I wonder if Youcef Nadarkhani is a name you’re familiar with. Pastor Youcef had been held in prison in Iran because he is a Christian. His charges were apostasy (that is, converting from Islam), and evangelising (telling Muslims about Jesus). The court promised to release him if he were to recant his Christian faith. The pressure to deny Jesus must be massive, and yet, still, he holds on.
If we had time, we could share lots of other stories of Christians across the world who face similar situations. I don’t know about you, but it seems as if we have things so much easier here in Fermanagh. It’s not illegal for us to meet together; we aren’t in danger of the secret police interrupting our meetings.
Yet there may still be pressures to deny Jesus. They may be more subtle; but they will still come. It might be as you call in at a friend’s house on the way home and they tease you about coming to church on a Tuesday night. Or in your workplace as they ask what you did at the weekend, and you share all sorts of things, except where you were between 11 and 12 on Sunday morning. Or a friend might challenge you about something the Bible says - you don’t really believe that, do you? The pressure is to conform, to avoid embarrassment, to not be put on the spot. So you smile, and dodge the question.
But in case you’re feeling guilty; just before you switch off; take heart. You see, rather than the Bible portraying perfect people and honourable heroes; God in his grace gives us the full picture - as Oliver Cromwell requested when having his portrait painted: ‘warts and all.’
We think of Peter as one of the heroes of the faith - the bold, outspoken, courageous, first off the mark leading disciple. We look at him and think that he must be in a league of his own; so high above us in rank and power; he wouldn’t do the things that we have done. Yet look at him as our reading ends tonight. ‘And he went out and wept bitterly.’ (62). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the start, and see how this develops, and what it means for us.
Back in verse 31, Jesus is still in the upper room with his disciples, They’ve shared in the Last Supper, and suddenly Jesus shares some surprising words with Peter (also called Simon): ‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.’ (31-32)
Jesus tells us that Satan has prayed. He has asked the Father for something. He has demanded to sift the disciples like wheat. Now when I hear of sifting, it normally makes me happy - it means that Lynsey is busy in the kitchen with a sieve and some flour, which means that in a little while there’ll be some cakes or buns to sample. Good times. But imagine being the flour in the sieve. You’re shaken around, bumped about. It wouldn’t be so pleasant.
For the wheat being sifted, it was to be shaken up so that the chaff would be removed and the wheat held in the sieve. But it’s Satan asking for the disciples to be sifted, to be buffetted, so it’s not in order to improve them, but rather to test them, to see if they will give up on Jesus. All the disciples will be sifted, but Jesus tells Peter that he is praying for him, that his own faith may not fail.
Immediately we see the effects of the sifting. Peter boldly declares that he is ready to go to prison and to death with Jesus. Ah yes, the Peter we know. Yet Jesus tells him that before the cock crows, he will have denied Jesus three times. We’re not given Peter’s response, but I’m sure he doesn’t believe it.
But it’s one thing to declare that we love Jesus and stand with him in the upper room where it’s safe. It’s another thing on the dark hillside of the Mount of Olives, or by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. It’s one thing to sing our praise to Jesus here in church, but another thing by the fire of a friend. What will happen?
Jesus is arrested (as we saw last night) and taken to the high priest’s house. The rest of the disciples aren’t mentioned, it seems they have fled. Peter still follows, at a distance. He hasn’t given up yet. Peter joins the crowd by the fire, he’s settling into his place, getting warmed, when the first accusation comes.
‘Then a servant girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.”’ Perhaps the servant girl had been among the crowd; She may have watched as Peter swung the sword and lopped the slave’s ear off. She knew Peter. He quickly denies it: ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ Was Peter afraid? Did he think he would also be arrested? What was he doing?
Time passed, and again the accusations came. Again, he insists that he was not one of them - a follower of Jesus. An hour later, a third man insists, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ We’re in Jerusalem, among the city slickers. Galilee was away to the north, a more rural place, with a different accent. It would be like someone from Fermanagh being in Belfast, the accent would give (us) away. Straight away, Peter denies it; straight away the cock crowed.
Straight away, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter.’ We’re not told what the look communicates, but I’m sure you can guess. As Jesus looks at Peter, Peter remembers Jesus’ words, his prediction of denial. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Such a contrast, in such a short period of time - I am ready for death and prison; I do not know him.
It might make us wonder then, of the two prayers that were mentioned, which was answered? Was Satan victorious - he had asked (demanded) for the disciples to be sifted like wheat. They have all abandoned Jesus, and even Peter has failed and denied his master. Are we pawns in Satan’s hand? Thankfully not. You see, Satan does not have power over us by himself. He is on a leash; he had to ask and be granted the opportunity to sift the disciples. His testing of them still lies within the power and sovereignty of God. In the heat of the trial we can easily forget that God is still in control.
But more than that, Jesus’ prayer was answered. It might look as if it wasn’t - Peter denied Jesus, after all - but this was a momentary stumble; this wasn’t a final, fatal fall like Judas’ in his betrayal. Rather, here’s what Jesus prayed: ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (32)
Jesus knew that Peter would deny him; yet even before the fact, he paves the way back; he gives him the job of strengthening his brothers when he has turned back. Peter continues to encourage and strengthen us as we read of his slip and his stand. This episode is written for us, to show God’s grace in Peter’s life. Just seven weeks later, Peter would stand in the very same city and declare that Jesus is the Messiah - he would not deny Jesus again. So if you’re feeling the heat; if you’re under pressure; if you’re being sifted - remember that Jesus is praying for us too, that your earlier failures are not final. In Jesus we have the victory.
This sermon was preached at the Holy Week service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 26th March 2013.