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Maybe it’s the fact that this passage shows us one of Simon Peter’s less than stellar moments. Maybe it’s the fact that, in two weeks, we will be here, in this space, experiencing the Word through a beautiful cantata that focuses on Peter’s experience of and relationship with Jesus. Or maybe it’s because one of the scholars I depend on for sermon preparation challenged me with these words: “There’s not a lot of good news in the gospel this week.”
My response to that is, unless there is good news to be found here, we all go home, back to worship with Pastor Sheets and the church of the Sunday paper and brunch. There has to be good news.
I am convinced the story of Simon Peter has good news to share with us. So today, rather than focusing exclusively on the contents of chapter 18, I say, let’s pull back the camera and look at the big picture. Therefore we will take a tour: Simon Peter, everywhere we find him in the gospel of John.
The first thing we learn about Simon Peter comes from Jesus himself, in the very first chapter. Jesus starts to attract the attention of John, the baptizer, who tells his followers, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” [1:34]. One of those followers goes and finds his brother, Simon, and says, “We have found the Messiah,” and then he takes Simon to see Jesus [1:41-42].
Frederick Buechner writes about the encounter.
The first time Jesus laid eyes on him, he took one good look and said, "So you're Simon, the son of John" (John 1:42), and then said that from then on he'd call him Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, which is Greek for rock.
A rock isn't the prettiest thing in creation or the fanciest or the smartest, and if it gets rolling in the wrong direction, watch out, but there's no nonsense about a rock, and once it settles down, it's pretty much there to stay. There's not a lot you can do to change a rock or crack it or get under its skin, and, barring earthquakes, you can depend on it about as much as you can depend on anything. So Jesus called him the Rock, and it stuck with him the rest of his life.
Rock. Strong. Dependable. Something you can build on. That’s the beginning, the foundation, so to speak, of the relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter.
The next time we encounter Simon Peter it is in the midst of a controversy following one of Jesus’ most spectacular signs, the one that is recounted six times in four gospels. I am referring to Jesus’ feeding of 5000 people.
The day following the miracle, Jesus is trying to explain the meaning of it to his followers. “I am the bread of life,” he says [6:35]. And then, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; or my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”[6:54-55]. This statement was challenged and questioned by those who were following him. They were disturbed. They were repulsed. What could he possibly mean? Finally, a number of those who had been following him turned back. They couldn’t abide by his words; they made no sense to them.
Jesus looked around at those who remained. The twelve. “Do you also wish to go away?” [6:67]
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” [6:68-69].
Peter. The Rock. Strong. Dependable.
The next time we meet Simon Peter it is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet. Though we talked about this a couple of weeks ago, it bears repeating: Peter is appalled that Jesus is reversing the customary roles. The teacher is serving the students. The master is serving the servants. He wants none of it, but Jesus is insistent. Jesus will teach by example: I do this to show my love for you, he says. Love one another as I have loved you.
On Wednesday we spoke of what happens next. Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, is identified as the one who will betray Jesus, and he hurries to leave. Jesus turns to the eleven now remaining, and says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me… [but] Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Peter. The Rock. Strong. Dependable.
Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” [13:36-38].
Until this moment in the story Peter has shown himself to be humble, and loyal, and, yes, dependable. He has made a statement of faith: Lord, you alone have the words to everlasting life. We have seen. We believe. You are the Holy One of God.
And, to be clear, it’s not as if life has been a bed of roses for Jesus and his followers. Throughout this gospel Jesus has encountered opposition, and suspicion, and eventually, downright hostility. The words uttered above—that statement of faith—come on the heels of the chilling report that, now that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, his own life is being threatened. The statements of loyalty and dedication are made in the context of danger.
The danger shows up tonight, in this passage.
In the passage read by Chris, we witness the arrest—so much of it so familiar. The garden. The soldiers and the police. Judas.
And look, here comes Simon Peter, and he’s drawing a sword, and in the first and last act of violence of a follower of Jesus, he manages to cut the ear off a slave who belonged to Caiaphas, the Temple High Priest. The slave’s name is Malchus.
Peter, the Rock. Strong… and, here, for once, impulsive. Violent.
Jesus, however, is not interested in violence, not right now, and the words he uses to address Peter and the others are firm. Put away your sword. Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me? Jesus believes this to be his destiny, foreordained by God.
What follows is a passage I think of as “two interrogations.” The narrative skips back and forth between scenes involving Jesus and those involving Simon Peter.
First, we are with Jesus (18:12-14). He is arrested (by a combination of Roman police as well as “Jewish” police–probably the Temple police). He is taken to Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas. Caiaphas, we are told, made a statement immediately after the raising of Lazarus, that “it is better” for one man to die than for the whole nation to “be destroyed” (11:49-52).
Then we are with Simon Peter (18:15-18). He and the unnamed disciple follow after Jesus. The other disciple’s connections with the high priest enable him to follow Jesus into the courtyard. Peter remains outside the gate until the other disciple persuades the woman who guards the gate to allow him in. The woman asks Peter if he is a disciple of Jesus’. The rock—strong, dependable, Peter—replies, “I am not.” It’s a shocking moment. He takes his place alongside some slaves and police who are warming themselves around a fire.
Then we are back to Jesus (18:19-24). He is interrogated by Annas, whose exact words and questions we never hear directly; only that he questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus defends himself by pointing to the openness with which he has taught. He urges the high priest to question those who have heard him in temple and synagogue. Then, more violence: Jesus’ answer provokes one of the temple police to strike him across the face. This is another shocking moment. The story has taken a dark and frightening turn. But still, Jesus remains resolute in his own defense. He has spoken the truth.
Our passage ends with Simon Peter (18:25-27). He is asked, again, by one of those warming their hands around the fire, whether he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Again he replies “I am not.” Finally, the high priest’s slave—is it Malchus? Does he have a bandage on one side of his head?—he tells Peter: he saw him in the garden with Jesus. Simon Peter denies it, and at that moment, the cock crows, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction.
Oh, Simon Peter. The rock, caught in a very hard place.
Maybe it’s because we know the end of the story: Peter, the rock, triumphant and foundational as a builder of the church. Maybe it’s because we got to see Peter in action hero mode, just for a minute, before things fell apart. Maybe it’s because I love a challenge. But I tell you, there is good news here.
There is good news in Jesus’s steadfast defense of his open and honest teaching about God. There is good news in Jesus’ own words about Simon Peter: You are Peter, the rock. There is good news in Jesus’ looking at Peter with eyes of love—and, yes, forgiveness—in advance, even before Peter has denied knowing Jesus. Jesus forgives in advance! There is good news in this: we are not defined by our worst moments, except, perhaps, by ourselves. Oh, and, sadly, all too often, by one another. We do love to do that, don’t we? It drives our celebrity culture, our politics—search and destroy, find the thing we can harp on for four years or eight or a hundred. But I digress.
Here’s the really good news. God does not define us by our worst moments. God doesn’t even define us by our best moments. God defines us by God’s best moments. Jesus shows us a God who creates us, and looks at us in love, and calls us by name. Jesus shows us a God who, having loved his own who were in this world, loves us from the beginning and to the end. Jesus shows us a God who gives us things like strength and dependability—and creativity, and humility, every sort of thing—and then takes joy and pleasure in her creation. Jesus shows us a God who places no limit on the love shown to us—a love that is not stopped by soldiers, or stammering denials of who we are called to be, or even by a cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.