April 17, 2011, Palm Sunday
Now, But Not Yet
Following Jesus From A Safe Distance
During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he criticized Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. You were one of Stalin’s colleagues, came the cry. Why didn’t you stop him?
Who said that? demanded Khrushchev. Silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Again, Khrushchev demanded who said that? Then Khrushchev replied quietly, Now you know why.
(Today in the Word, July 13, 1993).
Have you felt that power that a group of people can exert over us? The kind of power that will applies a pressure that tempts us to abandon or forsake a belief, an allegiance, a cause, or a relationship.
As we continue our series of Now, But Not Yet we come to one of the most difficult of all Scripture passages to read. On this Palm Sunday we study the passage that tells of Peter’s denial of Jesus. It is a story included in all four gospels, but Luke adds a note not included by the other three gospel writers – in verse 61 Luke adds the chilling words and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.
Luke begins this portion of the story by telling us that Peter followed at a distance (22:54). After the arrest of Jesus, Peter followed the crowd to the house of the high priest Caiaphas. Though Peter had risen up in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested he was well aware at this point of the danger of following Jesus. The warnings Jesus had spoken about taking up a cross now seemed very real to Peter. When Luke comments about Peter following at a distance he is providing more than a description of physical proximity – it was also a prediction of spiritual distance, as Peter’s faith begins to waver.
Luke tells us a group gathered in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home, and after building a fire they sat down as they waited to see what would happen to Jesus. There is a terrible irony in Peter warming himself by the fire while his devotion to Jesus is quickly cooling. It is an example of the prurient nature of people, I think. The crowd gathers like a group of human vultures, circling around to see what will happen next.
It was while seated around the fire that Peter made the first of his denials. Verse 56 says a servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”
Though we have no idea exactly what ran through Peter’s mind at that moment we assume it must have been accompanied by a note of panic. Perhaps Peter spoke before really thinking and simply blurted out his first denial – woman, I don’t know him.
I wonder what Peter must have thought as those words came out of his mouth. We all speak before we think, so we know what it is to blurt out a regrettable comment before we have time to think about it. But this is Peter. Peter, who had traveled with Jesus for three years and who had experienced so much in those years. Peter loved Jesus and as they traveled together he had professed his love and loyalty on more than one occasion. And then, in a moment Peter denies all the experiences of those years as well as his professions of love and loyalty. This was bold, outspoken Peter, frightened into denial by the words of a servant girl. It was not Pilate, nor any of the Sanhedrin, nor a mob of soldiers, but a single waiting-maid, who frightened the self-confident Apostle into denying his Master (The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 9, Luke-John, p. 173). It was only hours before that Peter had proclaimed he would go with you to prison and to death! (verse 33). So much for Peter’s grand intentions.
But are we too hard on Peter for his denials? He hardly acted worse than the other disciples. In fact, Peter was the only one who followed Jesus after his arrest, and he risked his own arrest to be in the Caiaphas’ courtyard that evening. And don’t we know the painful reality that is the difference between our professions and our actions? We also know that despite assertions of our own strength we sometimes have feet of clay more than nerves of steel. It takes great courage to love our enemies and to love and pray for those who would be our persecutors; it takes great strength to say no to our desire to disappear into self-absorption, and it takes great strength to take up our own cross. So we can’t be too hard on Peter as we struggle to match our lives to our words.
Whatever Peter thought after his first denial, it would get worse. A short time after his first denial came the second. Once again someone recognized him as a follower of Jesus and said you also are one of them (verse 58). Without hesitation Peter denies knowing Jesus a second time. We have to wonder what Peter thought at that moment. Perhaps he was making a determination in his mind that it would not happen again, but merely an hour passes and he is challenged a third time, as another looks at him, recognizes him and says, certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean (verse 59). However Peter may have prepared himself for any further challenges he again makes an immediate response, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about! (verse 60).
It is at this point that Luke spares Peter, as he doesn’t mention his cursing as do Matthew (26:24) and Mark (14:71). Matthew and Mark’s details remind us this was not a mild betrayal. Peter was loud and he was insistent and he punctuated his denials with cursing and swearing.
