So since our last reading, when Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane while his disciples slept instead of keeping guard, he was betrayed to the chief priests by Judas, and arrested. When Jesus testified that the Scriptures must be fulfilled, Mark tells us everyone deserted him and fled.
Jesus was taken to the house of the high priest. This was a square with a central courtyard, with several houses or apartments making up the sides of the square. The courtyard was open, and big enough to get cold at night, so a fire was built to warm the people milling around. We then read that although everyone had run off, Peter had not gone away with the others in the end, he’d followed Jesus at a distance. There would have been a number of people what with the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders being present. Peter managed to get inside the courtyard. What made Peter come back, near Jesus, but not too near? The people who arrested Jesus were only interested in Jesus, quite probably they weren’t interested in anyone coming along who might defend Jesus. If Peter had initially run off like the rest of the disciples, something prompted him to come back, to see where Jesus was. So he just mixed in with the crowd and went into the courtyard, near the fire. He could probably hear some of the questioning of Jesus, and maybe the lies people told against him. Or maybe he could just hear the tone of the crowd, the rise and fall of voices, the angry tone, as Jesus was questioned.
But while this was going on, Peter was also being questioned, not by someone important, or a court official, but by an ordinary servant girl. She must have been around the city, and Jesus and his followers, because she says to Peter, “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus.” Peter denied it, but must have been unsettled because it says that he went out into the entrance, he was probably hoping to be among strangers. I wonder how he felt, denying Jesus?
No escape for Peter. In the general milling around of the people in the courtyard, the servant girl saw Peter again. This time she was bolder, she didn’t confront Peter, she told the others standing about that Peter was one of Jesus’ followers. Peter had already denied her testimony once, he could hardly ‘fess up now. So he denied it again.
But then things got much worse for Peter. Having spoken to deny knowing Jesus twice, he was questioned a third time, because this time, someone recognised his accent was the same as Jesus’, and said he must be one of Jesus’ followers. At this, Peter got angry and we are told he called down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” The third question had the same effect as prodding an angry animal with a stick – he got much more aggressive, his protests stronger and louder. I wonder if he really meant to deny Jesus? This was Peter, who was with Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s reply was the only one recorded, and displayed such depth of understanding: ”You are the Christ.” Was he here just wanting to be an observer, hoping he could get away without being identified? Was he unsure of what to do? This seems out of character because Peter was the headstrong one, the one who was all for action. But of course, because he was like that most of the time, didn’t mean he was necessarily like that all the time. Even the most sociable of us need time out, just being one of the crowd, not having to do the organising or be the life of the party once in a while. Maybe he simply wanted to know how things turned out for Jesus, was it going to be as he’d told them – because that would have been such an unbelievable outworking of events, a crucifixion and burial and resurrection.
But if Peter thought this was a down-time for him, a time not to think of the cost of being a disciple for a little while, the cock crowed. We aren’t told in Mark’s gospel when it crowed the first time, but we read in v. 72 that the cock crowed a second time. Had he heard it a first time and ignored it? Well, when it crowed the second time, there was not ignoring it, the sound was as if Jesus had again spoken his prophesy, “Before the cock crows twice, you will disown me three times.” And he had, two seemingly inconsequential kind of brushing-off remarks, but a third unmistakable, full-on denial. It was one of those moments of realisation which I’m sure we have all had in our lives at some point or another – I hope you haven’t had too many of them – because they are gut wrenching moments when you realise you have been way wide of the mark, way out of order, just totally, and utterly wrong. All that carefully built up, and possibly sound, self confidence you’d built up, comes crashing down and you wish the ground would open up and swallow you whole. In Luke’s gospel, it is recorded that when the cock crowed the second time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter, almost unbelievably a direct sight-line through the crowed from Jesus to Peter. There is no record of words spoken, it was one of those times when a look was sufficient. Now in Mark’s gospel, we are not told of the look , the second crowing of the cock was enough, but in both gospels we are told that Peter went out and wept bitterly. A gut wrenching moment when he realised he’d let Jesus down, there was no time when a disciple of Jesus could have down time from being a disciple. Jesus knew that he had to fulfil what he was sent to earth to do, so even if Peter had been his usual impetuous self and stormed to Jesus’ defence, it would in the end have been to no effect. But for Peter, it would have been one of those occasions when it would have been better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all.
Jesus’ trial ended in uproar when the high priest finally made his decision of blasphemy, there were shouts for Jesus’ death, and physical punishment and taunts as Jesus was blindfolded, spat on and hit. And Peter weeping, probably wishing he was different, probably wishing Jesus’ words were different, just wanting things to go back to normal, well, what was normal for things when Jesus was around – amazing things like healings happening; teaching, hard but real, heart-filling teaching; challenges, but all the time Jesus present with an answer that blew everyone away.
Ben made a point this morning which I think is worth putting in here. We read that all the other disciples had fled when Jesus was arrested, and the only disciple in this story is Peter, so it must have been Peter who told the others when he rejoined them. We know he rejoined them because we’re told in ch 16 that Peter was with the disciples on the morning the women were told Jesus had risen from the dead. So Peter, for all his shame, went back to the disciples and shared what had happened to him. He could have said nothing! But he chose to tell them, and to come back to the place from where witness to Jesus’ works would continue.
Let’s think for a moment about the other disciple who left Jesus. It was Judas, and he left Jesus and the other disciples when the Passover meal was finished, so he could go off and prepare to betray Jesus to the chief priests and elders for his thirty pieces of silver. He betrayed Jesus. What happened to Judas? We are told he hanged himself, so we presume he was consumed by guilt, literally. Peter was consumed by guilt as he wept, but he went back to the disciples, where he knew ministry would continue, he would still be identified with Jesus. Somehow, in Peter’s admission that Jesus was the Christ, Peter was given insight into the knowledge of the breadth and depth of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. It had permeated the very depths of Peter’s being, and, I presume, in some way, he was able to see that love, to understand that it was greater than his own broken humanity. He could confess, repent, and move on. Such simple words, so hard to do, “Confess, repent and move on”! But not to repent, understand and accept forgiveness is to say “No thank you” to the offer of love Christ has for each one of us, what a waste of Christ’s suffering.
For us here tonight, as I said earlier, I’m sure there are times when we are burdened by things we’ve got wrong, whether by our own fault or the fault of circumstances which we failed to foresee. We’ve heard of Peter’s actions, that man who was so close to Jesus, so anxious to fight Jesus’corner, doing something he didn’t foresee, and when told it would happen, considered it totally impossible. But he’s brought low through his own humanity, brought down by not staying close enough to Jesus on the one night that he might have been able to in some way help Jesus. Is that us? Are we staying close to Jesus, or are we in the crowd milling around, keeping an eye on what he’s doing, without actually committing to following him wholeheartedly? Do we think we are as strong as Peter thought he was, that we can be away from our spiritual base and still be strong? Because that example from coal fires that many youngsters don’t know about these days still holds – if you take a brightly glowing piece of coal out of a fire and put it on the hearth, it soon goes out, because it needs the heat of the others to keep it glowing brightly. Oh yes, there are times when we have to go through things alone, but again, closeness to Christ is so important. But closeness to his living, active community is important too. That way, we can be strengthened and encouraged, and hopefully checked, before we are tempted to deny Jesus by a decision in our lives, however big or small that temptation or its consequences might be.
Most times we would end a sermon about Peter by saying to be bold, strong, insightful and effective as he was. This evening, the sermon ends with us being challenged by the cautionary tale of Peter’s fall from grace, but also by his recognition that Jesus forgives us, and if we repent, we can still go on to see and do great things in his name. Amen.