I thought we would take a little bit of time and track from when we meet Peter at the beginning of the gospel of John until we find him here. Simon was brought into this community, this fold by his brother Andrew who’d been a disciple of John the baptizer first. In the gospel of John, Jesus seems to know things and is in control of what he does and of the timing of everything that is happening, So when he meets Simon, Andrew’s brother the first thing he does is call Simon Cephus or Peter or the rock, rocky, immediately, with no context; which is a wild introduction and beginning. Jesus is like “You look like a Rocky, I’m gonna call you Rocky.” And giving somebody a nickname like that is either super offensive or really endearing.
As the gospel continues Peter just becomes one among many of the disciples. He seems important because when aAndrew is mentioned, he’s always referred to as being Simon Peter’s brother.
When many left Jesus after he said “I am the bread of life and whoever eats of me will have abundant life,” And Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave too, it was Simon Peter who said, “to whom can we go? You do have the words of a term alive and we have come to believe that you are the holy one of God.” Rocky had some insights.
Last week for us, which was just earlier in the night in the context of our story, Jesus had washed the feet of the disciples and Simon Peter had refused and then Simon Peter had requested, demanded, hoped that Jesus would wash all of him. Peter was zealous, he was on fire as they say. It reminds me of when I was going through the ordination process in a different denomination and the governing board was very concerned and suspicious of what they called “church camp Christians” Which, I’m not gonna lie, feels real condescending. I’m certain they meant this to describe someone with a zealousness that hadn’t calmed down, conviction that wasn’t balanced with academics, a certainty that hadn’t been tried and tested by life. I think Peter fits this description but I think even after all the trials and testing, he still did.
But sometimes they might be right, sometimes Peter took things too far. But might not have been because of Peter’s zealousness towards Jesus, rather he hadn’t seen the whole story yet. And without the context, I think Peter was afraid. The disciples had already known and talked about how if they had returned to Jerusalem the religious leaders were out to see Jesus killed. There was no doubt they were filled with fear for Jesus’ life, fear for his own life, fear for the future or the future that they had imagined or hoped for.
When the supper, which started out weird with Jesus washing their feet, when the supper was over things got weirder. Jesus kept making these comments like “one of you isn’t really part of the group because one of you is going to betray me” and at some point, Judas walks out into the night. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Jesus looks at Simon Peter and tells him that he will deny him 3 times before the cock crows which must have been really confusing and hurtful for Peter who had so faithfully been following Jesus. And all of that was followed by, what I can only assume felt like hours, telling them all the last minute things they were going to need to know.
And now the supper was over and they were in the garden. Jesus who was always in control when the authorities showed up, Jesus walked willingly into the arms of the ones who would kill him.
Peter responds by cutting off a slave’s ear.
And we need to hear this story because sometimes we smash the Passion narratives, the stories of the last days of Jesus, get smushed into one story, taking all of our favorite bits and weaving them into one story. All 4 of the Gospels have this story of a servant or a slave or a soldier’s ear being cut off but the gospel of John is the only one which has a name attached to the person who does the act, Simon Peter. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus heals the ear of the servant but in John the consequences are real, and permanent Peter takes a sword and permanently changes someone’s life.
Peter, who had been following Jesus for 3 years, who had heard him talk and teach, who had who saw him heal and show compassion, who watched him feed and was fed, was washed just hours earlier revealing the way of service and humility and love that was all of Jesus’s teachings things responded with a sword. Peter had been travelling the way of nonviolence with Jesus and at the first sign of serious pushback, he responded with the sword, with life-altering consequences for a slave named Malchus.
We always look at the act of the denial Peter’s denial of Jesus as what he said when he got inside the High Priest’s gate–probably because that is where Jesus points us to earlier. And maybe that’s why he grabbed for his sword–to prove to Jesus that he would never deny him. But what if THIS is Simon Peter’s betrayal and denial of Jesus. What if, when he enters the gate into the high priest’s courtyard he is only admitting the reality that he feels. He isn’t a disciple, he isn’t the good shepherd’s sheep, he has entered a new flock through this gate. What if he is saying “No as it turns out I guess I don’t know Jesus at all.”
I think we give Simon Peter a hard time because how could he but I think in part it’s because if we let ourselves sit with this story and this story and if we find ourselves in it it would hurt our hearts too. To have to Weigh the consequences, to have to balance living in this world and living in the way of Jesus.
At the rise of Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after studying theology in the United States. He could have stayed safe; he could have talked but have taught a generation of theology students about theology and discipleship but for Bonhoeffer that teaching would be shallow and his discipleship to Jesus would be cheap if he stayed where it was safe and did not stand up for what was right. But if you know Bonhoeffer’s story, it’s more complicated than that. He worked with the resistance with what he called the Confessing Church, not to be confused with the Confessing Movement in the US, not the point, just be aware, not the same. The Confessing Church that would speak up against Nazi’s and fascism and against the destruction and annihilation of a people but what he was ultimately arrested for was being part of plot to assassinate Hitler. Was he an active plan of the assassination? Was he just working with those who were plotting and planning? Every book has an opinion. There are those who would say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a martyr–one killed for being a disciple of Jesus, and those who say that he wouldn’t have considered himself one–that the killing of another human goes against the teachings of Jesus. And still, he thought it was something worth pursuing. Imagine that tension–standing at the crossroads of what was of God and the horror that needed to be stopped.
