And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Other Side of Denial

Some of us find friends in the gospels - people we can relate to. Their 100% humanity calls out to us in all their glorious successes and screw-ups. We want to be like them. But not too much like them. We will probably never soar as high, nor can we fail as miserably.  We insist that we can learn from their mistakes and we vow that we would never fall as low as they had. To play the role of Judas would be unthinkable. Who among the faithful today would knowingly deny or betray God? Like Simon Peter we would boast that we would never betray Jesus. Simon, the one who speaks before thinking and leaps without looking. So totally human.

Simon Peter, next to Judas, may be the biggest screw-up in the gospels. Not because of one incident, either.  He screwed-up over and over and over again.  Jesus even called him "Satan." After that, on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

Of course, we need these role-model screw-up types to encourage and inspire us, but lately I've begun wondering if Peter has been judged unfairly. I've wondered how a man, after living with Jesus for three years, could deny even knowing him. (We may be challenged to ask the question regarding Judas, and perhaps we should ...).  I wonder about the reasons and motivations. I wonder what we learn about following Jesus and living in the kingdom of God from such an act.

I also wonder what we might be missing if the story has been misunderstood. 

Luke tells us the story of Peter's denial that last night Jesus spent with his followers. You can read the entire story right here:  Luke 22:7-65

And that's just as you remembered it, isn't it?  We cheer for Peter every time we read it, don't we? We root for him to not fail this time.  "Peter," we shout, "Don't do it!  Be brave!  Stand up for Jesus and admit that you love and adore this man and everything he stands for. Show us that you learned something after being with Jesus every day for all those years.  Show us that there's some hope for us humans, so prone to failure."

But for that very same reason we also need him to fail again.  We need him to deny Jesus because we need to know that God can love someone who would betray Jesus - even when after being warned about it. Or maybe we need it this way simply because that's the way we've always read it.

But what if there's another story there?  What if Peter, for all his faults, wasn't the kind of screw-up we've always thought him to be?  What if we've been vilifying (and relating to) Peter for all the wrong reasons?  What if his screw-ups don't really make him so lovable because they are far more troubling and ambiguous than we ever imagined? What if his impetuous nature really would get him killed before his time?  Is this Peter, the first one to publicly identify Jesus, the one who promised to get in the way of any who would harm him, the one who shouts before he thinks ... is he really the type to deny Jesus?  Or do his flaws lie elsewhere?  

Now, put yourself in the story.  Hear it again, but remember to start from a place of powerlessness, hopelessness and desperation that comes from generations of oppression and exploitation. Add in a touch of brash impulsiveness along with a heavy dose of deadly adversary.  Then mix them all together with a stern warning, a prayer and a promise, and a glimpse at the other side of denial.

"Now the Festival of the Unleavened Bread arrived, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed ... " Jesus described it as his time of trial.  His followers were gathered for what would be their last meal together.  After the wine, there was talk of betrayal and conspiracy, and the denials escalated into claims of superiority, greatness, self-righteousness and one-upmanship. To some, it might have looked like a child’s game of King of the Hill. It might also have looked like the kind of pissing match you hear about when the wine has been spiked with a testosterone-adrenaline cocktail.  

As the reality of the situation was caving in around them, Jesus tried to settle them down with some reassuring words.  But he had seen what this crew was capable of.  A couple of them even brought their swords. Were they foolhardy enough to think they were ready for this enemy?  Peter might think so ...

He had to sober them up, and quickly.  He pulled Simon Peter close to him and said, very slowly, “Simon. Satan is craving you and will sift you. Like wheat." Jesus clenched his fist and the dust from a dirt clod spayed out from between his curled fingers. "But I have prayed for you. I've prayed that not only will you pass this test, but that you will come out of this a changed person, ready to strengthen all who remain.”

“Lord, I am ready.  I will do whatever is necessary.”

“And so I tell you, you will deny me.”

“No! I won’t.” 

“Of course you won’t. But you must. You will say that you never even heard of me.”

“How can you ask me to say such a thing? You know I can’t do that.  I would follow you anywhere. I love you...”

“Don’t you think I know that? But you cannot go where I am going. Not yet. You will be tempted, but you must not give in.  And so I pray this of you … This is the only way.  Before this night ends, you will need to deny me.”

And Simon protested, “But … but we have swords …”

Jesus grabbed his shoulders and brought his mouth to Simon's ear.  His breath was hot and his whisper was loud and hoarse, “Stay alert! Pray that you pass this test.”  And those were the last words Jesus spoke to him about this.

And Simon, knowing now that he must not deny Jesus, wept bitterly, still protesting as he cried himself to sleep.

I realize that rather than achieving anything helpful, this post may simply open a can of worms that could even include, "Would Jesus ever ask us to lie?" Whether you see something helpful, or not, please feel free explore and comment on the contents of this can.


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