Yes, I know I bring this up every year… but every time I think about that night, I can’t help but compare it to every day of our lives.
Today being Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, there’s a lot of discussion about Peter and how his moment of weakness figures in the Passion story. Growing up Catholic, I learned three and only three things about Peter: that he was the first Pope (which he wasn’t, really), that he was crucified upside down (which may be an urban myth), and that he denied Jesus (which is true of Peter… oh, and of pretty much every other Christian in history, too). I was taught, and I suppose we are still taught, that Peter’s denial stemmed from fear of being arrested for being a Christian.
But think about it… There were no Christians yet, strictly speaking (The first mention of the word in scripture doesn’t happen until the faith makes its way to what is now Turkey). There wouldn’t be large-scale persecution of Christians until years after the events of this week. And if Jesus’ followers had been subject to arrest, Peter would have been jammed up in the garden, wouldn’t he? He was clearly one of the gang, he made a spectacle of himself swinging for Malchus with his sword – so even if he wasn’t going to be arrested for being a Christian, one would think he’d at least have been popped for Assault with a Deadly Weapon, no? (Rough place, I guess. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a bar fight in first-century Jerusalem.)
My feeling, and it really is only a feeling, is that Peter didn’t deny Jesus out of fear for his own life. He denied Jesus because he was mad at Jesus.
Think about it… Here we are at supper on Holy Thursday (Okay, so they probably didn’t call it Holy Thursday that year), and Jesus says, “One of you will betray Me.” And eleven guys look around suspiciously at each other. When Peter pipes up with grand pronouncements about how he’ll live for Jesus and die for Him if necessary, Jesus knocks him down in front of everyone: “Peter, before this night is over, you’ll be telling people you don’t even know me.” Peter’s spent all this time thinking he occupied a position of prominence among the apostles, yet how’s he feel now, being shut down in front of the other guys with a statement he won’t accept and can barely comprehend?
[Hey, strictly as an aside, how dense are these guys? Jesus says, “One of you will betray Me.” Everyone looks around suspiciously. Judas stands up to leave, probably sweating bullets because now he’s busted: he knows Jesus knows. Jesus looks at Judas and says, more or less, “Pal, you do what you’ve gotta do.” Judas bursts out of the room, and the other eleven look at each other and say, “Gee, who was Jesus was talking about?” Well, DUH.]
Anyway, fast forward to the garden, where Jesus goes to pray and asks His friends to pray with Him… whereupon Peter and the sons of Zebedee fall blissfully asleep. [Hey, another aside… The Gospel of John, son of Zebedee, doesn’t seem to mention Peter and the sons of Zebedee falling asleep when Jesus needs them most, does it? I bet if Peter wrote one of the gospels that little detail wouldn’t make it to the final version either.] Jesus wakes Peter up, and asks him, “Could you not pray one hour?” A less kind way of saying that would be, “I’ll tell you what, Peter. You don’t have to walk through fire or endure torture or give your life for Me… how about staying awake for sixty minutes, you think you can manage that one?” Ouch! Peter, Speaker of Grand Pronouncements, is shut down. Again.
Minutes later, the torch-and-pitchfork crowd comes to the garden to arrest his friend and Peter sees a chance to redeem himself. He draws his weapon and springs into action like the Canadian Mountie, “I’ll save you, Jesus!” And Jesus shuts him down. Again: “Put that thing away, Peter.” He heals the man Peter attacked. And if that isn’t enough, Jesus adds insult to injury: “If I called out for help, this garden would be crawling with angels, Peter. And not those chubby little tykes in the Renaissance paintings, either, but battle-hardened Chuck Norris-type angels whose first assignment was throwing the bad guys out of Heaven.” In other words, “Peter, I don’t need help here. And if I did, I wouldn’t be calling you.” Moments later, Peter sees three years of ministry go down the drain as his friend gives up and allows Himself to be taken into the darkness.
Is it any wonder, really, is it anything but inevitable, that hours later in the courtyard, in that middle-of-the-night netherworld where nobody really knows what time it is, that Peter – hungry, demoralized, insulted, confused, discouraged, sleep deprived – will be asked, “Aren’t you one of His followers?” and answer, “Jesus Christ, I don’t even know that guy.”
I’m given to grand pronouncements like Peter. I suspect most of us are. We hear stories about martyrs and think, Yeah, I could do that. I could travel to a distant land and preach the Gospel and face arrest or torture or death for Him. It’s so romantic, it’s so glamorous, it so, so, so feeds my flesh to imagine myself praising Him while guards beat me in a Chinese prison. Yet let a coworker look at me funny when I mention something my pastor said on Sunday, and I make a mental note to tone down my Christian references at work. I guess it’s a good thing my workplace isn’t a Chinese prison, isn’t it?
All day long we make little deals with God about what we expect in return for our exemplary living. All the things He owes us for what we do for Him. All the ways we intend to redeem ourselves on our own terms. But the bottom line is that those grand pronouncements and private unilateral deals all serve to tell God how important we are to Him, not how important He is to us. So they fall apart as soon as we pray for something and don’t get it. Or pray for something and get some other blessing or different gift. And suddenly we’re mad at Him for not getting what we want, and we lash out, privately or publicly: “Christ, I don’t even know that guy.” Like we’ll ever learn.
As Keith Green said in a reversal of the old armed-robber line, He doesn’t want our money: He does indeed want our lives. He doesn’t want us to die for Him even a tiny bit in comparison to how much He wants us to live for Him. He doesn’t want grand pronouncements or big promises as much as He wants us to know the joy of being near Him. He wants us to stay awake and pray. And if we fall asleep in prayer, well, He wants us to know He’ll be there when we wake up, too.
Anyway, that’s what was on my mind today.