This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Luke 22:54-62:
Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
It had been a long night. The disciples, sick with sadness, had finally collapsed into a restless sleep. They understood their Lord was suffering greatly, but the human heart can only take so much sorrow. So when their friend and brother shows up with a band of soldiers, they are all taken off-guard.
Peter, in confusion and fear, draws his sword and strikes one of them, opening up a gash on the side of the man’s head where his ear used to be.
With a touch of his hand, Jesus gives the man a new ear. “No more!” he says to Peter. “Put it away.”
Bound by the words of his Lord to do nothing, Peter watches his Lord bound and taken away. He still holds the sword limply in his hand. The final rebuke stings in his consciousness. Everyone else scatters. But Peter stays fixed to the spot, as the torches of the mob disappear in the darkness.
Then something rises up within him. That can’t be the last. He somehow knows those will not be the last words Jesus speaks to him. But something equally strong holds him back. He follows, but from a distance. By the time he reaches the gates of the high priests house, they have been locked behind Jesus. So Peter waits, and finally a servant girl is sent to let him in.
“You’re not one of them, are you?” she asks.
“Of course not,” he says. But when they come into the light of the fire and she sees his face, she again questions him.
Another was there when he cut off the man’s ear and he attests to the resemblance. “I saw you with him in the garden.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he says.
It was a bad idea to speak. They mock him now. “Listen to his accent, he’s a Galilean too! He must be with him!”
“I swear, I don’t know him!” Peter yells. But the crowing of a rooster drowns out his curse. Like a rush of blood to the brain, it comes back to him. Other words spoken by his Lord: Tonight. Deny. Three times.
In shame, Peter runs from the courtyard.
He doesn’t let the darkness of the night dissuade him, or the betrayal of a friend turn him away. He doesn’t let the rebuke of Jesus deter him, or the guard at the gate keep him out. But in the face of his own failure, his faith doesn’t hold up. And when it matters most, he leaves the one he loves most.
An old friend and a long-time pastor once told me that he’d never known anyone who stopped following Jesus without large or persistent sin in their own lives. Either too large for them to take it to God in the first place (so they thought), or instead of going to Jesus again and again to let him pay for it, bit by bit, they let their own shame push them away from him.
Any time we sin we deny Jesus. The question is, will we run from him?
Why are we so quick to attribute omniscient judgment to Jesus’ warning to Peter, “You will deny me three times”? Why do we read condemnation in that last look his direction? What if he wasn’t saying “I told you so”? What if he said it to prepare him? And when the trial comes, he looks to see what Peter will do.
Jesus is facing the suffering death that will save Peter from all his denials, do you think he is holding anything against him in that moment?
Peter is, in the very instant of his failure, fully forgiven.
Jesus is abandoned by all his followers and all disciples but one. He’s about to be mocked, beaten and killed. Peter is his best friend. What would it have meant to Jesus to have Peter with him in his darkest hour? Jesus turns to him and if Peter had looked long enough he would have seen that those eyes did not condemn him, they were saying, “Stay with me.”
I believe Jesus is saying the same to us in the moment of our denials, our sins, our failures. It is only in his presence that we can be washed clean.
We don’t have to follow at a distance any longer. Our sin no longer separates us. Will our shame?
“Stay with me. I’ve taken care of everything. Stay with me.”