(sermon note: 03-20 Sermon note)
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the age-old one that adds a comical twist to the familiar passage. The lectionary creators failed to include the important preface from John 13 in which Jesus foretold Peter that he would deny Jesus three times: “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Now imagine Peter heard Jesus and simply responded, “Um, no, I won’t.” Jesus persisted, “Oh, yes you will.” Irritated, Peter barked back, “No, I won’t, my Lord!” To which Jesus solemnly remarked, “Peter, Peter, Peter…I’m afraid you will.” Absolutely beside himself, Peter cried out, “No, I WON’T…wait.”
Peter didn’t have to wait until the night of Jesus’ arrest! He could have easily denied Jesus right after hearing Jesus’ prediction! “No, I WON’T…wait.” I’ve often wondered why Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is even included in the Passion narrative, let alone scripture as a whole. Why must we know that Peter denied Jesus at all? It certainly is out of character for Peter to do such a thing. Recall that he was the first disciple to claim and proclaim Jesus to be his Messiah and Lord. Yet Peter was also the disciple who regularly pushed back at Jesus’ teachings. Peter was one of the three disciples who were led up the mountain top to witness Jesus’ transfiguration. Of all the disciples, Peter arguably knew the most about who Jesus is. It’s no wonder that Jesus declared him as the so-called “rock of the church” upon which the church was built! Peter was the rock, the one who loved Jesus oh, so much. Why would he, of all the disciples, be the one to famously and repetitively deny him?! Was Jesus wrong in making him the rock of his church?
Well, it’s kind of a moot point to have any of the disciples deny who Jesus is. It wasn’t as if their knowing him would have prevented his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus would have been arrested regardless of how Peter responded to the question. So then why include his denial in the narrative at all? It didn’t serve to advance the narrative and only seemed to pose questions about Peter’s eligibility and Jesus’ rationality for choosing Peter to serve as the Rock. “Why, Jesus? You had to have known that Peter would deny you and yet you made him your Rock…why?!” Over and over again, I ask myself this question and I come up with a variety of possible answers. Maybe because Jesus knew all along that Peter would deny him in a moment of self-preservation, Jesus revealed so much of himself to Peter to undergird the shock of such a denial. How could he deny Jesus after knowing so much about him? Maybe Peter’s denial was an act of betrayal on par with the betrayal of Judas. Maybe Jesus wanted two betrayers instead of one. And if we’re going to consider Peter’s denial as an act of betrayal, can we then consider Thomas’ doubt of the resurrected Christ an act of betrayal? Isn’t doubt just as betraying as denial? Maybe Peter’s denial helped validate Jesus’ resurrection because the resurrected Jesus asked him three times if he believed in him. Maybe Peter’s threefold denial does advance the narrative when considering his threefold confession to the resurrected Christ.
There are a variety of answers to that question about why Peter’s denial is included in the narrative of scripture. I tend to believe that Peter’s denial was a very human response to a very confusing situation. It doesn’t matter who you are, none of us truly knows who Jesus is. We are all students of our great teacher. He reveals himself to us as we are able to understand who he is and what he wants us to know. For as much as Peter knew Jesus, he didn’t fully know him. He didn’t know why Jesus had to suffer and die. He didn’t know how Jesus loves and serves all of us. He didn’t know how Jesus could perform all his healings and miracles. Yes, Peter didn’t know Jesus after all! His denial was actually a confession and profession: “No, I do not know who Jesus is!” As do none of us. None of us fully know who Jesus is and how he is able to say and do all that he says and does. And you know what? This is perfectly alright! Remember, he reveals himself as we are able. The important thing is to remain open to learning from him. Both open and receptive…and trusting. Peter always remained open and receptive and trusting of our Lord. Well, except those times when he didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet or when Jesus foretold his own death. But with a quick admonishment, Jesus opened him back up and kept him trusting in him. Peter wasn’t all that different from us. He loved our Lord mightily even though he never fully understood him.
Thus is the life of faith. God is less interested in us understanding him than He is in us trusting him…trusting him and loving him. God wants us to know that He loves us and is willing to do anything for us, even die for us. God loves us despite our doubt and denial and betrayal. God loves us despite our wandering ways. God knows there are times when we might deny him just as Peter denied him. God hears our denials as confessions…we don’t know him! And God delights in our willingness to confess our ignorance. We don’t know him and that’s okay, God still loves us. The key is to remain open to learning about him, open and trusting. This season of Lent is a deliberate season of receptiveness. We fast, we pray, we confess, all as a means of opening ourselves to him. Let us boldly deny ever knowing him and seek getting to know him better. If Peter can do it, then so can we! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.