Mathew, Mark, Luke and John slipped one past us. Every year as Easter draws near, I dread one storyline in the Gospels. I sit there every year as fathers and preachers stick it to the uppity future pope for his failure. You know the one I am talking about: Peter or St. Peter denied Jesus three times.
First for a piece of long term context. Peter was one of the first disciples to respond to Jesus call to follow him. Peter makes the first proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Peter is the only one to actually get out of a boat in the middle of a lake to follow Jesus. We all know these stories about Peter, but the stories that gets the most press proves to be the Achilles heel of his fame as a disciple.
When the chips are down, Peter folds. He sells out. In Jerusalem, the tensions are rising. The disciples know that the authorities are seeking to destroy Jesus. Yet, Peter stays close while Jesus prays in the garden. Peter takes up the fight alone to prevent Jesus’ capture even to drawing blood of one of the Jewish police. I imagine it as a good old country boy facing off against Dog the Bounty hunter and his family. The odds are bad, but they always fight don’t they?
What happens after this that leads to such a stunning denial? Let’s continue the story. Jesus is led away in captivity by the armed group. Peter continues to follow Jesus. He follows as he is lead in to face the Jewish authorities. With the conspiratorial assistance of the beloved disciple he even gets inside the compound where Jesus is being held. The courtyard must have been filled with still more guards. The gate is closed. Peter is only there for one reason; he knows Jesus is inside.
Peter has appeared with Jesus in the city and around the country continuously for the last three years. Is it any surprise he is recognized? Of course not. Peter knew he would be recognized.
Or have we missed the greatest revelation of the character and meaning of Peter’s discipleship. He chose to go in anyway. He chose to lie and destroy his image before all the generations of followers that would hear the story. For the sake of following Jesus, at the closest distance in even the most dangerous circumstance Peter sacrifices his honor. He lets his only valuable possession slip from his fingers. One thing surpasses the value of everything for Peter: remaining close to Jesus.
Should we see this man sneaking into the enemy’s compoundas a betrayer and coward? Is this compound of the men who will in short order happily execute his greatest friend and leader a place for cowards?
I do not believe it is.
Maybe the tears he sheds outside the compound are a reflection of the two great losses he has suffered. The loss of his closeness to Jesus and Jesus loss of his support. Peter faces the fact that Jesus endures his crucifixion alone and this aloneness leaves a dreadful hole in Peter’s heart too. He must have known his denials and curses would be seen as denials of the Messiah. Maybe the tears were tears of doubt that his presence and steadfast courage would be enough to allow others to understand that denial was his only path to continue his discipleship and stay close to Jesus.
After the Resurrection we know that Peter and Jesus met. One intimate conversation is recorded where Jesus questions Peter. It is often portrayed as Jesus confronting Peter about his denial (and giving him a chance to make it up by being loyal), but does that seem likely? Jesus had not hesitated to point out the faults of those who he encountered before. Even the disciples have felt the sting of Jesus accusation, but there is no accusation here. Should we read in a rebuke when there is no evidence that Jesus meant it as such? What we see here is the same as what we saw in each of the previous scenes. Peter standing by Jesus’ side.
Perhaps, it is merely the final scene to show us and the other disciples that Jesus harbors none of the doubts that we have regarding Peter. Peter finishes the story in his old familiar place: by Jesus side.