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Peter's Denial

Pastor James F. Wright

Third Wednesday in Lent
St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Wed, Mar 6, 2002 

Peter Denies Jesus Three Times

We have learned to know him far better than the other disciples.  "The Big Fisherman" he has often been called, the man of the rugged physique, the great strong body, the rough, hard hands, accustomed to hauling dripping nets out of Lake Galilee and sailing a fishing boat on stormy seas.  We imagine him with a bold strong voice and a personality to go with it, the big fisherman who became, at the Lord's command, a fisher of men.

Do we love him because of his weaknesses, because the failings and foolishnesses of his character tell us that there is hope for us?  We remember that Peter is great and beloved not because of what he was when Jesus met him, but because of what he became under the influence of Christ, molded, like clay in the hands of a master potter, into a vessel of rugged beauty, of great strength, and filled with the person of Jesus Christ.

We remember in Peter's story his calling on the shore of Galilee; his experience of walking on water, the great confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the living God."  We also recall his terrible rebuke, when Jesus said to him, "Get behind me, Satan.  You are not on the side of God, but of men."

Someone has said that Simon Peter was consistently inconsistent.  He was always going from the heights to the depths and back again.  There was that stormy day on the lake when he had courage and faith enough to walk on top of the water.  Yet, suddenly he found himself terrified by the wind and wave and began to sink, crying," Lord, save me," as he grasped the Master's helping hand.

In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday Peter didn't want Jesus to wash his feet.  A moment later he said, "Not my feet only, but also my head and my hands."

That night he solemnly assured his Lord that he would die with him before he would forsake him.  A few hours later he was trying to prove, by cursing like a godless fisherman, that he had never heard of Jesus.  In the Garden he slashed about with a sword, playing the big hero, ready to fight the army single-handed.  A moment later he ran away.  Consistently inconsistent!

How quickly we fault him for it, and forget the strange and terrible inconsistencies of our own discipleship.  One moment we are deeply religious; the next, God seems a million miles away.  One moment our faith is strong and wholesome; the next it is riddled with questions and honeycombed with doubts and fears.  One moment we love this Savior of ours with all our hearts; the next we hear ourselves denying him, ashamed to have a part in him.

Or we do this.  We hear a sermon, we read something in the Bible, we think about all the good Christians in the world, and we make up our minds to be better Christians ourselves, and then we forget our good resolutions almost as soon as we leave the church or close the book.  We are troubled in conscience when we examine our lives and we tell ourselves that we ought to be doing much better, but we don't.

We come to church and confess our sins like we do today, saying, " Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone . . . Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name."

Then we go home and go on living just as we did before.  We say to our Father in heaven, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," and the next day we are just as mean and irritable, just as uncharitable and unforgiving as we have always been.  Consistently inconsistent.  That's our discipleship, too.

The wonderful thing about Peter is that he did experience at last a complete transformation.  The man of clay became a man of rock.  It meant years of being hammered and pounded on the anvil of God.  It meant months of being molded by a mercy such as only the Son of God would apply to such a man.  No matter what Peter said or did, no matter how foolish it was or how noble and brave and good, the love of Jesus was always there, praising him when he deserved to be praised, scolding him sternly when he needed the discipline of a strong rebuke, warning him in the face of danger, saving him always when he needed to be saved.

In the courtyard of Peter's awful denial it was a long, searching look from Jesus that pierced him to the depths of his soul.

On Easter morning it was the message of the angel to the women at the empty tomb, "Go tell his disciples and Peter."  Don't forget Peter; he needs it even more than all the others.

A week later Jesus appeared and ate breakfast with them on the beach.  He said to Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Three times the question came and three times the tortured answer of the fallen disciple, "Lord, you know that I do!" Three times the risen savior said it, "Feed my lambs.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep."  And, finally, "You will serve Me, Peter, and you will die for me.  Follow me."

That's the difference between Peter and Judas Iscariot.  Peter betrayed the Lord by denying him.  He could have stood up in court and defended Jesus.  But he ran away.  Later he came back in repentance and received the forgiveness won for him at the cross.  Judas, on the other hand, when he realized his sin, despaired of himself and his Lord.  He didn't believe Jesus could love him after what he had done. He chose the path from which he could never return.

Peter lived on to see the church grow and come under persecution by the sword.  Peter wrote to strengthen Christians everywhere, reminding them that they had been born "anew to a living hope thorough the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."

After you have suffered a while," he wrote to them, "the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, strengthen you."

How well he knew.  Hadn't it happened to him?  Wasn't that Peter's own story, from beginning to end.  Let it be your story too.


Copyright 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.

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