Repairing Our Grief (John 21:1-19)

By Greg Carey

My Uncle Norman fought in Europe during World War II. An artillery observer, he didn’t return with many “heroic” stories to tell. When I was little, he would roll out some souvenirs from the war, and I’d be impressed: German military dress knives and lovely table linens. I don’t recall all of the stories or how these things became his, but I’m pleased to report the table linens were a gift. His war experience was hardly glamorous.

Why Veteran’s Need Soul Repair



The United States will note the 10-year anniversary of the beginning to the Iraq War on March 19, marking a decade of leaving thousands of soldiers dead or injured. As soldiers return from the front lines, many are faced with moral injury, having to make difficult moral choices under extreme conditions. Moral injury can cause guilt and grief, or in its severest form, it can destroy the will to live. Suicides among veterans hit a record in 2012 with 349 active-duty suicides. To combat the effects of moral injury, the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock founded the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, training religious leaders on how to respond.


Uncle Norman did tell of one harrowing experience. He and his partner were identified by German artillery, and they experienced exactly the treatment they dished out. Out in front of their own unit, as they always were, they heard a shot go just overhead and explode behind them. Then one fell just short. Placing a shell a bit to the left and one to the right, the Germans had them zeroed in. Uncle Norman’s friend panicked, frozen, stuck to the ground. And in the last minute – as he remembered it – my uncle tackled his partner and carried him to safety. Pretty dramatic stuff for a kid to hear.

When Uncle Norman was much older, he came close to death after gall bladder surgery. That night he experienced profound nightmares, the Lady Macbeth experience of bloody hands he could not cleanse. The next day, he told me a very different story than the ones I’d heard before. I believe I was the first to hear of the time when he called in the coordinates for an intersection across which a significant body of Germans was crossing. For thirty minutes, he said, he watched the effects of the barrage he had targeted. And now, forty years later, his hands wouldn’t come clean.

Moral Injury

Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth has recognized the kinds of injuries that occur to people whose life experiences have placed their moral character under undue stress. Under the leadership of theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, retired chaplain Colonel Herm Keizer, and biblical scholar Coleman Baker, the Soul Repair Center provides research, curricula, and training to help persons who suffer from moral injury (defined here). Imagine being a sniper for a police agency who finally fires that first shot in the line of duty – and watches the target die instantly. The sniper is doing her job by protecting other people from imminent danger, but it turns out that killing people is bad for the soul. (See Brock’s book, co-authored with Garbriella Lettini, “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War.”)

Moral injury isn’t identical to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though the two can be related. Moral injury happens when we transgress our basic moral beliefs and expectations. It can occur when we’ve done our best in impossible circumstances or when we’ve simply failed. Millions of people are living with moral injury in the United States alone.

Peter’s Role

John 21:1-19 features the risen Jesus and especially his relationship with Peter. John’s Gospel gives a distinctive role to Peter and places Peter second to the unnamed “Beloved Disciple.” (Church tradition identifies him as the disciple John, but the Gospel leaves him anonymous.) For example, when Mary reports the empty tomb to the disciples, these two run to the tomb. Not only does the Beloved Disciple outrun Peter, he also believes long before Peter is prepared to believe (20:1-10). The drama between these two disciples resumes just after our passage, in John 21:20-23.

In our passage, Peter leads six other disciples fishing in Galilee. The disciples spot the risen Jesus standing on the beach, but they do not recognize him. (Mary Magdalene has the same experience outside Jesus’ tomb in John 20:14.) Once again the Beloved Disciple bests Peter by recognizing Jesus: “It is the Lord!”

Peter reacts by putting on his outer garment and then jumping into the sea to swim to Jesus, thus leaving his colleagues to bring the boat – and a miraculous catch of fish – ashore. Whether we’re to laugh at Peter for getting dressed before swimming or for being naked in the first place is unclear. In any case, the Beloved Disciple has bested Peter one more time.

Charcoal Fire and Moral Injury

John 21:9 employs a Greek word that occurs only twice in the New Testament, anthrakia. We translate it, “charcoal fire.” Once the disciples arrive on shore they “see” a charcoal fire with fish on it and some bread. We get the impression that Jesus has set this fire, for the disciples previously had nothing to eat (21:5; translations vary).

In setting this fire, Jesus has also “set up” one of the New Testament’s most gripping scenes. For John’s Gospel includes the New Testament’s only other reference to charcoal fire. In John 18:18, Peter warms himself beside a charcoal fire – and he remains there warming himself as he denies knowing Jesus three times. While Jesus undergoes interrogation and beating, Peter warms himself and denies Jesus. Three separate times.

John’s literary artistry has come into play, for now beside a charcoal fire Jesus will interrogate Peter (21:15-17). Three times Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me? (NRSV).” Twice Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” but on the third occasion Peter is distressed by the question: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” After each question and answer, Jesus instructs Peter: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.”

Interpreters have probably made too much of the nuances of Greek vocabulary in this passage, but we can readily see why Peter is grieved. The last time he stood by a charcoal fire, he failed miserably three times. Now Jesus brings Peter back to the scene and puts him through another three-fold interrogation.

Jesus has confronted Peter with the moral injury of the past. Through a ritual reenactment of that scene, Jesus walks Peter through his past and ushers him into a brand new future. Yes, Peter has regrets; and yes, this regret has scarred his soul. But now Peter must do the work of Jesus and tend the flock. Somehow healing begins, and new life bursts forth. May it be so with all who suffer moral injury.



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