Strolling through the neighborhood with my wife this weekend when we noticed a smoky smell wafting through the neighborhood. It wasn’t a whiff of barbecue or leftover fireworks from July 4th. It’s firepit season, and that familiar scent is the smell of fall — and friendship.

I sat around a firewood-filled metal ring with some students a few weeks ago and breathed in the goodness. We roasted marshmallows and enjoyed a tasty concoction called a dough-boy, made by wrapping biscuit dough around a stick, cooking it over the fire, then rolling it in butter and cinnamon sugar. Butter, like bacon, makes everything better.

So do friends. Maybe it’s the s’mores talking, but I think strong friendships can be forged over the flames of a fire. C.S. Lewis said it better when he wrote, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?”

As we bask in the digital glow of our devices and connect around the world with some social app or another, I’d like to point out that something as primitive as a fire is still a hot way to build actual relationships.

Stoke up the pages of scripture and you’ll find some relational embers that remain to this day. Charcoal embers, to be precise. In the gospel of John, a charcoal fire burned in the background when Jesus forged friendship with one of His followers.

As Christ was on trial for his life, the disciple Peter warmed himself with strangers around a charcoal fire and denied His friendship with Jesus. Three times.

Before we rake Peter over the coals, it’s helpful to remember that we share his struggle. We may pledge our loyalty to God in private but when our allegiance is publicly challenged, we can drop Him faster than a follower on Facebook. We’re fickle that way, especially when it looks like God is getting smoked.

That’s how it must have looked to Peter that night around the fire. Jesus was pummeled, humiliated and seemingly defeated. Why align yourself with someone like that? He’s clearly out of His league. He’s powerless. He’s irrelevant. His fire has gone out. Many people think the same things about Jesus today, and they aren’t afraid to question His followers.

“Do you know this guy?”

“Who, me? Never heard of Him.”

The story of the Savior doesn’t end by that fire; the flame of His faithfulness isn’t extinguished by our failures.

A few weeks after Jesus was raised from death, He appeared to His disciples. Burning on the beach where they gathered was another charcoal fire. With flames crackling in the background and smoke drifting through the air, Jesus sparked a conversation with Peter, and this disciple faced the reality of mending fences with the man He denied three times. Awk-ward.

But Christ didn’t hold Peter’s failures against Him. Instead, Jesus tempered Peter’s devotion with a strong, inquiring flame, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Three times Jesus asked. Three times Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you.” (John 21:15-17)

There around that fire, with memories of failure filling the air, Jesus restored His relationship with one who had disowned Him.

That’s what Jesus does. He reaches out to people who have denied, doubted, and double-crossed Him and gives us another chance. Wherever you are in relation to Christ, you aren’t so far that He won’t sit down at the fire and offer His friendship.

Gregg Madsen is the Lead Pastor of Steadfast Gretna. Reach him at gmadsen@steadfastgretna.org.

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