Lent 3 (NL4)
March 4, 2018)
Peter’s Denial (John 18:12-27)
A lot has happened since the last story we hear. Where we left off last week, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, describing this as an act of deep and devoted love, and imploring the disciples to follow his example by washing one another’s feet. Directly following that is what is known as the “farewell discourse.” For four chapters, Jesus explains to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has already left to go betray him) that Jesus is going to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit will be coming to guide the disciples in faith. He tells them to love one another as he has loved them. He warns them of the challenges and persecutions they will face, but assures them that the world cannot overcome them, because Jesus has overcome the world. He finishes the discourse by praying for them, praying, “that they would all be one, as the Father and I are one.”
Then they all head out to the garden, and there they meet Judas and the soldiers and police, who are wielding swords and torches. They say they are looking for Jesus, and Jesus willingly hands himself over. Ever impulsive and eager to please, Peter leaps into action, pulling out his sword and cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest. He must have missed the previous four chapters in which Jesus told them to resort not to violence, but to love one another! Jesus tells him to put his sword away, adding, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” And that brings us to today’s story.
Today we really get into the passion narrative. One thing to notice about John’s telling of this story, today and in the coming weeks, is that Jesus is absolutely willing, from start to finish. He will not pray that the Father let this cup pass from him, he will not cry out in anguish from the cross. He is fulfilling God’s will, at just the right time and place. Of course Jesus’ calm is in sharp contrast so the immense anxiety felt by the other characters in the story, so watch today how that plays out. Please rise.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A couple weeks ago, I spent two days at an event learning about family systems theory, especially how it can be applied to leadership in a congregation. What is family systems theory? In short, it sees any group of people who spend a lot of time together as a system, in which each member is affected by another’s actions. We are, each of us, formed by our family of origin, and then what we learned there plays itself out in whatever other systems we find ourselves in.
In particular, training yourself to see things through a systems lens helps you see how anxiety plays out. Now, anxiety is something we all feel, at various levels, and it can be triggered by all kinds of things. If you had a parent who left you as a child, you may find yourself getting anxious whenever you sense in life you are being abandoned by something you care about. If, as a child, your parents used food as a bargaining chip, you may find you have an anxious relationship with food as an adult. If you were a middle child always seeking to be noticed, you may spend the rest of your life trying to please people. And if you don’t get what your child’s heart determined you need, then your anxiety is triggered. That anxiety can play out in all kinds of different ways – as anger, sadness, fear, overcompensating, as making jokes at inappropriate times, perhaps as trying to make others feel as anxious as you do to diffuse your own anxiety, by offloading some of your anxiety onto someone else... or usually, some combination.
Now, not all anxiety is bad – indeed it is necessary for survival! If you don’t feel anxious when you meet a bear, then you become that bear’s lunch! But when the role of anxiety is not recognized and named, it can wreck all kinds of havoc in our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, and yes, even in our churches.
Today, in our journey through John’s Gospel, we truly enter into the Passion narrative. And with my mind on family systems, I am also noticing the anxiety in that story – an anxiety that is so perfectly carried out in Peter’s story. Let’s recall again what happened directly before this scene, in the garden. When the police come to take Jesus away, Peter’s instinct is to unsheathe his sword and go for a man’s head. In other words, his first, anxious instinct is to meet the threat with violence – even though Jesus specifically told them in many and various ways that as disciples they are called to love one another, even when the loving gets tough. (After all, let us know forget that just before this, Jesus knowingly washed the feet of his own betrayer, Peter who would deny him, and the rest who would desert him at their first opportunity! For Jesus, “love one another” does not depend upon someone deserving love or not. Love means love, for everyone.)
But in a moment of such intense anxiety, it should be no surprise that Peter’s instinct would be not to love, but to fight… because isn’t that true for all of us? Most people, when they feel threatened or are in a high anxiety situation, resort not to love, but either to attack, or to protect. Fight or flight. We’ve seen these reactions following the Parkland shooting, in the call for more guns, in the form of arming teachers, or putting resource officers in schools, or by tightening school security. Defend and prepare to attack. We see it also in our personal relationships – if someone says something hurtful to me, my first instinct, whether or not I act on it, is either to defend myself, to attack back, or at the very least to go complain to someone else, “Do you know what so-and-so said to me? What a terrible person!” …which is its own sort of violence. Am I alone in this? I didn’t think so! And so to see Peter draw his sword seems to us, fellow anxiety-prone humans, like a completely reasonable reaction – it is a normal first instinct.
