Jesus [said to Peter], “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”John 13:38
The apostle, Peter, would eventually become the acknowledged leader of the early church. Jesus described him as the rock on which his church would be built. In fact, Peter is the nickname given to Simon by Jesus, because it literally means “Rock.” Peter, the Rock, would be the first of the apostles to preach, after the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles on Pentecost. And he would eventually become a sainted martyr of the church, choosing death rather than denying Jesus as his Lord and his God. There is even a legend that Peter insisted on being crucified upside-down, because he did not feel worthy of dying in the same way that Jesus did.
Peter is truly one of the great heroes of the Christian faith. But today, Peter is remembered for denying even knowing Jesus, three times before the rooster crowed, just as Jesus had predicted. I want to reflect with you tonight on Peter, because I think that there is something of Peter in each of us. We all, in our dark moments, can deny Jesus. We all, in our bright moments, can do things worthy of imitation. We are all saints and sinners, at the same time, as Martin Luther taught us. And Peter’s life and witness teach us that truth.
Following Jesus (But Not All the Way)
When Jesus is arrested, verse 15 of this chapter of John’s Gospel tells us that: “Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus” (John 18:15). I think that is a significant little detail. After all, Peter had been following Jesus a lot these last three years. Ever since Jesus first invited him to leave his nets and follow him, promising that he would make him a fisher of people.
Peter had seen Jesus perform many miracles. He had heard Jesus teach and preach about the Kingdom of God. Peter is the only one of the disciples to walk on water. (Admittedly, he began to sink, but no one else had the courage to get out of the boat!) Peter was the first disciple to openly confess Jesus to be the promised Messiah. Peter was one of the three disciples who was there when Jesus was transfigured. He was also one of the three who was there when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, before getting arrested.
Before Jesus was arrested, back in the Upper Room, Jesus said to Peter: “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36-38). When Peter insisted that he would follow Jesus, even to the point of laying down his life for him, Jesus warned him that he would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. And, as we just heard in tonight’s Gospel Reading (John 18-19), Peter did, indeed, deny Jesus three times. He followed Jesus part of the way, but could not follow him all of the way.
How Do We Know Peter’s Story?
When you think about it, it is a little surprising that we even know that Peter denied knowing Jesus. Peter, after all, was the acknowledged leader of the early church. Why would the Evangelists – who were recording the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in order to encourage the early church – tell us that their leader, Peter, had denied Jesus three times? My personal hunch is that Peter wanted them to. He wanted them to tell of his denial, in order to encourage us. To help us to see the Peter in all of us.
We are all here because we are followers of Jesus. But are we willing to follow him all the way? Or is there a certain point that is too far? Peter’s story has been shared with us, I think, in order to help us to see that we all have more of Peter in us than we care to admit. But if that is the case, then Peter certainly wanted us to hear the rest of the story, too. Jesus did not go to the cross to condemn Peter, or to condemn anyone who denies him. He went to the cross to forgive Peter, and to forgive all who deny him. And to invite us back into a reconciled relationship with him.
Do You Love Me?
After Jesus was crucified, and raised from the dead, he appeared to Peter several more times. One of the most significant of these is when Jesus had breakfast with Peter and the other disciples, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus pulled Peter aside for a final, private, conversation with him. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord;” Peter answered, “You know that I love you” (John 21:15-19).
But Jesus did not ask him just once. He asked him three times. Three times Peter denied Jesus. And now, three times Peter is invited to bear witness to his love for Jesus. And then, Jesus invited Peter one more time, in Jesus’ last words to Peter, to follow him. And this time, Peter does. Reconciled to Jesus, and completely forgiven of his denying Jesus, he follows Jesus by boldly proclaiming his faith in Jesus, even when it endangers his life. He follows Jesus by becoming a leader of the early church. And eventually he follows Jesus by becoming a martyr, being killed because he would not deny Jesus again. This time, Peter follows Jesus all the way.
Peter’s story is important, and is recorded in Scripture for all to hear, because there is something of Peter in all of us. We have been invited to follow Jesus. And we are here because we have accepted that invitation. But we don’t always follow him faithfully or fully. We deny him at times. We follow him part of the way, but not all of the way. But just as Jesus forgives Peter, he forgives us. He went to the cross to forgive us, not to condemn us. And to invite us to begin again. Always to begin again. By confessing our faith in him, and even our love for him. And by returning to the lifelong task of following him. Following Jesus, wherever he may lead us. Until, finally, he leads us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.