This sermon was preached on March 23 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was John 18:12-27. You can listen to it, and read it, below.[audio:http://pomomusings.com/wp-content/mp3/Denying-Jesus.mp3]
I started drinking Diet Coke when I began dating Sarah. I had always heard about those people who woke up in the morning and had a Diet Coke with breakfast, but never thought that I would become one of them. But then I tried it…and if you are also someone who drinks Diet Coke religiously…you know what happened. There is just something about the taste and carbonation of Diet Coke, first thing in the morning.
Now, if you’re not someone who drinks Diet Coke, there is something you need to understand. Not all Diet Cokes are equal. I began drinking Diet Coke out of the can, but at some point, Sarah started to not like that as much as Diet Coke in the plastic bottles. So we switched.
And then, at some point fountain Diet Coke, from McDonalds, became our ultimate preference. Until we started drinking the Coca-Cola from Mexico, the stuff with the pure cane sugar that comes in glass bottles (which you can buy at Costco, in large quantities). And that’s what we drink now. Sarah loves it.
And so, when she began thinking about what to give up for Lent this year…she chose the glass bottled Coca-Cola.
A few days into Lent, she realized that perhaps that wasn’t the wisest choice. As a PhD student in the last few weeks of writing her final two comprehensive exam papers, and with a 2-yr old that had gotten a pretty bad cold and an ear infection, who had a few rough nights of sleep that demanded his parents to stay up later than usual…the lack of that caffeine from the Coca-Cola began to take its toll.
I told her it really wasn’t a big deal if she gave in and drank Coke. God was still going to love her; and she had done better than me anyway – I hadn’t given anything up for Lent.
And that’s when I ran across a blog post from Maggi Dawn, an English theologian who is currently a Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. She wrote a post entitled “Lent: did you cheat yet?” on the same day that Sarah was second-guessing her decision to give up Coke. In that post, Maggi Dawn writes:
“I…think that a broken Lent discipline is not such a big deal in the long run…one of the central purposes of Lent is to remind us that we are utterly human, and utterly dependent upon God. What could be more human than breaking a promise, failing on a discipline, achieving less than we meant to, losing our confidence or our resolve? If we break the discipline we have chosen, it’s just the moment to admit that this proves to us the very point of Lent….that we are only human.”
Kicking Lent off with the imposition ashes and the reminder of our mortality, we are ushered into a time of realizing who we are, and who God is. Some of you may remember this quote that I shared at our Ash Wednesday service, but it comes from Frederick Buechner, in his book “Listening to Your Life.” He says this about Lent:
“After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into a wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question, what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask, one way or another, what it means to be themselves.”
As we journey through Lent this season, as we are asking what it means to be ourselves…we invariably will run up against the realization that we are only human…that we are people who need God. And sometimes it takes our failings, big or small, to help us remember that we are dependent on God.
And so what better story to read this morning, than that of a follower of Jesus failing…and failing epically, or so it would seem.
Simon Peter…we all know someone like Peter. We have images in our mind of the over-eager pupil, the one who always has his hand up first when the teacher asks a question…is always right by the teacher’s side…never wanting to miss a beat or an opportunity to provide the correct answer.
It is Peter, who is the first to call out who Jesus is: “You are the Christ! The son of the Living God!”
It is Peter, who Jesus says he will build his church upon, because Peter is as strong as a rock.
It is Peter, who as soon as Jesus starts talking about what the future holds, and of his death, it is Peter who tries to stop Jesus and tells him that he’s wrong…which elicits the strong statement to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!”
It is Peter, who on the mountain of the transfiguration, is so excited to see Elijah and Moses join Jesus, and hasn’t a clue what he should do to celebrate the occasion, offers up the idea of building shrines for all three of them, right then and right there, on the mountain!
It is Peter, who just earlier in the evening in which our passage takes place, when Jesus knelt down to wash his feet, says, “No! You will never wash my feet.”
But when Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me,” Peter realizes that he misspoke, and quickly responds with “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
It is this Peter…Peter the Rock…who, we are told, denies Jesus not once, and not twice, but three times that evening, before the rooster crowed.
But how did he get to that point, that evening? How did Peter, the Rock, arrive at the place at which he could deny being one of Jesus’ followers, twice, and then deny even being in the presence of Jesus?
Earlier that evening, the disciples had gone with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, though they weren’t quite sure for what reason. Not that that was any different than most of their time spent with Jesus…they weren’t always sure what he was up to. He had asked…and they agreed.
There was something odd about him that night…something that seemed somber…even a little off but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.
When they arrived at the garden, Jesus said he was going off to pray, and asked Peter, James and John to stay alert and also pray. Not an easy thing to do after a big meal, the journey to the garden, plus it was late.
And so each time that Jesus went away, to pray about whatever it was that was bothering him, they fell asleep.
Jesus came back, a couple times, and seemed annoyed that they couldn’t even stay alert with him for an hour or so…that’s all he was asking for.
As Jesus was giving them a hard time for falling asleep, they all heard the noise of the crowd. A crowd filled with soldiers and guards from the chief priests and Pharisees…a crowd coming to take Jesus away…a crowd led by one of their own, Judas. Jesus had just said that evening that one among them would be the betrayer. And now they knew…
The crowd grabbed Jesus, arrested him, and that’s when Peter grabbed his sword, and struck a high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. But Jesus said to put the sword away…he made it sound like Peter was going to mess everything up, like there was a plan to all of this…?