But Jesus calls for more than an instinctual reaction. He calls for a response – in fact, to a loving response. “Put your sword away,” Jesus tells him, and then willingly goes with the police to his certain death. And so now here we are where our text begins. Back in that upper room where Jesus had washed their feet, Peter had vowed he would never leave Jesus’ side, even if it meant dying right along with him, and so, Peter follows Jesus into the city. I suspect Peter’s anxiety at that point had never been so high. His friend was in danger, and when he tried to defend him, he got rebuked. He feels helpless, and afraid, maybe even a little ashamed – all anxiety triggers. Yes, Peter is anxious. And, we all know from experience, that when we are anxious, we rarely behave at our best.
And so when comes the ultimate test of his loyalty – when the first person asks him, “Aren’t you one his disciples?” – Peter’s anxiety gets the best of him. He knows better now than to attack; this time he chooses defense. He responds, “No, I am not.” Remember, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has identified himself as, “I am.” I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Door. I am the Light of the World. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I AM. And so here, in utter contrast to and denial of all that Jesus is, Peter offers his anxious, if somewhat pathetic, “I am not.” He not only denies Jesus, he denies himself, dismissing his own story, his own identity as a disciple, in favor of keeping himself safe.
One commentator on this passage observes, “Violence is easier than testimony.” From the beginning of John’s Gospel, we have seen the importance of testimony in the life of faith. John the Baptist came to testify to the light. Philip invites Nathanial to “come and see.” The Samaritan women at the well runs into town to tell everyone about the man who told her everything she has ever done. The man born blind testifies, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And now, Peter himself has the opportunity to testify, “Yes, I am his disciple!” … and he balks. He misses his big chance. When he felt threatened in the garden, he quickly sprang for the sword… but testifying is so much harder. Testifying takes some serious guts – vulnerability, courage, conviction, assurance of self. And it also takes a whole lot of love, of God, self and neighbor. In his anxiety, Peter can tap into none of this. And so he denies his Lord, and he denies his own identity as a disciple of Christ.
It makes me wonder – have we, as individuals or as the church, ever allowed our own anxiety to lead us to deny our identity as disciples of Christ? Have we fallen short of testifying our commitment to the demanding, self-giving, high-risk love that Jesus demonstrated as he washed the feet of his own betrayer? When we feel anxious – about the world, about our relationships, about our future, about our safety – when we feel anxious, is there some part of our Christian identity we would be willing to deny, in order to make ourselves feel a little safer?
I’ll answer for myself, but not with pride: absolutely. Jesus’ command to “love one another” would have me put my safety and interests secondary to the love and care of outcasts, even people who I see as dangerous, sketchy, or who make me nervous. I don’t want to do that. I want to feel safe and prepared for anything.
To “love one another” by Jesus’ definition would have me find it in my heart to let go of resentments toward people who have hurt me deeply, to forgive them, even to serve them. I’m not comfortable with that.
Jesus’ “love one another” command would even have me find a way to love a mass shooter (not condone his actions, but to love him with the love of Christ, by seeing him as the broken human being in need of love that he is). I definitely do not want to do that.
All of those things make me very anxious. A lot of things in the world right now make me very anxious. And sometimes, our anxiety does get the better of us, just like Peter’s. Sometimes we find we, like Peter, would sooner deny being disciples, or at least just pick and choose what parts of discipleship work for us, if it means we can feel safer and less anxious. But the question that I am trying to let guide me, as I navigate this demanding life of faith, is, “What does the love of Jesus look like in this instance? What would Jesus have me do?” …and then, striving for that.
And even as we fail (and we know we will – this is hard!), we can also find consolation in the fact that, even though Peter chose violence over love, and safety over testimony, God still had an important use for him. This darkest moment of his life of faith will not, finally, define Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus will come to Peter and ask him – three times – “Do you love me?” and then tell him to feed his sheep. And Peter does! Peter will have plenty more chances to testify to the love of Christ, in thought, word and deed, and because of Peter’s testimony, many – even thousands! – will come to faith in Christ. That is grace. That is the promise that God can use even us bunch of sinners and Christ-deniers for good. That is the story of the resurrection – that God’s power and love can overcome even our anxiety, just as Jesus overcame the world.
Let us pray… Gracious God, calm our anxieties and bring us your peace, as we navigate this broken world and seek to live into our identity as disciples, and help us to testify in all cases to your self-giving, life-changing love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.