Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Peter's Denials and the Gospel Hope

It’s funny the way things work out. This morning in Chapel it was our tutor group’s turn to present the dramatic Passion reading, from the Gospel of Mark. Among the many voices I provided, I was Peter, and I was mulling over a blog posting on the change in Peter through the day. Then at dinner, Alison said that she was going over to Dun Laoghire for a Holy Week service to hear Bishop Ken Clarke preaching. I decided to go too, and was blown away when he announced he was going to preach on Peter’s denial! Strange coincidence, or God trying to say something?

When you read the Gospels, Peter seems to be the one who puts his mouth in gear before his brain. He’s what you might call him round Dromore, a big slabber. He’s got a big mouth. All action before he realises what he’s doing. Think, for example, of when Jesus arranges the miraculous catch of fish. Peter just comes out with what he’s thinking: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8). Or when Jesus appears, walking on the water; Peter’s out of the boat wanting to do it too! “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28).

Perhaps the prime examples, though come together, when Peter gets things so right, and then so wrong. Jesus is asking them who the crowds think he is, and then who they think Jesus is. Peter is straight in there. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16:16). But straight after that, when Jesus tells them about the way of the cross, Peter jumps in so vehemently opposed to the cross that Jesus calls him Satan (Matt 16:23).

So when we come to the Passion story, we’re not surprised to find Peter with the big mouth in operation. Jesus warns them that ‘You will all fall away.’ (Mark 14:27). And in goes Peter. “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:29, 31). Do you see what Peter’s saying here? He’s affirming that even though the rest will fall away (not a great opinion of the rest of the disciples), he’s going to be firm. He’ll not disappoint Jesus. He’ll abandon Jesus over his dead body.

Yet Jesus knows him better than he knows himself. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” It’s unthinkable to Peter. Surely he wouldn’t deny Jesus!

But when we move a few verses and a few hours later in the events of that Thursday night, we find a different story. Peter the big man first uses force (Mark 14:47 – parallel in John 18:10), drawing a sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant; then abandoning Jesus with the other disciples. So much for not falling away.

But credit where it is due. Mark 14:54 tells us that Peter followed at a distance, and came into the courtyard of the high priest. In the light from the fire, Peter slipped into denial. Having attacked one of the servants of the high priest in Gethsemane, another of the servants now recognise Peter, and says, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” (Mark 14:67). Lies follow – “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” (Mark 14:68). Peter is falling. Was it fear of being arrested? Was it fear of standing out? Was it the fear of the unknown? Was he afraid of this servant girl?

Again the girl accuses him, and again he denies it. Having spoken several times, the people standing about accuse him, recognising his accent as being from Galilee. ‘But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” (Mark 14:71). Three denials, as Jesus had predicted. Then the second cock crowed, and Peter remembered Jesus’ words.

How Peter wept as he broke down. He who had been so bold and always to the fore was now lying and cursing himself as he denied all knowledge of his Master. He who had travelled with Jesus for three years, and shared so much with Jesus; especially as he was a member of the inner three – having seen the delights on the mount of Transfiguration. Yet he denies Jesus.

Are there times and ways that we have failed Jesus? Do we deny we know our Master? Maybe not spoken, but by how we live our lives? Does our attitude or conduct show that Jesus is not really our Lord? Do we pretend that we don’t know Jesus when it is uncomfortable for us? Or inconvenient for us?

The good news is that the story isn’t finished. As I mentioned in yesterday’s posting on Judas, Judas wasn’t the only one to fail Jesus. Peter was down there too, in the depths of despair. But unlike Judas, Peter finds restoration and life from Jesus. On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross. But on Easter Sunday, he gloriously rose again. Check out the message of the angel to the women at the tomb: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7).

In the good news of the resurrection, there is a special mention for Peter, for the one who had most failed his Master just a few days before. In this there is hope – that the gospel is for those who fail – that God uses those who fail, and mess things up. And when the disciples went to Galilee, we find that scene on the beach after breakfast where Jesus asks Peter three times ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:15-19). And when Peter replied three times that he loves him, reversing those painful denials, Jesus reaffirms his call – ‘Follow me.’ (John 21:19).

To look at Peter on that Thursday night was to see a broken, fallen man who had failed and denied his Lord. Yet just seven weeks later, we find the same man, changed, restored and fulfilling his call as he preaches with passion and power to the crowd assembled in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. This truly is the Gospel – that God calls us who are weak, and uses us for his glory. The cross brings forgiveness and restoration, and sends us out for service, to share this glorious news of new and changed lives!

Later, Peter would call on the Christians he wrote his first epistle to, to stand firm in the midst of trials. Peter would never again deny his Lord, gladly being martyred for him who died for his sin.

Bishop Ken summarised the life of Peter in three sentences – maybe a good way to remember his message: Peter by the fire. Peter in the fire. Peter on fire. May we be on fire for God as we recall the story of Peter, and the change which comes through the cross of Christ.

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