Jesus was then taken away.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus, and it is when Peter is standing outside the high priest’s courtyard that we come to our story for this morning: Peter is asked three times by three different people whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples…
…and each time, he denies it. In John’s version of the story , Peter simply replies “I’m not…” each time someone asks him whether he was with Jesus. The version in Matthew’s gospel shows Peter getting even more aggravated and upset with the accusations: aggravated to the point that when asked if he was with Jesus, because clearly his accent gave him away, Peter curses, swears an oath and says “I do not know the man!”
And that’s when the rooster crows.
And that’s where the story ends in John. Other versions tell us that Peter left, weeping bitterly. But even though John leaves out that detail, we have to know what Peter must have been feeling.
The three denials and the rooster crow.
It’s a story placed right there in the middle of the Passion of Jesus…a story of Peter’s inability to really stand up and admit that he was a follower of Jesus the Christ, a story of one of Jesus’ most devoted followers, the one who had just cut off someone’s ear, while trying to protect Jesus…who when asked a simple question by a servant girl…got extremely nervous, backed down, and wouldn’t admit to being who he was.
However, one of the great things about the Bible is that you can read the same passage over, and over, and over again, and you’ll often see things you missed, or gain new insights. When I realized I would be preaching on Peter’s denial of Jesus, I’ll admit I quickly read over the text, thinking to myself, “I know this story…” But when I took the time to slow down, and really read it, I noticed verse 15.
After Jesus is arrested, bound and taken to Annas, verse 15 says, “Simon Peter, and another disciple, followed Jesus.”
Maybe you already caught that.
Here in this story, one that is primarily associated with Peter’s denial of Jesus, we have a profound statement of the way in which Peter also followed Jesus… literally, that evening, but more than that, it points to the reality of Peter’s spiritual life, that he really did seek to be a follower in the way of Jesus.
“Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus.”
Things are almost never black and white. You aren’t either a follower of Jesus, or a denier of Jesus. Because here in the very story that Peter denies Jesus, we also see Peter following him.
16th century Reformer Martin Luther said that we are simultaneously sinner and saint.
But we don’t need a 16th century theologian to convince us of that. We are all walking proof of that reality. Peter’s story is our story. We all strive to be followers in the way of Jesus. And we all know that there are times in our lives when we deny Jesus through our actions and our inactions. We both follow Jesus and deny him.
As we journey through Lent, and as we ask ourselves who we are?, don’t we eventually come to the realization that one of the spiritual practices we all engage in, consciously or not, is the spiritual practice of denying Jesus?
Sure, our denial of Jesus might not look like Peter’s in the courtyard, but there are plenty of ways that we as individuals, and we as the church, deny Jesus throughout our spiritual journeys.
What does that type of denial look like? Well, Jesus himself gave us a little clue:
“I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me in. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”
We deny Jesus when we don’t stand up for those who suffer from poverty, oppression and injustice.
We deny Jesus when we get off Lake Shore Drive and judge the guy standing in the middle of West Hollywood Ave asking for food or money, assuming we know the kind of a life he’s led that landed him there, standing in the middle of the street, asking for our food, or money, or simply a smile.
The church denies Jesus when she loses the radical vision of a world in which followers of Jesus work to bring about the kind of transformational peace and wholeness that God desires for this world.
The church denies Jesus when she becomes preoccupied with self-preservation, rather than taking the necessary risks to challenge the status quo and live into the upside-down kingdom that Jesus ushered in.
We could go on and on. These are our spiritual practices of denying Jesus. These are the ways in which we join with Peter and say, “I’m not” when asked if we’re connected to this crazy, first-century rabbi, named Jesus, who said things like “turn the other cheek” and “the meek will inherit the earth.”
Simon Peter, the one whom Jesus called “the Rock”, denied being with Jesus or ever having known him.
Perhaps it was out of fear for his own life…not knowing what might happen to him if he was found to be with the one who was on trial.
Not exactly a high point in his spiritual journey. But we also know that his journey didn’t end there.
We know that Peter would encounter the Risen Christ on the shore, eat fish for breakfast, and match his three-fold denial with a three-fold profession of his love and commitment to the Risen Christ, after which, Jesus would look at Peter, and say, “Follow me.”
Denying Jesus quickly reminded Peter of his utter humanity, but also prepared him to receive the blessings of grace and mercy from the Risen Christ. Sometimes it takes the moments when we know we’ve messed up, for us to be reminded of our utter dependence on God.
I’m sure that we’ve all had times in our lives when we felt like we have failed God, or someone, and it seemed like we may have been at our lowest.
Perhaps we wondered whether God was even there, in our anguish, in the depths of Sheol…perhaps we wondered whether God would “take us back,” whether we could come before God again.
But at some point, we realize that denying Jesus is part of what it means to be human…whether we’re failing or cheating a bit on our Lenten disciplines, whether we’re going through a difficult season in our lives when it just feels like we aren’t in sync with God, or whether we’re simply not living our lives the way we believe God wants us to…
But while we know that denying Jesus is part of what it means to be human, like Peter, we also know, that times like those…they aren’t the end of the story. We know that our God is a God who can work through all things, who can bring about hope and peace and beauty out of despair. We know that our God is a God who can, and more than that, WANTS to continue to reach out to us, time after time after time…continually reminding us that Our God is faithful.
Like Peter, we know that our failures and our denials…these are the moments that can, if we let them, be moments not of despair or anguish, but rather, opportunities to remember who we are, and who God is.
These are the moments that will, if we let them, not paralyze us and cause us to grow weary in our spiritual journeys, but rather, allow us to experience the grace, peace and love that come from God.