And then comes Luke’s comment that brings a chill – the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter (verse 61).
Jesus predicted, and then witnessed, Peter’s denials. He not only heard the denials, he heard the cursing and swearing that came with them. My guess is these denials may have brought more pain to Jesus than the physical agony he was about to endure. Imagine hearing those words of denial. Have you ever made a comment about someone and then realized they were nearby and heard you? Imagine if every time we spoke bitter words about another they were close enough to hear our words. It would certainly alter what we say.
Peter’s error actually began before the denials. In verse 33, when Peter boasted that he was ready to go to prison or to death with Jesus he should have been asking for strength rather than boasting. Peter overestimated his own strength and underestimated his dependence upon Jesus. It is a reminder of the need for humility.
When Jesus looked at Peter, Peter was suddenly speechless. Peter, who was never short of something to say at that moment had nothing to say. There was nothing to say at that moment. One look from Jesus and Peter’s failure and denial was exposed. How many of us know the look of disappointment in the eyes of someone we love? As William Barclay writes, the penalty of sin is to face, not the anger of Jesus, but the heartbreak in his eyes (Barclay, Luke, p. 270).
After the third denial Luke says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly (verse 62). Peter had failed, terribly.
I have always felt sorry for Peter. Imagine your failure being remembered 2,000 years later. I am in a position where my faults and failures sometimes become a point of discussion among people, but imagine your failure recorded for all the ages. A failure of such magnitude could define one’s life. It could, but it didn’t. People might have said Peter’s not qualified, remember what he did. Peter’s denials keep him from being a leader.
But Jesus restored Peter. Jesus restored Peter after the resurrection. It must have been terribly uncomfortable for Peter to face Jesus and have the shame of denial weighing upon him. But Jesus renews his call to Peter. Once again, as he had done three years prior, Jesus calls Peter with the phrase follow me (John 21:19). Jesus didn’t require Peter to jump through hoops of qualification and he didn’t require him to make amends in any way; he simply asked him once again to follow.
Restoration is one of the specialties of Jesus. Imagine how Peter could actually use this moment to help others – others who also faced failures. Peter could say to them I know what it is to fail. I know what it is to deny Jesus. But I also know what it is to be restored, and you can be restored, just as Jesus restored me.
Peter, instead of being crushed by his failure, was transformed by what happened. Sometimes it takes a crisis to reshape us and make us stronger, which is why we should never waste a crisis. We often look at a crisis as something from which we must recover and we desire to leave it behind forever. But God can use that crisis, and he can use that crisis to shape us and mold us and make us the people he desires us to be. The great church father Ambrose writes this of Peter’s denials although Peter was ready in spirit, he still was weak in physical love…Not even Peter could equal the steadfastness of the divine purpose. The Lord’s Passion has imitators but no equals. I do not criticize Peter’s denials, but I praise his weeping. The one is common to nature, but the other is peculiar to virtue (Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 10:52. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, ed. by Arthur A. Just, Jr. General Editor, Thomas C. Oden, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2003, p. 337). The virtue Peter demonstrated was his brokenness that moved him to open his heart and life to God’s restoring grace.
Peter made no excuses for his denials, and Peter more than redeemed himself, as he eventually gave his life for his faith, on a cross of his own.
God’s grace comes to us when we make no effort to hide who we are, or what we have done. Instead of making excuses or defending himself, Peter allowed the grace of God to pick him up, renew him, and to use him in even greater ways. Great leaders, I believe, are people who are often greatly broken, dismissed of pride and reliance upon their own strength.
Jesus would not allow this failure to be fatal to Peter.
One summer years ago I was working at church camp. I broke a rule that would have sent me home and most likely kept me from returning the rest of the summer. I well remember when the camp director taking me aside to talk to me about the incident. The realization that I had disappointed someone I so admired was very difficult for me. But I remember very vividly that he showed me grace that day, and didn’t send me home, and by doing so made me one of his best workers, because gratitude moved me to want to work harder for him.
Never allow a failure to define your life. Peter restored Jesus; he can restore us.