Saturday, March 21, 2020

Somewhere Between Oops and Mea Culpa

Matthew 26:31-35, 57-58, 69-75

Lent 4
March 22, 2020
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

... Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

One of the hardest moments for our children is when they discover how quickly a friend can let you down. Oh, the assurances were there. I will be your friend always. I will defend you when others accuse you. I will stick with you through thick and thin. And then the crisis comes and the friend is not there.

·   The third-grade birthday party: I invited her, but when it was her turn, she didn’t invite me.
·   The playground game: I picked him for my team, but he didn’t choose me.
·    The dating game: I asked her out on a date. She said she was busy… and I found it she was out on a date with the guy I thought was my best friend.

These things can happen when we are young. They prepare us for later disappointments, for the bigger games when there is more at stake.

Two good friends said, “Let’s go into business together.” They shared common values. They had complimentary skills. They trusted one another. It worked for a while. It worked well. Then one discovered what the other was doing with the money. That when the differences emerged. They talked, they tried to hold it together, but the whole thing came unraveled. Now they don’t even speak to one another.

Friends can let you down. Surely Jesus knew this. He was raised on the psalms. He knew the 55th Psalm. The poet of the psalms laments a world coming apart.

“It is not enemies who taunt me,” says the Poet, “I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me - I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company…”

We used to get along, he says. We walked together into the temple of God and sing the hymns. Once we ate together at the same table and enjoyed sweet conversation. But now there has been a breach, and the tragedy is that it comes from the one that I thought I could trust. The betrayal comes

“… with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords.

We know the story, so our thoughts run to Judas Iscariot. He knew the place, he led the mob, he came with a kiss of peace…smoother than butter. Certainly Judas had his issues, whatever they were.

But what of Simon Peter, who stood closest to Jesus, his Lord? Jesus said, “All of you will run away because of me,’ and Peter said, “No, not me, I will never desert you, Lord.”

And Jesus said, “Really, Peter? Are you sure about that?” Peter replied, “I’m sure. I will never run away from you.”

“But Peter,” said Jesus, “I know you are going to deny me three times before the rooster crows tomorrow morning.” Peter replied, “No, Lord, I would give my life for you. I would give my life with you. I will never deny you. Never!” And you and I know how that turned out. We know the story.

The scene is often staged dramatically. In any of those Jesus movies from Hollywood, Peter is played by some barrel-chested fisherman full of bluster and bravado. He opens his mouth before he engages his brain. He’s always the first one to speak and he’s always saying the wrong thing. “No, Lord, no cross for you! No, Lord, I will never run away from you. No, Lord, I will never deny you.”

Immediately that’s what he does. Just then, off in the distance, you hear “cockle-doodle-do,” as the dawn breaks on Peter and he descends into tears of regret and remorse. If the scene is staged that way, it looks like a dramatic moment, a colossal failure of nerve. He doesn’t speak up when he should. He doesn’t tell the truth. He denies the very relationship that gave him life. Peter comes across as a bumbling incompetent.

But what could he do? What would you have done? Matthew says he was outside in the courtyard of the high priest, sitting among the guards, wondering how it will all unfold. He ran away like the others, yes, but then he turned around and followed his Lord.

And then what could he have done? Raise his voice and say, “Hey, let that man go. He’s innocent.” Well, they all knew he was innocent. Everybody knew Jesus was innocent.  Innocence was not the issue.

Could he have leaned closer to one of the guards, stolen the soldier’s sword, start hollering and swinging, and staging a distraction - if not an insurrection? Well, that already happened, in Gethsemane, when one of the disciples did just that. Matthew is too polite to tell us which one, although the Gospel of John says it was indeed Simon Peter (John 18). Yet the words of Jesus still burned in his heart, “Put that weapon away. Those who live by weapons will die by weapons.” So Peter sits and he waits.

One of the servants asks, “Weren’t you with him?” All the heads turn, and Peter says, “No, not me.” Their eyes follow as he got up and moved to the porch.

Another servant spots him and points, “This man was with Jesus.” More heads turn toward him. Peter says, “No, I don’t know the man.” He’s getting in deeper and he knows it.

A few minutes later, somebody else says, “You have a north country, Galilean Yankee accent. It betrays you. Certainly you were one of them.” With this, Peter curses like a fisherman and says, “I don’t know the man.”

430 years later, the Christians built a church on that very spot. It’s been torn down, rebuilt, and rebuilt again. They call it the “Church of St. Peter of the Cock-Crow.” There is a rooster on the top of the spire. When I was in Jerusalem years ago, somebody said, “We have some free time. Want to visit that place?” No, no, why would we ever want to go there? Why would we ever need a perpetual reminder of someone’s cowardice, someone’s weakness, someone’s lies in order to save their own skin?”

