The Denial of Peter
Luke 22:31-34, 54-62
Each of the four Gospels place Peter at the center of events during the ministry of Jesus. Each of the Gospels was written some years after the event, and by that time, Peter has become the most prominent Christian in the entire Church. He was the leader of the early church even before the crucifixion, and after the day of Pentecost there is no doubt that Peter is the leader of that early church for its first two or three decades.
The man’s personality alone pushes him to the fore in any crowd. He is a born leader of people. There is nothing timid about this man. His real name is Simon. But Jesus very quickly gives him a nickname that fits him to a tee. He calls him Petros / Peter (Aramaic for rock), or in the Greek language, Cephas which also means a Rock. We would call him Rocky Son of Jonas.
But the Gospel writers know of that day when the rock crumbled, when solid granite became shifting sand. They knew of a day when Peter, petered out. Gave up. Gave out.
The early church not only knew that story, but they told it, over and over again, and wrote it up in the official documents of their early history.
Why? Was it to vilify this hero? Was it to tell us, that all saints have clay feet, and Peter was no better than the rest of us? That he too, like some of our television evangelists, are not only mortal but also sinful? Was that the reason they squeal on Peter? To wash his dirty laundry in front of the entire Church and the entire world? I think not. If that was their intention, then it is yellow journalism of the National Inquirer type that is not worth the paper on which it is written.
So why does the early church squeal on Peter? They are in the business of telling us good news, not bad news. This set of stories about Peter the great Saint must have served either as a cautionary tale, or as an encouragement to others in the church. How so?
They Underscored the Profound Love of God
Listen again to the words of our reading” “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.”
There is great love in these words. Jesus is reaching out to Peter. He knows Peter well, and he senses the precipice that Peter walks near. Peter does not have to fail. It is not predetermined. But when Peter responds with his bragging self-assurance, Jesus knows that he is not only vulnerable but will fall when the pressure is on. His words are “Satan wants you. But, so does God. I have prayed for you.”
“I have prayed for you.”
I find that quite stunning. For Jesus not only prays for Peter, but before that night is over Jesus will offer to His Father the High Priestly Prayer found in John 17 for all the disciples and for all future disciples down the centuries. And the further good news is that Jesus continues to pray for each of us as he is seated at the right hand of the Father after his ascension.
The Book of Hebrews says it this way; “He ever lives to make intercession for us.” He loves us too much to stop praying for us. And it is not only Jesus who prays for us, but the Holy Spirit Himself prays for us. God himself prays for us.
What could that mean? God has desires for us that he expresses to himself. He looks upon us with longing and voices his wishes for us. He sees where our feet walk, and where our journey takes us, and he looks on with concern and care. He loves us too much not to care. That is part of the good news in this passage.
Jesus Refuses to Discard Peter.
There was a second element, however, to the good news. Peter was slipping. He was about to flee and follow at a distance, like the other 10 men. But Jesus also knew of the disaster that the denial would bring that would wound this man to the heart. Peter was about to do something that was worse than the fight in the garden and the flight from the mob; worse than the fear. Those were sins of impulse. But, he was about to do something that he knew he should never do, could never do, or so he thought. He would actually hang his master out to dry, to spindle alone in the wind, and would actually lie and curse and refuse his allegiance to this man in the very crucial moments of the arrest, trial and execution of his best friend.
Jesus knows this about Peter, and says, “Simon, Simon, I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not.” He knows that Peter is falling, but his concern is, not will he fall, but will Peter ever bounce back from the hurt he is about to do to himself?
It is in the next words that the early church saw the good news. Jesus continues, “After you have returned, strengthen your brethren.” Peter is turning away, but Jesus is calling him to turn back, not just from the impending disaster, but after the disaster. He is offering Peter not only restoration to the family, but he is also offering him his position of leadership after the failure. He is saying to the sinning man, after you have turned back, I still have a job for you.”
If I had been Peter, after the denial, I might have turned back in penitence, but I would have said, “That’s the end of being trusted. Never again will He lean on me as he did. Never again will I be able to hold up my head in the church.”
And Peter did think that. After the resurrection, Peter must have been enormously grateful that his deed of denial had had no long-range consequences in the life of Jesus, but he does believe his denial has had tragic consequences for his own future. A few days after Resurrection Sunday, he says to the others, “I’m going fishing.” He presumes that he will have to make a career change because he has failed as a leader in that early church.
