SCRIPTURE LESSON Matthew 26:31-41, 69-75. NRSV
Peter’s Denial Foretold
31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32 But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33 Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Peter’s Denial of Jesus
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” 71 When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
SERMON Simon Peter: Denial
Denial! Even the word is one we would like to deny. There are so many things we would rather not admit as individuals, as a church, as a nation. We may have secrets or past mistakes, a dark past we don’t want to show to others or even to remember ourselves. That’s one form of denial. There are also things we don’t want to admit about our present realities from health concerns to financial needs, from the aging process to fears that haunt us. Sometimes we don’t want to know the horrific things going on in our world or even what is going on with our neighbor. But living with blinders to these realities is also a form of denial. We don’t want to face loss or suffering; we don’t want to deal with the future. This, too, is denial.
Don’t forget that denial is one of the painful stages of grief work. We cannot avoid the work that goes with grieving. We cannot avoid present realities or the fact that the future will come whether we like it or not. We cannot change the past; we can only forgive ourselves and others and choose to move on asking God to forgive and heal us. Perhaps denial is a wakeup call, that we need God’s help to get through whatever it is, so that we can survive and get on with life.
Denial was a wakeup call for Simon Peter. As the disciples gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover with Jesus, they were all in denial. Jesus had been telling them since their retreat at Caesarea Philippi that he must die at the hands of the authorities. They were here in Jerusalem where the situation was tense. They knew Jesus’ actions and teachings were causing a stir, and that there would be consequences. But they didn’t want to know or admit these things. They came to the table to share the Passover Feast with their Master and Friend, their beloved Teacher. They wanted to pretend nothing was wrong or worrisome. But Jesus was in teaching mode, and that included the reality checks and warnings they needed to hear, whether they wanted to hear it or not. One of these specifically was for Simon Peter.
Jesus told them that one of them would betray him, that they would all be scattered as they ran away. Impetuous yet loyal Peter, that Rock, denied it. “I will never desert you,” he proclaimed. But Jesus already knew the truth that Peter could not yet see. That night would be a severe test for this faithful disciple who loved his Lord. Like a tug of war between protecting Jesus and his own self-preservation, Peter would be pulled apart. His faith would be more like soft limestone than hard marble by morning light. Under pressure it would begin to crumble in spite of his great love for Jesus. But Jesus gently told him the truth he didn’t want to hear, that by dawn, the time of cock-crow, Peter would deny his Lord three times.
Many of us find it is harder to face life in the middle of the night. We wrestle with the difficult challenges of life that keep us awake, or we are working on them even in our dreams only to wake up exhausted or perhaps shaking from a nightmare. Somehow at night our fears have more power over us, our grief is more tangible, our capacity for worry goes into overdrive. Our body reacts as our mind struggles.
Simon Peter and the others have been blessed by the meal they shared with Jesus, but some of his actions like washing their feet as a servant and the new words he spoke with the bread and the cup left them pondering many things. Peter was especially wondering what Jesus meant, reflecting on the ways he had been corrected, worrying about the things Jesus said. With all that weighing him down after a full day of preparing the meal, it’s no wonder he and John fell asleep, even though Jesus had asked them along with James to stay awake and pray with him.
Adam Hamilton shared a cute story on himself about a time working past midnight; he was writing a sermon on this very passage. He fell asleep at his computer and woke up later to find five pages of the letter j, the key on which his finger landed as he slept. (Hamilton, Simon Peter, p. 98) I can easily picture that happening. I often get sleepy not while typing but while reading in preparation to write. Some of you have heard my story of a gentleman at Red Oak who used to apologize for falling asleep during worship. I knew he worked hard as a farmer and had already taught the young adult class before I arrived, which meant he had been up studying the night before. I always told him we were okay as long as the preacher stayed awake.
When we try our best, but just can’t follow through as well as we hoped and intended, Jesus does understand as he said to Simon Peter that night, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) Though Jesus often has reason to be disappointed in us, as he sometimes was in Simon Peter, Jesus sees the whole picture, seeing our heart as God does. Jesus knows and forgives our weakness even while praising our strengths and encouraging us to give our best.
