March 1, 2007
In the Passion of Jesus, the one narrative where there is the most agreement among the evangelists in terms of the sequence of the event and its details is the story of the denials of Peter. Most certainly, the story circulated even before the gospels were written. The number of details and the vivid recollection of the event indicate that this was a story that the first Christians heard from the lips of Peter himself. Peter was known to speak out. No doubt his telling of his own fall from grace made a lasting impression of others who were sorely tempted to lose faith.
After the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken prisoner to the home of the high priest Caiaphas. The other disciples all fled. Not Peter. He had boasted at the Last Supper, “Even if all fall away from you, I will not” (Mk 14:29). To his credit, he does follow Jesus to Caiaphas’ house. But he does so at a distance.
How far away from Jesus will soon be revealed. True discipleship requires closeness to the Lord. Closeness that comes through prayer. Jesus had told the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane to “stay wake and pray not to be put to the test” (Mk 14:38). Peter had not prayed with Jesus in the garden. He did not have the strength for the test he would soon face that night.
At Caesarea Philippi, Peter had confessed Jesus as the Messiah. But as soon as Jesus began to teach that he came as a suffering Messiah, Peter recoiled. He could not accept the idea that the Messiah, the great liberator of God’s people from oppression, would suffer and be put to death. Now in the house of the high priest, he distances himself even further from the suffering Messiah.
As Jesus is being interrogated by the high priest and the elders of the people inside the house, Peter is being questioned in the courtyard. In answer to the questions of the high priest, Jesus breaks the silence he had imposed on anyone who had recognized him as Messiah during his ministry. For the first time, he publicly and clearly says that he is the Messiah. In these circumstances, there is no misunderstanding of how he is fulfilling this mission. On the inside of the house, Jesus remains faithful to the truth of who he is. On the outside, Peter denies the truth of who he is.
Three times Peter denies the Lord. Each time with greater intensity. A servant approaches Peter as he warms himself at the fire against the cold night air. The woman is curious. There is no malice. Only Jesus is in danger. His followers have not yet been made the target of a persecution. The woman states the fact. “You too were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth” (Mk 14:67). There is not the glimmer of any faith in Jesus in her remark. Jesus is just a man. Nothing more. This is what people are saying. This is what she repeats.
Peter pretends not to understand what she is saying. He is afraid to resist public opinion. It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus and to stand with him when others dismiss his claims and his teaching. Peter evades the question. Then he moves away from fire to the entrance way. He wants to escape.
The woman does not give up. She sees him move away and immediately turns to the bystanders. Raising her voice, she announces, “This man is one of them” (Mk 14:69). Peter had shown great bravado by cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane. Now he denies he was ever in the garden when a relative of the same servant challenges him (cf. Jn 18:26-27). Peter denies that he is a disciple. After the first sin, the second comes more readily.
Jesus had chosen Peter to be with him and the other disciples. Peter here disassociates himself from those who follow Jesus. There can never be a faithful following of Jesus except in the company of the other disciples. Every true disciple is a willing member of the Church.
From all eternity, God has chosen us in Christ, forgiving our sins and gifting us with his love. To respond to that choice brings us into the Church. Through the ministry of the Church, God pours out on His love and gives a share in His own divine life. Some wrongly think that it is possible to have a deep relationship with Christ and not be part of the Church. But the Church is the Body of Christ. And to love Christ is to belong to His body, to be part of the Church and to love the Church.
Some time passes. Peter lingers in the dark for almost an hour. He longs to be close to Jesus. But he is weak. Next the bystanders question Peter. His accent gives him away. Peter responds like a man punched in the stomach. He reels and curses and denies Jesus a third time. Before these witnesses, he protests he never even knew Jesus. His faith has failed. His collapse complete.
At the Last Supper, Jesus predicted the betrayal by Judas, the scattering of all the disciples and the denials of Peter. At the very moment that Jesus is being mocked as a prophet in the house of the high priest, the third of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true. Peter is denying him with greater and greater vehemence. First evasion; then denial; and finally, cursing. The sheep are all scattered.
In Peter, the chosen friend, trusted companion, appointed leader is seen the truth that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). Jesus is alone. He is accomplishing our salvation by himself. He is redeeming every person ever born. As Timothy teaches: “There is one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, himself a man, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5).