My wedding announcement experience.
Our reading presents us with 2 contrasting images. One is the image of Jesus, who willingly offers himself to those who come to arrest him & boldly answers those who interrogate him. The other is the image of Jesus’ disciples who betray & deny the one who so freely gives his life for them. The other characters in the scenes, the Roman soldiers, the temple police, even Annas & Caiaphas, merely provide the background against which this drama between Jesus & his own is acted out.
Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is the more dramatic action, but Peter’s denial may be the most haunting. Judas’s betrayal shows us clearly the power of evil & so is a reminder of the cosmic drama that is acted out in Jesus’ life & death. Peter’s denials are not placed on such a grand stage, however. Instead, Peter’s denials fall in a gray area, marked not by outright betrayal, but by compromise & acquiescence to personal safety & fear.
Peter’s denials are even more painful & haunting when they are placed in their wider context of the Gospel. At the farewell meal, Jesus acted out his love for his disciples in the foot washing, addressing Peter individually about his share in Jesus’ life. In the Farewell Discourse (chapters 14 & 15), Jesus reassured his disciples about his abiding presence with them & declared his love for them. In the farewell prayer (chapter 17), Jesus prayed to God on his disciples’ behalf, putting their caretaking & their future in God’s hands, expressing his hopes for the fullness of their lives with God & one another. Jesus then showed the truth & trustworthiness of his words in his actions in the garden, when he asked the soldiers to let his disciples go. In front of Annas he showed that he would, indeed, lay down his life of his own accord when he challenged Annas with the truth of his ministry. Yet even with these farewell words of Jesus still echoing in his ears, Peter cannot publicly claim his place as Jesus’ disciple.
John places before us 2 models of how the faithful can meet adversity & trial: the example of Jesus, who holds nothing back for the sake of those he loves, & the model of Peter, who holds everything back for his own sake. These 2 models should give us pause to once again consider Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. The fullest embodiment of that commandment is to lay down one’s life for another, a promise Peter foolishly & lightly made in chapter 13. But today, we are given a painful glimpse of the limits of Peter’s love & yet one more demonstration of the limitlessness of Jesus’ love.
In the context in which John wrote, of community oppression & persecution because of one’s faith, Peter’s denials clearly show how easy it is to lose heart, how easy it is to remove oneself from the embrace of Jesus’ love. In our world today, in a society far removed from that of first century Jewish Christians, the temptation to deny our place with Jesus remains real & perhaps even more insidious. Under what social & personal pressure will we turn our back on Jesus’ love, denying our own discipleship?
On either Good Friday or Palm Sunday, I have often included the passion narrative from one of the Gospels as a dramatic reading in worship, with the congregation taking the part of the crowd who clamors for Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a dramatic moment in the liturgy, in which each member is indirectly asked to consider what part we play in the crucifixion of Jesus. It is tempting to envision a Holy Week liturgy in which today’s passage is presented as a dramatic reading, with all of you taking Peter’s part: Aren’t you one of his disciples? I am not! For most of us, the moment of betrayal of Jesus’ love does not come in the dramatic cry, Crucify him! but in the more subtle denial of allegiance to the one who gives his life for us, our infidelity to the ever faithful love of Jesus.
So where is the Good News? It is actually found in John 21. There Jesus “restores” Peter to the fellowship of the believers. It happens over breakfast on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.
There, Jesus asks Peter 3 times, Do you love me? (Three questions for 3 denials.) I think Jesus asks a tougher question; he doesn’t ask, “Will you follow me?” or “Do you believe in me?” Instead, he asks the much tougher question: Do you love me?
The first 2 times, Peter responds simply, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. The third time Peter is somewhat exasperated, so he replies: Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you. And in this short conversation on the beach, Peter’s denials are wiped away & he is empowered to move into the future with a clean slate.
That same forgiving love & grace are available to us. Confess your “denials,” & let Jesus’ love wash over you!