After waking them up for the third time, Jesus saw that Judas had come with the Jewish leaders and armed guards. Judas indeed betrayed Jesus greeting him with a customary kiss. Peter was so angry he drew the sword at his side and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. He knew it was impulsive and wrong, but he would have done anything to keep Jesus safe that night. He was rebuked again, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword” Jesus said. Then Jesus, ever the compassionate healer miraculously reattached poor Malchus’ ear. Peter was ashamed. Jesus was arrested and taken away, after pleading for his disciples to be spared. They all ran away, just as Jesus had predicted. But Peter and John didn’t go too far. They followed at a safe distance.
Jesus was taken across the Kidron Valley and up to the home of the high priest. Houses of the elite were built around a square central courtyard that could be entered by others. The private rooms were arranged around the open area. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke – only report Matthew entering this courtyard. John claims another disciple was with him, and history has assumed it was John himself. These two were often found together in New Testament stories. But this story is about Simon Peter.
While Jesus was standing trial before the Sanhedrin, the seventy member Jewish Council, Peter was warming himself by the fire staying as close as he dared, perhaps hoping to overhear what would happen, perhaps trying to keep his pledge that he would not abandon Jesus even when the others did. Hamilton and Barclay both want us to give Peter some credit for bravely coming to this courtyard. It was like entering the lion’s den. He had been with Jesus at the arrest in Gethsemane; some of these men could have been with that guard. Some of these servants could have been among the crowd that followed them. Peter could easily be recognized, even more so for having cut off the ear of someone who served in this very household. Malchus, his victim, might himself also be among those in the courtyard.
There were those who did indeed recognize Peter as someone who traveled with Jesus. A serving girl said, “You were with Jesus, the Galilean.” Peter denied it saying, “I don’t know what you are talking about” and retreated from the courtyard to the porch. (Matthew 26:69-70) But there another girl saw him and outed him as someone who was with Jesus. In fear Peter denied even knowing who Jesus was. After awhile others accused him saying his Galilean accent made it certain he was with Jesus. Simon Peter lost his composure completely and cursed while denying he knew Jesus. We are told that at that moment the cock crowed, and Peter remembered Jesus’ words, that before cock-crow he would deny Jesus three times. Ashamed and sad, Peter ran out and wept.
We have often heard the story of the rooster crowing as if convicting Peter of his crime of denial. As the keys became a symbol for Peter, because Jesus said he was giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, so too a rooster has become a symbol for Peter. One symbol for his glorious moments, and one for his failures. But reading Barclay’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel this week, I learned something new about this rooster crowing piece of the story.
In Jerusalem back then as in many urban settings today, roosters were not welcome. In fact they are now often illegal within city limits. The high priest lived in the city proper. Did Peter really hear a cock crow? But there is another piece of information that began to make sense to me. At 3 am there was a changing of the guard. The trumpet call for that change is called gallicinium, which means cock-crow. (Barclay, Matthew, Vol. 2 in the Daily Study Bible Series, p. 347) I wouldn’t be surprised if an English translation, not knowing those cultural norms, mistakenly gave us a literal translation rather than a more accurate reading. But whether Peter heard a trumpet or a rooster, he knew it was what Jesus meant, and it pained him to admit he had denied his Lord just as Jesus said.
As Barclay distills this story of Simon Peter, he focuses on Peter’s love for Jesus in this way,
“it was love that gave Peter courage; it was love which riveted him there in spite of the fact that he had been recognized three times; it was love which made him remember the words of Jesus; it was love which sent him out into the night to weep – and love covers a multitude of sins. The lasting impression of this whole story is not Peter’s cowardice, but of Peter’s love.” (p. 347)
Adam Hamilton is fascinated with the question of why we even know these stories of Simon Peter being less than the hero we might expect. Why would the Gospel writers and the Church keep telling the stories of Peter’s downfalls, his blundering moments? As Peter became the head of the Church at Rome and was recognized as a major figure through church history, you might expect these stories to be swept under the rug. Hamilton’s conclusion is that Peter must have kept emphasizing these stories himself in his preaching and teaching. Hamilton shares that often people find his stories of his own weak moments the most helpful. I know I react exactly that way to Max Lucado’s teaching and writing; I love it when he tells stories of how he messed up, because I can relate to those. I remembered while typing this message that I was once told the same thing about my own preaching by another member back at Red Oak. Perhaps Simon Peter himself and later the Gospel writers and the Church realized that we can recognize more of ourselves and learn more about Jesus when we look at Peter’s weak moments rather than when we celebrate his shining moments. Everyone has both, but we need more encouragement when we have fallen.
