This week, we have jumped several chapters ahead in the story of Jesus that the Gospel of John has presented to us, and so I would like to take a few moments and summarize the stories that we have skipped. After Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, John tells us that, not only was there a plot to kill Jesus, there was also a plot to kill Lazarus, because people were coming to see the man whom Jesus had raised from the dead and were putting their faith in Jesus because of him. After this, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey with the crowds waving palm branches—come back to worship on Palm Sunday to hear that story being told. In the next scene, some Greeks come to Philip with the request to see Jesus, and Jesus says that this is the sign that his hour has come and the Son of Man will be glorified. He speaks of his death as the means by which the Father will glorify his name, and how, when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. John tells us that some people believed in Jesus while others did not. Jesus says that whoever believes in him believes in the one who sent him. In the next chapter, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives them a new command—to love one another as he has loved them. Come to the Maundy Thursday service to hear more about this story. Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him. Then he gives his disciples final teachings about the Holy Spirit, about himself, and about how they are to continue following his teachings. Jesus then prays for his disciples, and they all get up and go to a garden. Judas, who had left the gathering earlier, reappears with a group of soldiers and temple police to arrest Jesus. In the process, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, whose name was Malchus. Jesus tells him to put up his sword.
And now, we have arrived at today’s portion of the story of Jesus’ arrest and interrogation: the scene of Peter’s denial. There are two things that I would like to point out about this story. First, I would like us all to notice how the scenes of Peter standing at the charcoal fire are interwoven with the scenes of Jesus’ trial. In one scene we have Peter making his denial, and then in the next we have Jesus standing firm and telling the truth, and then we have Peter denying again. So, we have a comparison between the model that Jesus sets when he testifies to the truth of who he is over and against the bad example of Peter denying that he is one of Jesus’ followers. And that is the next thing I would like for us to notice: Peter is not denying Jesus directly in John’s gospel; he is denying that he, Peter, is Jesus’ disciple. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter denies knowing Jesus. But here in John, Peter denies that he is a disciple of Jesus. It may be a subtle difference, but it is an important one. There is a difference between knowing who a person is and actually following that person’s teachings. In the first instance, when you know a person, it is possible for you to only have a passing acquaintance with that person. But, when you are a disciple of a person, that implies that you have a deep relationship with that person and do your best to follow the person’s teachings.
So, here is my question for you: Are you primarily a member of this congregation? Or are you first and foremost a disciple of Jesus? Like the difference between knowing Jesus and being a disciple of Jesus, there is a difference between the two. Our constitution defines a member of the congregation as one who receives communion once a year and gives once a year. If you do that, then you are a member. But that says nothing about your relationship with Jesus. Are you studying the Scriptures? Are you learning to obey what Jesus has commanded, as taught in the Gospels? Are you praying regularly? Are you finding ways to work for justice and peace? Are you forgiving others as God forgave you? These are just some of the things that a disciple of Jesus does, and these things become a very part of the identity of that disciple.
So, why would Peter deny not only Jesus, but also his very identity when tested? One word: fear. This is the man who earlier that night swore that he would follow Jesus and lay down his life for him. This is the man who, in the garden, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But now, when the true test comes and when he is asked to own his identity, Peter gives in to fear and denies Jesus and himself. Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to be afraid. Fear is a natural human reaction and gives us information about circumstances that could be harmful to us. But, we do have a choice as to what we do in response to that fear. Scientists tell us that the natural responses are to fight or to flee. We see Peter responding with both reactions: he fought in the garden, and now by denying his relationship with Jesus, he is fleeing. But Jesus offers us a third way: in the face of the threat of violence against him, he calmly stands and testifies to the truth of who he is and what he has taught the people, come what may.
What does this third way that Jesus offers look like today? It means that, when we are confronted with violence, we do not respond in kind, but, as Jesus told Peter, we put up our swords. Responding to violence with non-violence can be a frightening thing. But if we are to follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his life for the truth of the Gospel, which is the message that God so loved the world, then we are called to respond to violence with non-violence, and to testify to the truth about our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Here’s the thing, though: we are sinful human beings. We are going to fail at being disciples of Jesus. We may say that we are going to respond to violence with non-violence, but when confronted with violent circumstances, we may forget ourselves and fight back. We may say that we are going to be welcoming of everyone who comes through our doors, but then one day we may say or do something that hurts someone else, so that they do not feel that welcome. We may say we’re going to forgive others as God forgave us, but then continue to hold a grudge against someone without seeking reconciliation with that person. We may say we are going to live at peace with everyone, but then threaten someone because that person doesn’t act in the way that we think he or she should. In short, like Peter, there are going to be days when we don’t live up to the ideal of being a disciple of Jesus. We may be all bravado—we may think that we’re ready to declare to the world that we follow Jesus—but when the true test comes, we deny who we really are.
Here is the good news: Jesus stands ready to call us back to ourselves. The moment of grace in Peter’s story is when the cock crows. This is the sign that Jesus predicted, and this is the moment when Peter realizes what he’s done. In John, we don’t see Peter weeping, and we don’t see Jesus offering forgiveness until after he rises from the dead and asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. But the point is this: when we fail, and when we deny being Jesus’ disciple, Jesus will use something to call us back to ourselves and to remind us who we are. There is forgiveness when we don’t live up to the ideal of being Jesus’ disciple, and the Holy Spirit is with us as our helper as we start over and try again to live as Jesus’ disciples in this world.
Our failures are not the final word in our journey as Jesus’ disciples. Peter denied being a follower of Jesus, and yet Jesus restored him, and Peter went on to make many more disciples of Jesus before his journey on this earth was finished. We are a people of hope, and we therefore have hope that Jesus is with us through our failures and uses even those to work for good in the world. But more than that, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we have hope that we can be restored as Jesus’ disciples and that God can continue to work through us. Amen.