The Pilgrim God: Reflections on the Story of Jesus

108. Scenes From An Execution I: Peter (John 18:15-27)

Peter of all the apostles seemed to fulfill God's wish for the church at Laodicea (and, by extension, the whole human race):

"I would that you were hot or cold..." (Rev 3:15)

Peter never seemed to run in neutral. His service was characterized by wild swings of doing things terribly right or terribly wrong.

Good Friday was one of those terribly wrong days for Peter. And yet in his failure he proved his strength. He also gave an example of what the Church, the Body of Christ, would be till the end of time ... a bunch of "cracked" humans who by the grace of God would try their best to live up to their calling as Christians. They would not be perfect but most would be humble enough (again by the grace of God) to return again and again after their failures asking forgiveness.

Peter failed in his Lord's time of need but he was able to recover from his terrible day of denial and make most of the rest of his life terribly good. Indeed, Peter's story is a lesson in the strength and weakness of the human animal. Peter is an example of the glory of what we are and the god-awfulness of what we sometimes will do when we are overcome with passions like fear or anger. The difference between Judas and Peter is that Judas' betrayal was coldly planned. Peter's denial was more like an eruption.

Peter was something like a blind, passionate, optimist. He always seemed to believe that things would work out fine and he would accept no opinion to the contrary. Thus, like the rest of the disciples he had heard two predictions of the passion and had rejected both. On the first occasion (Matthew 16;21-28) he had gone so far as to chide Jesus, saying:

"Lord, this will never happen!"

receiving a stern rebuke for his troubles.

What bothered Jesus was that Peter seemed to measure success only in earthly terms, as if this earth was indeed some sort of heaven where everything could be expected always to turn out fine. Peter was still not able to see or accept that bad things sometimes happen in this good but temporary world. He could not see that success from God's point of view is at times characterized by brave endurance rather than denial and avoidance of troubles. "All things working out for the good" will happen only in heaven and heaven is not yet.

Jesus' instruction about bearing one's cross apparently had little effect either on Peter or on the other disciples. A week of so later when Jesus made his second prediction of the passion (Matthew 17:21-22; Mark 9:29-31), he still met a blank wall of ignorance. Some were saddened by the somber tone of his words but no one really understood what he was saying. As so often happens with humans suspecting bad news, they were afraid to ask for an explanation. Peter at least seems to have made some progress from violent protest of the week before. He apparently learned something from Jesus' previous rebuke. Hearing again the prediction of the Passion, Peter this time kept his mouth shut.

Such prudent silence was not to be Peter's enduring virtue. On Thursday evening of Holy Week we still find him obstinately refusing to accept bad news, this time the bad news of his own imminent failure. In his last discourse to the disciples on that evening, Jesus twice predicted that Peter would deny him three times in the next twelve hours. Peter would not hear of it. He was not even mollified by the promise that he would later make amends and be a source of strength for the rest (Luke 22:32). Even as the group made its way to the garden of Judas' betrayal and Peter's flight, Peter was still insisting:

"Not me, Lord! I will never deny you! I would rather die!"

(Matthew 26:33; John 13:37)

As it turned out, Peter could not even be good company for his Lord. Arriving at the quiet garden of Gethsemani, Jesus said to his friend:

"Peter, I feel terribly sad. Please come and be with me in my time of trouble."

Peter, along with James and John, accompanied Jesus deeper into the garden and there waited while Jesus went off a short distance to pray. Though they had the best of intentions of "standing firmly by the side of the Lord", they quickly fell asleep.

Peter must have been a "morning person". He certainly had no trouble being up and about early on Easter. On the other hand, he had trouble staying awake late in the day even on the hill of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:32). Perhaps it is unfair to blame Peter and the other two disciples for their post-sunset stupor. They were, after all, fishermen more accustomed to sunrise sailing than night-time praying. For whatever reason, the sleeping Peter in the garden gave a good example of Christ's remark about the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak (Matthew 26:41) ... with the difference that in this instance Peter's spirit was indeed willing but his flesh was not weak so much as just too dead-dog tired!