We feel that tension and complication when it’s time to go to war. We are devastated by the pictures and the stories that come out of Ukraine or Syria or Palestine or Yemen and behold in conflict the novel the knowledge or the desire to do something and the reality that something might include violence. Do we say we should assassinate a leader who is Perpetrating violence and inflicting destruction upon a people Or do we follow the way of Jesus. How do we hold those things in tension?
But it isn’t just big things, the things that we think about on a global or cosmic scale. It is small things too. We make mistakes, we make compromises, we make commitments to a cause without really knowing what that commitment means. We make promises and commitments and believe with our whole hearts that we are committed to it and that it is the right thing to do and that we are going to follow through and sometimes we don’t we don’t.
I think Peter probably beat himself up more for the acts and the denials than Jesus even considered doing, Because Jesus had an understanding of humanity. That humans are going to make mistakes, and we are going to fail to live up to expectations mostly our own. And sometimes we would find ourselves making compromises or Making choices or not living up to our promises. I think it tore Peter up. I think it tears us up and it makes us feel like we are not worthy of being part of the flock of God, the good shepherd to call ourselves a disciple of Jesus. And that feeling might cause us to turn inside to hide away to just pretend it didn’t happen or it’s not real, because sometimes we are like Peter follow away play of the non violent And the grace filled Jesus Who is servant and shows us love, Who self sacrificially went to the cross, And how quickly even we can turn and abandon The one who taught us about grace and abundant life.
There’s a prayer that our Jewish siblings say every year at the night of Yom Kippur called the Kol Nidre. In the prayer the community asks for forgiveness for covenants and promises they fail to keep and they ask for release from those covenants and promises that they fail to keep. And sometimes this has been used against the Jewish community like they use it as if to squirm out of contracts. But the reality is It is a mournful and minor key and regretful prayer but it’s cantered or sung.. Because it is a regretful thing to promise and to believe that you will do this thing and then not.. It isn’t a celebration. It is grieving. And it is a request of forgiveness and it is a hope to do better.
There’s a band that was kind of a big deal in the Christian industry in the nineties called Jars of Clay And they wrote a song when they started having kids Called lesson one or boys but the bridge ends with, “ Not to undermine the consequence but you are not what you to and when you need it most I have 100 reasons why I love you.”
Peter was still living on the before side of the resurrection. Peter was watching the trial and the questioning and soon the crucifixion of Jesus. It took courage even in the midst of his fear and doubt and shame and his denial and the trail to walk into that gate. And honestly it took courage to continue to hang around with the other disciples, the ones who did what Jesus wanted them to do in the garden which was to leave. In this gospel, we don’t see Peter at the foot of the cross, but he did stay, with the other disciples. I wonder if he felt like he didn’t really have anything else to go.
Of course, this isn’t the last story of Peter in this gospel. Peter who warmed himself inside the gate at a charcoal fire, will find himself at a coal fire again. In the telling of the resurrection in this gospel, Jesus visits the disciples in their upper room and it seems like everyone gets a chance to see him briefly but maybe they didn’t get the time they had hoped for. And at some point Simon Peter, maybe overwhelmed with everything that had happened, announces he’s going to go fishing and some of the disciples go with him, maybe thinking that if they can be on the water life will make sense or maybe thinking they will just go back to the lives we knew before. Jesus shows up and stands on the beach and calls out to them. He does that thing where he asks them “have you caught any fish?” and they’re like “no.” And he says “cast your nut on the other side.” So they do and they get all the fish and then they realize it must be Jesus.
Peter meets him on the beach at the coal fire Jesus had prepared to make them food and Jesus and Simon Peter finally have a moment after everything had happened. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter says “yes, of course” And there is this 3 fold grace offered to Peter Because no matter what Peter did, Jesus never denied or betrays or abandons Peter or Judas for that matter. This is the invitation, this is the calling, this is what love looks like. This is what John’s gospel means when it begins with the grace upon grace enfleshed in Jesus, absolute grace and amazing grace. There is nothing that Peter does or did or could do that changes that love. There is no denial or abandoning that Peter could do, even when Jesus needed him the most, that could separate the love of Christ for Peter.
And there is nothing that you can do that will separate you from the love of God found and Christ enfleshed in the body and Jesus Who is love and in whom is found grace upon grace.
And there is nothing you can do or say, no promise broken or mistake made, no denial or betrayal can separate you from the love of God enfleshed in Jesus, revealed in the resurrection, renewed and restored.
There is nothing so terrible that can’t be brought into the light of the resurrection and made new. There is nothing that can keep you for God. There might be consequences, those might be real and difficult to live with, but there is life, life abundant, life of grace.
It’s why, while I do love the Hymn Amazing Grace, it is Come O Fount that I come back to again and again:
Prone to wander, I can feel it, wander from the love I’ve known:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for your very own.
You are beloved. You are enough, you are claimed by the Good Shepherd and welcomed into the sheepfold again and again, though you might wander and get lost again and again, Jesus will never leave you, will always love you, will always call you home.