But that is not the end of the story, as you know. For Jesus appears on the beach and he and Peter go for a long walk by themselves. The questions Jesus asks are searching ones: “Simon, do you love me? And at the close of each of Peter’s responses, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, look after my flock.” And Peter is restored to his place of leadership.
And the early church saw in these words “strengthen your brothers” the good news of the Gospel. For some of us have chosen to follow Christ, but then some sin has entered our lives. And we sense that he could never trust us again. Never really forgive us enough to find us valuable.
But this story tells us the contrary. Even upon sinning high handedly and with full intention, we are not discarded by God or marginalized. He does not say, “Well you had your chance, you blew it.” No! The good news is; God is not prepared to let us in on short rations. He is not prepared to let us in, but as second-class citizens. Instead he says, “When you have returned, strengthen your fellow apostles, when you have returned, feed my sheep.” (Similar to the prodigal son who upon his returning is provided with shoes, robe and ring!)
The Look of Love
There is one other part to Peter’s story that has captured the church’s imagination. It has to do with one line in the story of the denial. The other writers do not tell us about it, but Luke does. It is the word found in verse 61. “Immediately while Peter was speaking the cock crowed, and THEN THE LORD TURNED AND LOOKED AT PETER, and then Peter remembered… and went out and wept bitterly.”
Jesus turned and looked at Peter. What kind of a look was it?
A look that had a scowl at its center?
A look of accusation, with his head shaking from side to side in disapproval?
A look of pity, the head shaking in sadness?
A look of scorn, saying in wordless tones, “I told you so!”?
I think not. The early church did not think so either. The look was certainly sad, concerned, compassionate, caring. It was not a look of indignation, because he was being deserted by Peter. It was a look of concern for Peter, with a question mark at its center. “What will you do now Peter?”
If the crowing of the cock did not awaken the memory of that recent conversation, that look of love certainly did. That look triggered a flood of memory in Peter’s mind. And Peter fled into the night, scalding tears bursting to his eyes. He ran without direction, heading nowhere, heading anywhere, trying to hide his shame.
But those early writers knew that the look of love was part of the good news. And God also looks upon us.
Ray Stevens sang a song that says “You’d better be good, Santa Claus in watching you.” In the song he has Rudolph on stakeout in front of our homes, watching us, to see if we deserve Santa’s gifts. Is God like that? The eternal snooppervisor of human affairs. Is God the Big Brother who is forever watching us (like the FBI, CIA and homeland security)?
This passage says that’s not it at all. As Isaac Watts learned long ago, He tells of the time when he entered the cottage of an elderly woman. He noticed a plaque on the wall that read “Thou God Seest Me.” It is a phrase taken from the book of Genesis when Hagar is running away from her mistress Sarah. The elderly lady noticed his hesitancy about the words. She said, some will tell you those words mean that God is always watching you to see if you are getting into trouble. But that’s not what they mean. They mean, “God loves you so much he cannot take his eyes off you.” That is the good news behind the look. We have already condemned ourselves. His look adds no insult to injury, but re-offers the promise instead, “Simon, Simon. I am praying for you still.”
Peter Makes the Right Response
The church told Peter’s story because it told them of the Love of God.
It told them that sins are really forgiven.
It told them of the constant care of God for our welfare.
But it told them one other thing they thought wonderful.
It told them that upon sinning, Peter made the right response. He left that place of judgment, weeping bitterly. Sorrow dominated his days for the next week. He knew that he had done something terrible. He had betrayed friendship.
He begins by making the very same response that Judas had. Judas too had fled into the night, weeping inconsolably. But in despair took his own life. Peter fled into that very same night, with the knowledge of the awfulness of his deed, but with the morning light came back to that gathering of disheartened men, and there encountered the resurrected Christ and found inner healing for the wound he had caused in himself.
My friends. The good news is that you and I are still free to make right choices too. There is nothing in the universe that says you and I must live with sins committed in the past as a continual albatross around our necks. There is nothing in God that says, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Instead God looks upon our sin, and looks in on our lives, and offers us a return to peace and usefulness. Dear friends: That’s the best news in the universe! That is the Gospel.