The Shepherd’s Voice: Denial

by David Baer, March 4, 2018

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Text: John 18:12-27

It was the summer before my junior year of high school. Encouraged by my parents to get out and have a little adventure, I took a trans-Atlantic flight by myself to stay with a family in Germany for four weeks. Germany had not been my first choice. It wasn’t even my second choice. I was studying French in school, but the exchange agency found me a placement in Germany, and I went anyway. My host brother Christian was a cycling fanatic, and while I was staying with him he took off on any number of expeditions. As far as Christian was concerned, the closer to vertical the road inclined, the better the ride! So I would trail after him, huffing and wheezing on his older sister’s cast-off bike as we summited some rise that may as well have been the Matterhorn. The wonder and the danger of being a 16 year-old boy is that because you’re still trying to figure out who you are, and because you haven’t run up against very many hard, cruel limits, you can imagine yourself succeeding at almost anything you try.

When Christian got wind of a bike exposition coming to his small city in southwest Germany, he could barely contain his excitement. The show was to open with a preview day for press only, and so Christian and his friend Wilko concocted a scheme to get us into the exhibit hall without paying admission. We would present ourselves as reporters for our high school newspapers. (Because again, when you’re 16, you can’t imagine how these things could turn out badly!) But somehow it worked, and so with a press pass dangling from my neck I found myself staring at a whole lot of cycling gear I couldn’t begin to understand.

Now, there was a company conducting a promotional event for their mountain bikes on a dirt track, and Christian thought it would be fun to enter. After the company official had barked a series of instructions at us, of which I understood not a word, the race kicked off, and I discovered something about the bike I had been given to ride. When you’re climbing a hill on a mountain bike, you want the bike to keep moving, however slowly, and so you can expect that when you’re in low gear you’re going to pedal furiously just to make the back wheel turn ever so slightly. I’d imagine that if you’re a skilled cyclist this would be a very helpful feature. But if you are not a skilled cyclist, as I was assuredly not, then you find yourself riding a bike that has essentially two gears: one that locks the pedal so that it is completely impossible to move as you begin to go up a rise, and one that releases the pedal so that your foot slips, and you lurch forward and plant your face right into the dirt. As it turned out, I made extensive use of both of these gears, in front of an audience of cycling enthusiasts and trade journalists. I finally finished the race, about three minutes after the rider immediately in front of me, by using my feet to wheel the bike around the track like Fred Flintstone in his stone-age car. Yabba-dabba-doo. I think it was pretty clear to everyone there that I was not a cyclist or an expert of any kind. I was not who I had claimed to be.

Is there anybody who hasn’t embarrassed themselves like this? You start out with the best of intentions–there was a part of me that really believed I could keep up with the other riders. It wasn’t until the race began that my eyes were opened, and I realized that I couldn’t be what I was trying to be. Where have your best intentions brought you embarrassment or worse? Have you been thrust into a situation where you found you couldn’t live up to others’ expectations or your own?

Gerard van Honthorst - The Denial of St Peter - WGA11661.jpg
By Gerard van Honthorst - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, Link

So let’s muster some sympathy for Peter, in today’s lesson. This is a story about Peter’s denial of Jesus. What brings about Peter’s denial, though, is a prior denial of his own weakness and need. Peter thought he was a courageous disciple who would defend his rabbi to the end. He discovered that he was no less vulnerable, that he had no less need for grace and forgiveness, that he had every bit as much need of God’s help as the rest of the disciples.

Everyone else, with the exception of an unnamed disciple that Jesus loves, just runs for it when Jesus is arrested. Not so Peter. He draws his sword and attacks Malchus, one of the men who have come out for Jesus, cutting off his ear. Jesus doesn’t want this—“No more of this,” he says, as he heals the man’s ear. It’s typical Peter–bold, impulsive, and off-the-mark. But when Jesus goes quietly with the soldiers, Peter and one other disciple follow along, while everyone else high-tails it. So please understand that Peter is not the dunce here. Peter is the exemplar. He’s the best disciple our frail human nature can produce. He stands in for all of us. And he falls short.

The first person to question Peter is a young servant girl keeping the door at the high priest’s home. She’s not exactly Jack Bauer from 24. This is not a brutal interrogation. In the Greek text, she asks the question in a way that expects a negative answer, something like this: “This is gonna sound crazy, mister, but you’re not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Bold, brash Peter, faced with a teenaged interrogator, immediately folds and says, “I am not.” Strike one. The high priest’s household slaves and the Temple police invite Peter to warm himself by their fire, and they question him, “Aren’t you one of them?” And again, he says, “I am not.” Strike two. One of the relatives of the man whose ear Peter cut off says, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Now, this is a reminder to us that Peter was willing, just a few minutes ago, to take up arms against these people, against impossible odds. But their questions cut him right down. “No,” he says, and then the cock crows. It happened just as Jesus said.

Peter is not who he thought he was. He is not the disciple willing to follow Jesus to the end and to lay down his own life for his teacher. His own words bear witness: “I am not.” He says. What a difference from Jesus… when the men who arrested him asked whether he was Jesus of Nazareth, he said, “I am.” And now, when they question him about his teaching, he denies nothing. “I have said nothing in secret,” he says. He refuses to add or remove one word from what he has claimed to be. At the critical moment, when put to the proof, Peter says, “I am not,” but Jesus says, “I am.”

And Jesus’ “I am” is ultimately what matters. It matters more than our “I am nots.” Some of our “I am nots” were never really that important anyway, like my ill fated adventure on the mountain bike. But Peter’s “I am not” is devastating. It undoes the most important relationship in his life. It betrays his dear friend. It’s a fraying thread that threatens to unwind him to the very center of who he is. And we have these devastating moments too, when we hurt the people we love, when we fall short on our commitments, when we realize we’re in the grip of habits or behaviors that are not good for us or the people around us. I am not as good, as faithful, as loyal, as kind as I believed I was. I am not stronger than this addiction or illness. I am not. But Jesus is. And in the end his “I am” is going to bear up under us, when we fall through the rotten planks of our “I am nots.” When Jesus has suffered and died, when he’s been raised and come back to see his friends, he will seek out Peter at another charcoal fire and allow him to undo his triple denial with a triple commitment of love and faithfulness. It’s only possible because Jesus is who he is. And we can trust that Jesus will search us out too, and offer us a new start.

Time and again, we find that we are not who we thought we were. But thanks be to God, Jesus is who he says he is. Through interrogations and beatings, even on the cross itself, he denies nothing. Even as his friends desert him, even as his strongest allies like Peter, the “Rock,” crumble and fall away, even as their protestations of fidelity and trustworthiness come to nothing, Jesus holds fast to who he is. And in the end not even death can pull apart the I AMs of Jesus. I am the good shepherd. I am the bread of life. I am vine. I am the light of the world. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the resurrection and the life. I am. Jesus’ identity holds, and it holds fast to us. Our “I am nots” are not the last word on us. Jesus says, “I love you, and therefore you are lovable. I died for you, and therefore you are precious. I rose for you, and therefore your life is all new again. I am,” he says, and in that “I am” we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.