Today, I think the answer is simply this: because we need the reminder. The reminder is a healthy dose of the truth about all of us. Our concern is not merely with how other people have let us down, done us dirt, or put us out to dry. It’s also important that we acknowledge and confess when we have “done unto others” as we might accuse them for doing unto us.

The Bible gives us two descriptions of what it means to be human. Together they form an honest paradox. The first is a theology of friendship. All of us have the capacity for building relationships. It is possible to live with one another. We can overcome differences. We can find common ground.

The Bible tells of David and Jonathan, so deeply bound that their hearts were as one. We hear of Ruth and Naomi, each relying on the other, neither willing to be left behind. This is the promise of what the Greeks called “Philadelphia,” literally brotherly and sisterly love. We can protect one another, feed one another, look out for one another.

Recall a few of the proverbs we have heard today:

  • A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
  • A true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.
  • Better is a neighbor who is nearby than kindred who are far away.

This is the promise of human community. We are created to share our lives. We were given this life to be there for one another.

And yet, the paradox is created by the second description of what it means to be human, and what we hear in today’s text. One Bible scholar calls it “the doctrine of human undependability.” We are created good, with the capacity for deep relationships, yet “all we have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6).

The evidence is around us every day. The husband stops off to buy lottery tickets which he keeps hidden, and his wife says, “Why didn’t you bring home the milk?” The daughter promises to visit Mom in the nursing facility and never shows up. The boss says to the employees, “You always have a home with our company,” then lays them off and gives himself a bonus. The political candidate says, “I will take care of you,” but primarily wants to get re-elected.

And Simon Peter, the closest friend that Jesus ever had – and it really was a tremendous friendship – he says, “I will never abandon you. I will stand by your side. I will never lie about how much you mean to me.” In memory of him, the church built a sanctuary and called it “The Church of the Cock-Crow.” Let us tell the truth about human unreliability.

Dale Bruner, the Bible scholar, says this is one of the great lessons of the Passion story of Jesus. Here in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 26 and 27, we have one long tale about how the possibility of human love goes awry. Bruner notes,

High and low, big and little – everybody fails except one. There are two of each of the three types (of people) who conspicuously fail: big and little disciples (Peter and Judas); big and little Israel (Sanhedrin and the crowd); and big and little Rome (Pilate and soldiers). Then in the crucifixion scene, almost everyone passes by the hanging Jesus in a review of massive failure. Against this backdrop of human infidelity, Jesus’ faithfulness looms high and lonely, and that is the point: amidst all human failure, there is one who is totally dependable…(The Christbook, p. 993-4)

… and it is Jesus Christ, our Lord. That’s why the honesty of the Bible should never depress us, but point us to the complete faithfulness of God, our savior.

It’s there in our scripture story today, a persistent reminder of what Christ offers over against the empty promises of Simon Peter. Remember how Jesus said, “All of you will run away,” and Peter responds, “Not me, Lord; I will never run away”? In the middle of that interchange, Jesus says something that is easy to skip over.

He says, “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (26:32). It’s a powerful thing for him to say. To paraphrase his words, “after you run away from me, you are going to run into me again.” After you watch the whole world reject me and push me away, you will see me come to you, returning from the dead. After you forsake me, you will discover that’s not so easy, for, lo, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

There is forgiveness here. Can you hear it?  Peter can say, “I don’t know Jesus,” but Jesus knows him.

The one essential ingredient of human relationships is not perfection, but mercy. We know the people around us are not perfect, yet the illusion persists that they ought to be. No friendship, marriage, or relationship can bear the freight of impossible expectations. Even if we love somebody, especially if we love them, we should never be surprised if they are imperfect and unreliable, just as we are. Our Christian response is to be merciful and forgiving, going the second mile by always giving the second chance.

Here is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to the church:

Christians must bear the burden of brothers and sisters . . . God verily bore the burden of all people in the body of Jesus Christ. But God bore them as a mother carries her child, as a shepherd enfolds the lost lamb that has been found. God took all people upon God’s self. They weighted Him to the ground, but God remained with them and they with God. In bearing with the human family God maintained fellowship with them. It was the law of Christ that was fulfilled in the Cross. And Christians must share in this law.[1]

Jesus says to Peter and the others who will run away, “But I will go before you and see you in Galilee.” To translate, “I am not finished with you.” He isn’t finished with any of us. Not yet.

And if it is divinely possible, maybe we shouldn’t be in a hurry to be finished with anybody else.

(c) William G. Carter  All rights reserved.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1972) p. 77

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