Peter drew near the charcoal fire. It was a cold night and the fire offered him the warmth he desired. So he approached and warmed himself (Jn 18:18). By so doing he put himself in the company of his Lord’s persecutors — who soon became his. They eventually recognized him as one of Jesus’ followers and begin to accuse him. He denied being in Our Lord’s company and soon denied Our Lord Himself. The cock crowd and he wept bitterly.
Unlike Judas, St. Peter trusted that he could be forgiven. He persevered in his sadness and contrition until such a time that he could ask forgiveness and be restored to Christ. Our Lord’s resurrection brings forgiveness for Peter. And His appearance at the Sea of Tiberias is the occasion for Peter’s rehabilitation. Once again Peter draws near a charcoal fire (Jn 21:9). This time, however, the fire promises not sin but redemption.
The very beginning of the scene already hints at something of a renewal for St. Peter. Our Lord first called Peter while he was fishing and by way of a miraculous catch of fish (cf. Lk 5:1-11). So also now, as if to signal a new beginning, Our Lord comes to him. He appears on the shore and, unrecognized by the Apostles, commands them to cast their net off the right side of the boat. With that they “were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish” (Jn 21:6). The whole event reminds Peter of that moment years before when a similar miracle prompted him to leave everything and follow Jesus. With that, he leaps from the boat and rushes to Our Lord.
When Peter reaches the shore he sees a charcoal fire, which reminds him of a less inspiring moment in his discipleship. But as Peter’s fall occurred before a fire, it is fitting that his redemption occur there as well. The rehabilitation undoes the fall. Peter approached the first fire seeking creature comfort (i.e., warmth). He approaches the second for supernatural reasons — to find Jesus. He came to the first at night, under cover of darkness. He comes to the second in the light of a new day. At that first fire he found himself among his enemies and, fearing shame, denied Jesus. At this second fire he finds himself with other disciples — and he is strengthened.
Within this context, then, Our Lord invites Peter to atone for his denial. It is as though Our Lord takes Peter back to the scene of the crime and gives him the opportunity to undo his sin. As Our Lord’s persecutor’s had asked Peter three times about his devotion Christ, so now Jesus Himself does the same: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (cf. Jn 21:15-17) By his threefold affirmation of love — “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:15-17) — Peter undoes the knot that had kept him from the Lord. He then receives anew the invitation to discipleship: “Follow me” (Jn 21:19; cf. Lk 5:10, Mt 4:19).
At that second fireside chat, Jesus provided Peter an opportunity to participate in his own redemption. He has the chance to undo some of the harm he had done. What we see in St. Peter’s rehabilitation holds true for each one of us: God desires to associate us in His work of salvation. He alone redeems, but He desires that we participate. He alone forgives sin, but He wants to associate us in His work. He enabled Peter to do so by bringing him again to the fire and asking him again about his devotion. He enables us by way of confession, by acts of penance, by mortifications, by apologizing to those we offend, praying for those we have hurt. It is a glorious work that Jesus has accomplished in His death and resurrection. More glorious still that He associates us with His work.