Sunday, 23 November 2014

When Peter Denied Jesus

I've recently been re-reading the story of Peter's denial of Jesus. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it starts just after Jesus had celebrated his last Passover meal with his disciples (prior to his crucifixion), and it goes like this (see Matthew's gospel, chapter 26, verse 30):
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them,“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. 
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane ...
While they were there, Judas (a disciple of Jesus, who had betrayed him to his enemies) appeared with "a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people" who seized Jesus and arrested him. All the disciples fled (as Jesus predicted!) but Peter followed Jesus:
... at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end ... And a servant girl came up to him and said, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you mean." And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." And again he denied it with an oath: "I do not know the man." After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you." Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know the man." And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.
I think the traditional way to read this story is that Peter is somewhat on the cocky side to begin with (no pun intended!), but turns out to be a bit of a coward when it really comes down to it and ends up having to eat a large and incredibly painful dose of humble pie - at least that's the way I've usually read this and I think is how I've usually seen it presented.

This time round though, I saw things a little differently:

All his disciples, including Peter, believe that Jesus is the Messiah. This means they are expecting him to be the great hero who is somehow going to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to the Jews. For the most part, Jesus has been quite careful not to make too many public claims in this regard because would-be-Messiahs are not popular with either the Romans, or the Jewish authorities who rule under them and are very wary of upsetting the status quo. In the last few days though, he's been very deliberately blowing his cover. He's clashed very publicly with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem's temple courts in the middle of Israel's busiest and most important festival and he's ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfilment of Messianic prophecy, as his followers have thronged the streets, proclaiming him as "the Son of David" - a Messianic title! The disciples are expecting something very big to happen soon. Jesus has tried to warn them that things are not going to turn out the way they are expecting, but so far they don't seem to have got the message. When Peter says he is willing to die with Jesus, he means that if necessary he will go down fighting.

Judas' betrayal catches them all off guard - except for Jesus. Their great heroic leader is captured and the game is up! The disciples scatter - just as Jesus had predicted. All except Peter, who is made of stronger stuff. Peter is no coward. Even though his hopes of Jesus' Messianic rule appear to have been dashed to pieces, Peter remains true to his friend and follows - as close as he dares - to see what will happen to him.

Peter is in a very dangerous and vulnerable place. He's on his own and his master and friend is on trial for sedition. It's no wonder he doesn't want to be identified and is willing to lie to cover himself. But when he has to do so the third time, and swears with a curse on himself that he doesn't know his master and best friend, the cock crows and reminds him of Jesus' words, and he is cut to the quick as he realises that his courage has failed him and in spite of his promises he has denied the person he loves most in this world!

Fast forward then, to after Jesus' resurrection, and the gospel of John gives this account (see John chapter 21, from verse 15):
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time,“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
I've heard it pointed out - quite perceptively I think - that just as Peter denies Jesus three times, so Jesus asks him here three times if he loves him - effectively giving him the chance to re-instate himself. We know that Peter means it, and Jesus knows it too, and the first two times Jesus responds by giving Peter responsibility for leading his church. The last time he predicts that Peter is eventually to face exactly the kind of death that he was unprepared for the last time around.

What I particularly love about this - and what particularly catches my attention just now - is how deeply Jesus knows Peter. Jesus knows what he's capable of, and what he isn't capable of. He knows him better than anyone else and better even than he knows himself - and he gives him responsibility.

How secure would you feel, to be given responsibility by someone who knows you as well as this...?

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