Hamilton writes, “Peter showed us that denying Jesus is part of our all-too-human experience as disciples.” One example Hamilton told was of a man named Paul Plummer; it was a painful story to read but is a striking example of ways we fail to stand up for Jesus. In the 1930s Plummer was working at a grocery store in Missouri when a lynch mob formed against a young black man who had been accused of a serious crime but not yet tried. The victim’s testimony and his own confession had fluctuated as to whether or not he was guilty. The mob was brutal in its unauthorized punishment of a man who may have been innocent. But here is the equally painful part of the story in Hamilton’s words,
“no one in the crowd spoke up to protest – a crowd filled with churchgoing Christians. Plummer, a gentle giant of a man, described thirty years of remorse and shame for not having spoken up.” (Hamilton, p. 105)
Hamilton heard this story from Plummer himself when he shared it while preaching a laity message titled “Standing on the Edge of the Crowd.” (Hamilton, p. 104)
When have we stood on the edge of the crowd and not spoken up for justice? When have we participated in gossip or an inappropriate joke? When have we kept silent with regard to our faith? When have we gone along with the crowd rather than standing up for what we believe is right? When have we allowed prejudice or fear to rule our response to a situation? Aren’t these some of the ways we deny Jesus, deny what he stands for, deny who he is in our lives, deny what he came to teach and even what he died to tell us? What about when we deny that Jesus loves and forgives us or others?
Karla referred the other day to the Columbine story as a test of faith, and she’s right that none of us know exactly what we would do if a gun were aimed at us while asking if we are a Christian. It is the same tug of war between defending Jesus and self-preservation that Peter went through and the martyrs of the early church went through and sometimes missionaries and church goers today must go through as well. I even dreamt that scenario in my sleep a few years ago. But not every opportunity to stand up and speak up for Christ is as dramatic as all that.
When you hang out with friends who don’t worship God, is your conversation and behavior still in a godly manner? If someone boldly talks in a way that goes against your Christian convictions, would you just as boldly though politely explain why you believe what you do? When you’re given an opportunity to cheat with a little white lie, do you tell the truth instead? When you could take advantage for convenience or benefit, do you do the right thing? If someone needs help that you can give, do you take time to do so? If you see someone being harmed, do you step in to do something about it? When family or friends say they just don’t believe this Jesus stuff, do you attempt to share without judgement why Jesus is important to you? These are all ways we witness for Christ. With both our words and our actions, we are called to be living witnesses for Jesus; what do others learn about him from verbal and non-verbal testimony? Is it obvious we are living for Jesus? Or do our lives deny him?
Peter tried to live out his love for Jesus, but because he was human, he made mistakes. Sometimes he was short sighted and only read the situation from a human perspective. Not seeing the bigger picture from God’s point of view, Peter’s words and actions went in the wrong direction. Sometimes his human drive to survive got in the way. We are also like that. It doesn’t mean we don’t love Jesus, but it does mean we still have some distance to go in fully trusting God. I want to encourage you to do your best for Christ every day, but I also want you to forgive yourselves when you have done less than you intended or hoped. Confess your human weakness and know that Jesus can forgive you as he forgave Peter.
Even while Jesus was undergoing trial before the Sanhedrin, I believe he was fully aware of Peter’s struggles out in the courtyard. I believe Jesus was praying for Simon Peter even while shaking his head with thoughts something like, “Oh, Peter, you need to have a bit more faith.” Jesus already knew how much he was asking of Peter and what more he would yet ask. There will be three commissions to overcome the three denials, but that is in next week’s message.