Peter's passionate nature, once awakened, could arise to exuberant and somewhat unrealistic heights. On the hill of transfiguration, for example, he wanted to build permanent residences for Christ and Elias and Moses. He did not consider the fact that Jesus had a lot of people waiting for him at the bottom of the hill and that Elias and Moses, once experiencing heavenly bliss, were unlikely to be enthralled by the prospect of spending the rest of their eternity with three fishermen on a minor hill in Galilee.

The same passionate enthusiasm surfaced in the Gethsemani garden. When Judas led the Temple authorities and Roman soldiers into the garden to arrest Jesus, Peter grabbed a sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of the high priest. It was a silly thing to do and Jesus healed the wound immediately, but it could very well be described as Peter's "noblest moment" in the terrible hours of those two days before his Lord's death. It was silly because one vigorous fisherman wielding an unaccustomed weapon had no chance of overcoming a well-armed and experienced group of Roman legionnaires. It could have very well made Peter the first martyr and James or John the first Pope. The only thing that saved Peter was that he attacked Malchus and not one of the Roman soldiers. They would have made short shrift of the wildly swinging fisherman. As it was, the attack on Malchus was in their eyes more amusing than threatening. Jesus himself was not unkind to his passionate defender. He said simply:

"Put down that sword before you hurt yourself."

Jesus certainly appreciated the thought behind Peter's defense but roundly rejected the method.

Peter's desire for martyrdom did not last very long. When he finally came to his senses and saw what Jesus faced ... all the powers of the Temple and the Empire ... he became as frightened as the rest. Even before Jesus was seized by the soldiers, all of the disciples (including Peter) ran away, afraid that if they stayed close they too would be arrested (Matthew 26:56). Despite his earlier declarations of loyalty, Peter ran too. Probably because he was older he did not run away as fast as the rest but he certainly ran with the rest.

Apparently he did not run as far. He and John came back to see what would happen to their Lord. This set the scene for the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy of denial. Some might wish that Peter had not come back so soon. Some might say:

"If only poor Peter had kept running forever, then perhaps he would never have denied Christ three times."

There is much to recommend avoiding the occasion of sin, but on the other hand "running away from Christ forever" is the ultimate denial and is irredeemable for all eternity. Coming back again and again and then failing again and again is not a particularly noble existence but at least it has a 50/50 chance of being successful in the end. It could just happen that death will firm up one of the "coming back" periods, confirming for all eternity the love contained in the desire to make amends.

Certainly it is foolish to keep oneself in circumstances where one can repeat one's denial, but here again Peter simply could not help himself. He just had to stay as close to his suffering Lord as he could, even knowing that "being close" ran the risk of being identified as one who "was with" Jesus.

The humiliating thing about Peter's subsequent denial of Christ before his judges was that it was prompted by someone who was not particularly strong or threatening. Peter was not beaten mercilessly by the Roman cohort until he recanted his faith. He was not threatened with hell by the Sanhedrin in a solemn ceremony that would frighten any believing Jew. Peter's denial was caused by the curiosity of two maids and one anonymous loiterer, people to whom he could have safely given the answers:

"Yes, I AM his disciple. So what!"
"Mind your own business!"

But Peter gave neither of these answers. Three times he said as clearly as he could:

"I do not know this Jesus Christ!"

.. the second and third time backing up his denial with oaths and curses.

Jesus was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin at about this time. As he was led away he passed by Peter and looked him in the eyes. Just then a cock crowed. Peter realized that he had fulfilled the Lord's prophecy. He had denied his Lord. He went away and wept bitterly.

We don't know where he went. Nothing more is heard from him till early on Easter morning. To his credit it must be said that at least he did not run too far and the very fact that he "waited" showed that he still hoped that his Lord would forgive him and somehow make things right again.

Peter's optimism about God's mercy and providence were his saving grace. It would serve him well in the future as he tried to guide his master's rambunctious church. Judas, if he had lived, would have made a poor Pope. He was just too much of a pessimist. As Jesus stood before Pilate for final judgment, poor Judas was in the process of killing himself. He simply could not believe that things would ever be better.

It's a shame that he did not have a chance to talk to Peter.

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