Lessons: Psalm 28, 1 Kings 8:65-9:9, James 2:1-14, Mark 14:66-72 (NRSV)
Our Gospel text today is one of those “difficult” passages with almost no words of hope or comfort. I say almost because I actually think there is a great deal of comfort to be found in the final verse, but we don’t get the relief of this comfort until and unless we have traveled through the messy bits first.
For the last month I have been incorporating Morning Prayer into my morning every day and it has been quite the joyful occasion to spend this time in prayer, reflection, and the study of Scripture. To make it even more fun, I am using the Daily Office readings with the students for chapel at Holy Trinity on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays which means that this week I get to preach on the Gospel of Mark 4 days in a row on passages that are in chronological order!
By this point in Mark 14, Jesus has celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples; he has predicted that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows; he has gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray that the cup would pass from him saying, “yet know what I want, but what you want”; he has been arrested in the Garden after Judas’ betrayal; and most recently he has been dragged before the chief priests and the High Priest where he is condemned to death for blasphemy for saying that he was the Messiah, the Blessed One, the Son of Man who would come on clouds from heaven to reign forever.
Our passage picks up the story from Peter’s perspective as all of this is transpiring. Jesus is upstairs being interrogated, accused, condemned, and beaten while Peter is down in the courtyard below trying to hear and see everything that is going on.
It’s as though Mark is asking us to use our own sanctified imaginations here. How many of us can remember trying to eavesdrop outside of our parents’ bedroom as children when they were having a serious conversation? I’m reminded of a scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry and his cousin Dudley have a silent scuffle outside of a door to see who would listen through the keyhole and who would be forced to lie on the floor to try and observe the goings on.
Either way, you have to imagine what is going on through Peter’s heart and mind at this moment. He is desperate to hear news of his rabbi’s sentence. His faithful teacher, his mentor and friend, has been arrested before his very eyes. Peter has been present throughout the story as the Pharisees, Scribes, and chief priests started to grumble. Do you know why grumbling is so bad and why it is such an issue for Moses and Paul? Because grumbling begets discontent which begets anger which begets rebellion and pretty soon you have a murderous crowd ready to kill the Messiah and Savior of the world.
Peter has been present for all of this.
He knows the intent of the crowd.
He knows how “rebellions” and “insurrections” are handled by the religious authorities or even the Empire.
You have to assume that he knows the “Hosannas” might become “Crucify him.”
Why else would he hide his identity?
That’s the interesting part of this story, isn’t it. There is only one reason for Peter to try and hide who he is: he is deeply afraid that he will be next. Peter is scared that if he is discovered as one of Jesus’ followers that he will be arrested and killed as well. There can truly be no other reasoning here…and how do we know that?
Because during the centuries which Christians consider to be the silence of the intertestamental period, many religious zealots tried to lead rebellions against Rome and all of them met the same end: death. Punishment. Scorn. Being squashed out. Even Gamaliel tells us this much in Acts when Peter and the disciples are preaching about the resurrection. He says that if this is a man-made thing then it will be squashed the same way every other insurrection has been dealt with, but if this is of God then there is no stopping it.
Spoiler alert: there is no stopping the forward movement of the Kingdom of God.
Back to the story, Peter is identified. It’s like every spy movie or cop show you’ve ever seen when the undercover informant has her cover blown. You cringe, worrying about what will happen to them. Peter doesn’t bend, though. He doesn’t give it up even though he is recognized. He keeps adding insult to injury by denying his relationship with Jesus one time after another. He doubles down one last time but this time he goes a step further and he even curses Jesus in his denial of him. Peter goes from bad to worse by adding this curse; so fierce is his desire to stay alive that he is willing to deny and curse his Lord. It was a slave girl who recognized him the first two times and he doesn’t have to work too hard to deny it, but when the crowd notices his Galilean accent he is forced to wholly accept or reject Jesus…
There is no way around it: this is an ICKY passage.
It isn’t a surprise that Peter does this 3 times. It is not just that Jesus said this would happen, but the earliest readers of Mark’s gospel would have been familiar with the common practice of persecutors asking Christians to denounce their faith, to even curse Jesus, and this would often be done with a triplet of questions. There still exist persecutors and haters of Christianity throughout the world who try to force renunciations of faith from their victims before executing them. Nothing has changed in 2000 years.
After the third denial, the cock crows and Peter is instantly reminded of what Jesus said.
We could, at this point, conclude our passage and lambast Peter for his lack of faith.
We could examine our own religious zeal and determine that Peter was sinful and in the wrong.
We could let this reading produce self-righteousness within us: at least I’m not like Peter.
But there is a problem with self-righteousness. I’ll let you hear it from the inestimable Fleming Rutledge because she has said it far better than I ever could: “Whenever we are sure that we are among the righteous, we immediately find ourselves among the arrogant.”
It would be arrogant to stop this passage before the last verse without seeing what God would have for us:
It is Peter’s response to his betrayal, my dear friends, that we are called to emulate.
Peter remembers the words of his Lord.
He breaks down.
And he weeps.
That is contrition.
That is repentance.
That is rending-your-hearts-and-not-your-garments.
Our passage from James’ epistle tells us that faith without works is dead. We talk a lot about how we are justified through faith alone in Christ alone, and that is certainly true, but James makes it clear that our faith better have the works to back it up. Peter’s faith was without works for 95% of our passage today. He hid his identity, he kept quiet his relationship with Jesus, and he denied him three times. His faith was hidden. However, when confronted by his own sinfulness Peter had works in spades: he remembers, he breaks down, and he weeps.
Are we arrested by the depths of our own sins that we break down and weep?
Do we rend our hearts at the thought of our betrayals?
We know how the story ends: Jesus will reinstate Peter by asking him 3 times if he loves him. Those three times are meant to symbolize the three times he denied his Lord. But then Jesus is going to tell Peter that he is going to meet a similar end: he is going to be led to where he does not want to go and he will be killed…this time, however, Peter is not afraid. Or at least he is not scared enough to balk about the foretelling. Peter will move forward from that reinstatement with the same boldness and brash humility that he exhibited in the gospels, but this time it will lead him to his own upside down cross…and he moves forward with his head held high in faith and works.
Are we willing to pay the price for following Jesus? Are we willing to face social and relational scorn from our friends, families, neighbors, and strangers by being “Jesus freaks”? Are we willing to submit the entirety of our lives to Christ and his Kingdom? If so, if we truly are, then not only will our hearts break when we sin, but we will also be compelled to follow him regardless of where that might lead us. It might lead you to invite your friends to church; to tell your families to watch our livestream or to plug into their local church; it might mean that you share the gospel with someone else and introduce them to Jesus.
Christianity is not a matter of tracking how many times we mess up and sin as though God’s grace and forgiveness will dry up…it is an invitation to live in light of grace and forgiveness, ever praying that we would grow in Christlikeness on a daily basis. And that is truly Good News.