latter.

It’s not the first time, though, that he’s used the word. Recall the scene that took place in the courtyard of the high priest, just after Jesus’ arrest:

Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. (John 18:18)

That, of course, is the place where Peter’s loyalty to Jesus was tested, and the place where he failed. Three times he denied having any association with the man who was about to be crucified on his behalf.

You can bet Peter hadn’t forgotten that fateful evening. And it’s fair to guess that, as some interpreters have, the sight and smell of another charcoal fire brought back all the pain and shame of his betrayal.

That’s not to say, of course, that John himself intends us to conclude anything about Peter’s state of mind. But it’s enough that John often writes with multiple layers of meaning. At the very least, the detail of the charcoal fire is surely meant to remind us of the earlier episode, the one Peter would never forget. That threefold denial is now the backdrop to Jesus graciously giving Peter an opportunity to confess, three times, his new commitment to loving obedience.

We’ll begin exploring that theme in the Sunday’s post.