Our Denial Doesn’t Stand a Chance

John 18:12-27 – March 4, 2018

12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. 15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. 19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” 24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. 25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.


Poor Peter. Peter, the one who responds to the threat of violence with violence. Peter, the one who responds to questioning with denial.  Peter, the one who over-reacts. He’s heard Jesus state clearly who he is. And yet, his denial rings in the air.

In John, Jesus has given 7 “I Am” statements of identity: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd; I am the gate; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the vine.

And at the entrance to the garden Jesus says, I Am — and 600 soldiers and police fall to the ground.

And, outside the courtyard Peter says, I am not — 3 times, I imagine his eyes are cast to the ground.

It’s easy to be critical of Peter, isn’t it? So impulsive, so rash, too vocal too quickly so much of the time. But to focus on Peter’s personality failings is to actively ignore just where it is we see ourselves in him and in this story. We can relate, can’t we?

It’s important to point out that Peter doesn’t deny who Jesus is. Like we hear in the other gospels where Peter says, “I don’t know the man.” But in the gospel of John, he denies his relationship to Jesus. He denies his own role as a disciple. He denies his own identity. I am not, he says 3 times just a short time after Jesus’ “I Am” makes all the worldly powers topple.

Peter gives in to the worldly scrutiny, the worldly pressure. “You’re not with him, are you?” “I am not.” We can relate, can’t we? Standing for something in principle, but then backing down in the moment of truth.

In the wake of the #metoo movement, I’ve shared some stories of things that have been said to me that would just take your breath away and the ways I’ve been practicing to speak up in the moment. I really do believe you’ve got to practice in order to be ready, because they always shock me and shock so often renders me useless.  So I’ve been practicing. And wouldn’t you know. After beer & hymns, I stayed to have dinner with a few people and Sara Shorter and I were leaving together out the back door. On our way out, we passed 3 young men who looked to me to be continuing their evening activities. One of them snarled at us as we walked by, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about what he said. Because it rendered me speechless once again. I didn’t speak up in defense of myself or of Sara. We just, as we’re trained to do, let it go and walked on. I woke up mad.

We can relate when we keep our mouths shut in the wake of a racist comment or “joke.”

We can relate when we see a kid getting teased in the halls at school and we go the other way, not wanting to be teased our own selves.

We can relate when guns continue to ravage our country and schools and we stay silent or make drills just part of the normal reality.

We can relate when we yell at people we love or cling tightly to a grudge, our own kind of denial of relationship.

When someone suffers and we shrug our shoulders? That’s our denial of who we are as disciples. That’s our denial of our association with Jesus.

It makes me think about Jeff Schmidt’s words last Sunday. He’s the founder of Operation Hope, the organization we are supporting throughout this Lenten season. And he talked about being overwhelmed by what he should be doing as a Christian in this world. And so for years, he did nothing. He just didn’t know what to do. But he kept praying and slowly but surely, he knows what to do. He is learning.

At the very forefront of our guiding principles – the values we hold dear as a community and try to live out of – is the statement that we are disciples. And the core meaning of the word disciple is learner, which is helpful isn’t it?  Disciple doesn’t mean professional Christian. Disciple doesn’t mean perfect. Disciple means, at its core, to learn.

But Peter’s denial of who he is in relationship to Jesus? Well, it’s a gut punch. What chance do we stand if Peter so easily crumbles when the rubber meets the road? All that learning right at Jesus’ side and this is what he does when it really matters? When everything is at stake?

Well, we don’t stand a chance do we? We will deny our identity in Christ in a breath. We will leave the God we love. And so Jesus steps out of the garden and offers himself for arrest, telling the soldiers plainly that he is the one they are looking for, not the disciples, not us. This response of love is met with betrayal of his closest friends. This response of love is met by a rigged, public trial by the government, a severe beating, and crucifixion – a style of death reserved for common criminals to send a message that nobody is above this kind of humiliating torture and death.

We don’t stand a chance do we? We will respond out of fear instead of love every time. We will draw our swords and strike before we even think. Especially when we forget that this story is surrounded by love. Is coursing with love. Is grounded in love. Yet our fear will short circuit us and we forget in an instant that we follow the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

But it’s the violence that gets our attention. And we begin to make plans about the way forward with violence leading the charge. But it’s not the way. Jesus dying is not some action by a blood-thirsty, violent God. Jesus died because of humanity’s insatiable need for violence.

Violence insists on choosing sides. Bad guys with a gun verses good guys with a gun.

Violence insists on setting your sites on another as an enemy, or a potential enemy.

Violence insists on someone being right and someone being subdued, or oppressed or dead wrong.

Violence insists on your fear as its fuel.

But Jesus teaches another way and that way is love. Love is the way. It sounds so mamby pamby.  Yet it will make you shake when you respond in love instead of violence.

Jesus has shown his disciples how to love again and again.

You know, love that looks like feeding hungry people and talking to those deemed the enemy. You know, love that looks like healing on the wrong day. Love that says to people: “God is with you – right here, right now. You don’t have to jump through all these religious hoops.” Love that looks like Jesus kneeling before his disciples and washing their feet and telling them to go and do likewise.

Instead of assembling troops armed to the teeth, Jesus steps out of the gate of the garden and puts himself between the soldiers and his disciples, saying, “it’s me you’re looking for, not them.” Jesus leads with love. Jesus responds with love. “Put your sword away, Peter.”

We don’t stand a chance when we think we stand on our own. When we think we can handle it with violence and control and worry and fear. That’s when we deny who we are as Children of God. It’s when we deny that anybody else is a child of God. When our clinging so tightly to things we value begins to hurt others? We deny who we are as Christ’s very own child.

But fear not, good people. There is Christ-like behavior afoot.

You see, Jesus and Peter meet up again, over a breakfast of grilled fish on the shore of the lake after Jesus is resurrected. 3 times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. And 3 times, Peter tells him he does. And Jesus tells him to feed his sheep, not as an act of penance or as a way to earn the love of Jesus back, but because Jesus knows Peter can and will do it. That he does stand a chance! And sometimes, just someone else believing in you that you can do it is enough to give you the courage to try.

And people are trying.

The teenagers of Parkland school are stepping out in front of eventual and potential victims of school shootings saying, “no more.”

Sandyhook has devoted itself to building community, making connections with the kids on the fringes, leading with love instead of responding in fear.

Jeff Schmidt drives into Minneapolis at least 3 days a month and builds relationships and hands out supplies to the poorest and most vulnerable people, living on the streets.

When you stand next to a kid who is being bullied, you are practicing following Jesus.

When you stop someone’s racist, sexist joke and create an awkward, awful silence without making the other person into your enemy? You’re practicing being a disciple.

This is how we love. This is what Jesus showed us. This is what Jesus says for us to do.

By the endless chances given by the goodness and grace of God, we do stand a chance. Jesus does not give up on us. And he sends us out to love as we have already been loved. Amen.