Witness And Denial

I like Peter a lot.  I don’t like him because he’s brave and bold, perfect and aspirational. I like him because he’s real.  I like him because he falls over all the time.  I like him because I identify with him.

John 18:12-27

I like Peter a lot.  I don’t like him because he’s brave and bold, perfect and aspirational. I like him because he’s real.  I like him because he falls over all the time.  I like him because I identify with him.

We just heard about Peter last week.  When Jesus went around the table with his disciples and washed their feet, it was Peter who at first refused.  He couldn’t believe that his teacher and leader would take a position of such humble servitude that he would wash his dirty, dusty, pedestrian feet.  This is the same Peter who just a few chapters before that made one of the greatest confessions of faith in John’s gospel: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  Peter, like me, is still learning.  Peter, like me, still struggles with who he wants Jesus to be and who Jesus truly is.

Things get even more complicated for Peter between those stories and today’s story.  Right after Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the officials.  Jesus tells the remaining disciples that he will leave soon, and Peter gets defensive: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”  Instead, Jesus tells him that Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows.

This dire promise probably rang in Peter’s head when they were in the garden facing Judas, the Pharisees, chief priests, soldiers, and police later that night.  Jesus turns himself over, but Peter attacks.  He takes out a sword and cuts off a slave’s ear.  Peter probably thought he was laying down his life for Jesus; he had no idea that it’s what Jesus was about to do for him.

And then, this defining moment of Peter’s discipleship to this point.  His rabbi has been arrested.  The other disciples, save one, are nowhere to be found.  Peter follows his teacher into the courtyard, but no further.  He hardly gets in before someone gives him more than a passing glance.  The woman who guards the gate asks him, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”  I mean, she already expects Peter to say no.  So of course, he denies his Lord.  Peter denies his own very identity.  How much more difficult to explain who he is and why?  No, better to play it safe and lie.  Just for now.

While Jesus faces his accusers without any hope of a fair trial, boldly witnessing to his identity while no witness will be brought to his defense, Peter stays outside.  He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a cold group of others.  He’s just trying to get comfortable when someone asks him again: “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”  Look, Peter isn’t looking for a fight.  He’s just trying to find some comfort and stay warm on what will surely be a long night.  So of course, he denies it.  He’s not going to get people all upset and run the risk of literally being left out in the cold.  No, he just wants to be comfortable, so he lies.  Just for now.

But then, the real trouble comes.  Peter’s attack in the garden didn’t go unnoticed.  He’s probably on the hook for prosecution.  How his blood pressure must have spiked when another man, who turns out the be a relative of the man he maimed, recognizes him.  “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”  An eyewitness account to his own guilt, both as a violent attacker and as a follower of a false prophet.  What choice does Peter have?  If he wants to save himself and maybe even Jesus, if that’s possible, he has to stick around, right?  He’s afraid and desperate.  So of course, he continues his denial.  Where else can he go?  Better to protect his own life, so he lies.  Just for now.

Taking the easy route.  Staying comfortable.  Giving in to fear.  Oh, how these perfectly rational explanations have bounced in my own brain and leaped from my own lips.  I like Peter because I am Peter.  I’m quick with a bold, ready faith when it suits me, so ready to witness to the power of Jesus when it’s safe and easy.  But I’m so cautious, so fearful, so avoidant, so ready with a denial when someone asks me, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

And oh, how I fall prey to all those same traps.  You’re not one of those Christians, are you?  One of those Christians who thinks they’re better than everyone else?  One of those Christians who condemns immoral behavior but is having an affair?  One of those Christians who is a hypocrite, an egomaniac, a liar?  Why, no, of course not!  How much easier to deny?  How much more difficult to witness to the gospel, to tell the truth, to claim the faith, to respect the 8th commandment and not bear false witness against my fellow Christians, but also boldly testify to God’s power in my life as it truly is?

Or the desire for comfort.  I would so much rather be comfortable in my faith.  It’s a lot harder for me to extend God’s grace to those different than me, so I justify my exclusion with my preferred version of morality.  It’s a lot harder for me to admit that I don’t want to help my neighbor, so I make up stories about how my neighbor’s suffering is her own fault.  It’s a lot harder for me to give sacrificially, to live beneath my means, so I will keep it all for myself because I earned this.  How much easier to deny?  How much more difficult it is to admit that my faith costs me something, to pass on the glory for myself and give it to God, to set aside my preferences for the true inclusion of the gospel?

And then there’s my own guilt.  I know what I’ve done.  I know all the ways I’ve fallen short.  I know who I truly am, and it’s probably just a matter of time until you do, too.  But maybe one more lie will save me.  Maybe if I can dodge my need to confess, if I can deny even my need for forgiveness, maybe it’ll buy me a little more time.  How much easier to deny?  How much more difficult is it for me to witness to my own sinfulness, to the necessity of Christ’s grace, to witness that I am powerless even to choose love over selfishness?

But my friends, my fellow disciples, maybe Peter resonates with you today, too.  Maybe you’re also aware, either in big or small ways, of the ways you continue to deny Jesus.  Maybe you’re waking up to your own inability to witness to Jesus in your life, whether in your words or your actions or your inactions.  Then you stand condemned today, too.  We are all guilty.  We confess that we have sinned and cannot free ourselves.  Lent brings us to the cross, and we face our shame and fear and denial and the truth that we did this to ourselves.

We praise God, who judges us not as we deserve, but as ones who have been claimed by Christ, even though we deny him.  Even after his denial, Peter found himself at the empty tomb, one of the first to receive the good news of life and grace. May our words and actions bear witness to Christ’s love, and may his love turn us from denial to truth.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.