Peter stood outside in the high priest’s courtyard. A servant girl, the high priest’s maid, picks him our of the crowd. “You were with Jesus the Nazarene, weren’t you?” All eyes turn to Peter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, denying Jesus as Jesus had predicted. Peter hurries away to the gate. Desperate to make an escape, he’s cornered. The servant girl spies him and says to everyone standing around, “He’s one of them.” He’s a marked man, but again Peter denies it. A little while later some of the bystanders approach Peter. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? Your accent gives you away,” And Peter, summoning up his best fisherman’s curse, denies it for a third time. “I’ll be damned if I know that man.” The rooster crows in the early morning, and the saying of Jesus is fulfilled. Peter breaks down and weeps.
Peter the Rock, the bold one, the spokesman for the Twelve. Peter the great confessor, who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter, who, with great bravado said, “I would die with you before I would deny you.” Peter the big, strong, macho fisherman becomes the jellyfish.
We join Peter in denial. We ourselves have said it: “I do not know the man.” We’ve said it with our lips and our lives. We fear being labeled a religious “fanatic.” Wouldn’t want to take this Jesus thing too seriously now, would we? By the way, the shortened version of “fanatic” is “fan,” as in baseball fan or basketball fan or football fan. Nothing wrong with that sort of fanatic. We have no trouble with being fans of celebrities and music idols (interesting choice of word there, don’t you think?). But to be fanatic about Jesus the Christ? That’s either for the Bible belt for the the psychotic, take your pick.
We deny knowing Jesus too, don’t we? We deny Him when association with Him would cost us that promotion, that cute boy or girl, that big date to the prom, whatever we’ve set our hearts on. Whenever Jesus threatens to get in the way, the world stops and asks us – Aren’t you one of His disciples. We deny Him with our silence when we have opportunity to speak. We deny Him when we sleep in on Sunday morning after a hard Saturday night on the town. We deny Him by the way we deal with each other as members of His congregation. We deny Him in so many ways, by thought word and deed, as we say in the general confession.
The world is watching us, and how we conduct our lives, and especially how we handle our sin and guilt. The world wants to know: “Are you with that guy named Jesus? Are you one of His fans?” Our baptismal accent betrays us . We’re marked men and women, easily flushed out of the crowd, like Red Sox fans at a Yankee game. We’re afraid of being found out, of appearing weird or different. We don’t like being a “peculiar people.” We want to blend in with the crowd. All we want is to warm our hands and be left alone. And before the rooster crows and the morning dawns, we’ve disowned Jesus too.
Yet He will not disown us, even unto death. That’s the wonder at work here. Jesus does not abandon His disciple in the disciple’s moment of weakness and denial. Instead He takes Peter’s denial to the cross and deals decisively with it. On the day of resurrection, the young men clothed in white, makes it a special point to say, “Go, tell the disciples and Peter, that He is going before you to Galilee.” Tell Peter. Peter’s denial doesn’t exclude him from the Twelve or from the great good news of the resurrection. Jesus would later take Peter aside and ask him three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus, “Peter – do you love me?” He would ask Peter until it hurt. It was a three-fold absolution. “Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” Peter the denier becomes Peter the shepherd, the pastor, the apostle, the confessor and martyr.
This episode in the life of Peter is an important, though painful one. Tradition has it that Mark is recording the preaching and teaching of Peter. That tells us that Peter wasn’t ashamed to speak of his denial, to hold it up for the church to see how merciful and gracious Jesus is. These are not plaster-cast saints we’re dealing with here; these are flesh and blood sinners. Paul persecuted the church; Peter denied the Lord. Let no one here in this room say, “I’m too great a sinner; there’s no place for me here.” Quite the contrary, the Friend of Sinners is truly the friend of real sinners with real sin.
It remains a fact of history that Peter the denier became Peter the preacher in fifty short days. Fifty days after this dark night, Peter stood with the Twelve at Pentecost and preached Jesus the Christ – crucified, risen, and reigning – in front of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. He wasn’t afraid to point the accusing finger of the Law squarely at his hearers and say, “You crucified the Messiah, the Lord of glory.”
What happened? What changed in fifty days? What accounts for such a dramatic change on the part of Peter – from wimp to witness? Nothing in Peter. The dead Jew from Nazareth had risen from the dead. That’s what changed. Jesus had told them He was going to die and rise, and then He went and did it. And, as Reggie Jackson once said after predicting he would hit three home runs in a World Series game, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” Jesus did it. He died and rose from the dead, and conquered death forever for all. That changed everything. It changed Peter.
Peter also had the Holy Spirit, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Left on his own, left to his own creativity, his own impulsiveness, his own boldness, Peter is nothing. He has feet of clay. He wimps out before a little servant girl. But enlivened and enlightened by the Spirit, Peter is bold to preach Jesus, regardless of the cost.. Church history tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome, upside down at his own request.
It’s a sad and sordid episode, a dark chapter in the Gospel – the three fold denial of Peter. Who would ever have thought that it would come to this? Can anything good come of this? God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them. In with and under the worst of it – the lies, the denials, the despair, the fear – the good and gracious will of God is nonetheless done.
There’s hope for all in Jesus, and He suffers this all for you. Remember this night when the rooster’s call catches you in denial of Him. Remember Peter when you are afraid to speak, when you’ve uttered your curses, when you’ve covered the mark of your baptism with the soot of your sins. Remember this night when your friends deny knowing you because you know Him, and when you feel that God could not possibly forgive such a sinner as you. Remember this night when hot tears of shame and grief roll down your face as you gaze upon the face of the Man of Sorrows who bears your grief.
You are forgiven, you are cleansed, you are restored in Jesus.
In the Name of Jesus,