Mark 14:53-55, 66-72
Dr. Anne M. Cameron
March 25, 2012
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.
Then follows the account of Jesus' trial and questioning by Caiphus. Jesus
admits to being the Messiah, and is convicted for blasphemy. Contrast Jesus'
trial with Peter's. Jesus acknowledges his true identity at the cost of his life.
Peter, on the other hand, denies Jesus' identity three times.
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, "You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth." But he denied it, saying, "I do not know or understand what you are talking about." And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, "This man is one of them." But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, "Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean." But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know this man you are talking about." At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept.
I have sometimes wondered what I would do if I were in a dangerous situation and was asked the question, "Do you know Jesus?" It's hard to imagine an actual situation in which I might find myself confronted with such a question---a question that could mean life or death, safety or danger, freedom or imprisonment. But this is exactly what was at stake for Peter. You see, Peter was with Jesus, and Jesus is now under arrest. Peter follows Jesus all the way to court yard of the high priest, but as he is questioned, Peter's resolve melts. Surely he must have feared for his own life, his own freedom.
Such high stakes still exist today, but they are in countries and cultures most of us will never even visit. They are in Eritrea and in Egypt, Iran and Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Uganda, to name just a few of a score of countries where Christians are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for voicing their belief in Jesus. It gives one pause.
At the time of her death, the 17-year old Columbine High School senior was an aspiring writer and actress. She was a devout Christian, active as a youth group, known for her friendliness and compassion. Rachel left behind six diaries and several essays about her belief in God; how she wanted to change the world through small acts of kindness. Shortly before her death, Rachel wrote an essay for school stating, "I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same."
Rachel Scott was shot while eating lunch with a friend, on the lawn outside the school library. Early news reports said one of the gunmen, having first shot Rachel in the leg, picked her up by her hair and asked her if she still believed in God. "You know I do," she said. He then shot her a second time at point-blank range.
Do you know Jesus? Nearly none of us here will be threatened with death because of our belief in Christ. Still, we are asked to put our life on the line for Jesus. It has been said that a faith not worth dying for is a faith not worth living for. The threats and challenges we face are very different from Peter.
Gone are the days when society's blue laws supported the concept of Sunday Sabbath. (How many of you even know what a blue law is?)
Gone are the days when virtually every "Christian" young couple chose to get married in church. Gone are the days when college students, off on their own for the first time, sought out a church. Gone are the days when one's participation in a faith community was thought to be a mark of good character.
Christianity is no longer in high regard in this country. Christianity, and Christ, are on trial. It is not "cool" to be Christian. Religious belief is the last thing people choose to talk about in a social setting---it is the last taboo. In the public sphere, people of faith are often mocked. We are thought of as ignorant, backward, unsophisticated. The public perception of Christians is most assuredly negative.
Do you know Jesus? Almost never will you be asked this question by another person holding a gun to your head. Instead, silence is the norm. People simply don't talk about Jesus very much outside church! Our great temptation is to go along with this silence. In our offices and workplaces, at the gym and the grocery story, we avoid the topic. We may even (like Peter) pretend we do not know Jesus. We may hide the fact that we are Christian, or at least, downplay it. Indeed, many people in college and the workforce could not even identify which people are Christians among their acquaintances.
Words and actions are needed to answer the question, "Do you know Jesus?" Both are necessary. Words AND actions reveal whether or not we truly know Jesus.
The light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating woman behind him was furious! She laid on the horn. She screamed in frustration; she dropped her cell phone and makeup. ...
As she was ranting and raving, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. He ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.
She was taken to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and she was placed in a holding cell.
After a couple of hours, the woman was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.
He said, "I'm very sorry for this mistake, ma'am. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you and cussing a blue streak. I noticed the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper sticker, the 'Follow Me to Sunday-School' bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk, so I just figured. . . you had stolen the car."
Words and actions reveal whether or not we truly know Jesus.
It is never enough to merely wear the trappings of Christianity. We must also behave in ways which match our beliefs. And, it is not even enough to simply behave well and keep our mouths shut. It is not enough to assume that others will know we know Jesus simply because of the way we conduct ourselves. There are many good and charitable people out there who don't believe in God at all.
And so we find ourselves not exactly in the same situation as Peter (there is no death threat here), but more often than not---we may find ourselves tempted to deny Jesus in subtle ways. When others tell demeaning stories about Christians, when others decry "the religious right" or the "progressive Christians" and we say nothing, we are very much like Peter. Even if we personally disagree with the behavior of certain religious groups, as Christians, we should say something! We have an opportunity to share who we are and who we believe in, and how this makes a difference for us. That chance may not be there next time. We may not get the chance to acknowledge Jesus before the cock crows.
Each one of us, whether we recognize it or not, witnesses to Christ. We can be a positive witness, with our actions matching our beliefs, or we can be a negative one (as the woman in the car was. . .) When we are silent about who Jesus is, about whether we know Jesus, we can see how we are so similar to Peter.
This story of Jesus' trial and Peter's denial appears in all four gospels. It was important that it be told. It is a powerful story, one which gives credence to the truth of the gospel. After all, who would make this stuff up? Who would tell such an awful story about a key founder of your entire movement? No, we get the whole story, Peter's warts and all. It's almost like the joke, only the joke's on Peter.
This powerful story is no longer just Peter's, it is ours. It is no coincidence that Jesus' and Peter's trials sit side by side. Jesus shows what we should do and Peter what we should not. Jesus displays courage, Peter displays cowardice.
We are like Peter, and our story is like his. The good news, though, is that God knows we cannot possibly hold up our end of the bargain. God knows we will all be tempted to deny him. Again and again and again. Many of us, many more than three times. God knows our fear often overcomes our faith. God knows that when we stand alone, we often fall. The good news is that our place with God does not depend on us, but on God.
In the gospel of John, Peter's denial of Jesus is not the end of his story, either. John tells us of a post-resurrection moment in which Jesus speaks with Peter. It may well be the first time they have been alone since Jesus died. Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me?" Three times. "Do you love me?" "Do you really love me?" In this way, Jesus answers Peter's three-times-denial with three questions of love. And gives Peter the change to assure Jesus three times.
Do you know Jesus? It may not seem so at the moment, but your answer really can mean life, safety, freedom. Choose life, and God will help you live it.
God of danger and promise,
Today we gather in the courtyard of your trials, eager to hear a word of hope. Eager to once again be assured that you are more powerful and more loving than all the powers which seem to eat away at our faith, which draw us from you.
As we continue to follow your story in these weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we are humbled by our own inadequacies, by our often inspid and safe faith, by our tendency to silence when difficult questions are raised.
Still, we are heartened. We are heartened by your constancy, by your continual call to draw us back to you, by your open invitation to forgiveness and new life.
Lord of new life and growth,
As the landscape around us is painted with the brilliant colors of springtime and flowers of great beauty and variety,
Help us remember we are all beautiful and lovely in your sight.
That we are all renewed and refreshed when we turn to you,
When we acknowledge you and re-enter into the faith practices which strengthen our resolve.
Today in particular we remember all who are in danger because of their belief in you-humble Christians who boldly practice their faith even when their governments denounce it; missionaries and ministers who put their lives on the line to bring your gospel to others; and persons who work to change the systems which do not allow for religious freedom and expression.
May we never take for granted the freedom we have here where we live, may we exercise our right to speak, with love, about the Risen Christ who has indeed changed all of our lives.