Usually when St. Peter’s denial of Jesus is recounted every Holy Week I find myself feeling somewhat superior. After all, Peter refuses to admit that he even knows Jesus—and here I am standing proud in my pew as a faithful follower of Christ. But this year I’ve begun to see that scene from the Gospel in a different light. Though Peter denies Jesus I wonder if on that tortuous night he also displayed a form of conflicted courage as well.
All the other apostles ran away in fear that night, but Peter followed Jesus all the way into the high priest’s courtyard (in Luke’s Gospel he even enlists another disciple who is known to the high priest to help get him into the courtyard). Certainly this was not an exercise for the timid. Peter even goes to warm himself by the fire where the very soldiers who arrested Jesus were also sitting—presumably one of the soldiers would remember the follower of Jesus who struck the high priest servant’s ear? (And one does, Peter’s second accuser was a kinsman of that very servant.)
Still, after being recognized he doesn’t run away. Perhaps he is simply trying to stay close to Jesus to find out what is to become of Him. So he lies, not merely out of fear for his own life but out of fear of being banished from the courtyard and losing sight of Jesus. Perhaps in his conflicted love he thought that if he could just keep Jesus in his sights, maybe there was something he could do to help? In Luke’s version Peter’s denial happens just out of earshot from where Jesus is standing. It is here that we read: “…and the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.” (Luke 22:60-63)
Perhaps Peter is an example of faint-hearted, fearful discipleship in the story, but how often have I done even less in my own life? I have the good fortune of knowing how the story ends. I know that Jesus rises again and yet I can’t even muster enough strength to publicly act like a believer at times. When facing the homeless on the street how often do I step over them in haste? When my parents require more from me now in their old age, how easy is it for me to not go the extra mile in trying to care for their many needs? I can barely get up enough sympathy for my neighbors and friends when they are in vulnerable positions, never mind the unborn fetus that I never encounter face-to-face and can all the more easily ignore.
It is easy for me to stand in my church in hindsight on Holy Thursday and look down my nose at Peter. If I were a disciple of Jesus on that fateful night would I have dared to be anywhere near Peter. I probably would’ve considered him a loon for traipsing off like a half-wit into dangerous territory. No, I am too often more like the other disciples who decide to turn and run away at the first sight of trouble. I’m certain that if I were in this scene I would be nowhere near that courtyard. Even when I realize my own faults and imperfections in my daily life I don’t come close to going out and weeping bitterly.
There’s a lot of Peter in all of us. And when faced with the choice of denying our Christianity or being flogged for it—we most often decline the invitation that leads us into suffering.
So this Thursday, as I stand in my pew and remember the denials that Peter made, I will now see him as a man much like myself—a man who is imperfect and broken—a man who Jesus himself knew wouldn’t pass the test and yet, still trusts him enough to be able to be the rock who built the church that still stands today. I should hope to be half as blessed after all of my own denials of Jesus.