15 Apr Peter: I Will Not Deny You
Peter: “I Will Not Deny You”
Matthew 26:17-25, 31-35
Palm Sunday: April 14, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Welcome back to our final Sunday of our Lenten sermon series on the Apostle Peter. If you recall, when we left Peter last week, he was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, James and John. As we pick up the story this morning, the four have joined the other disciples to begin the long journey to Jerusalem.
As they approached the Holy City, word spread that Jesus was coming. A crowd brought palm branches and waved them as Jesus entered the city which was significant because in the days of the Maccabees, palm branches became a sign of Jewish victory against their enemies. The people began to hail Jesus as the “son of David” and to shout “Hosanna,” which was an acclamation of deliverance. This is exactly the kind of display that Jesus had previously avoided, asking his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. But now, he accepts it, knowing it is one of the events that will lead to his arrest later in the week. Once inside the city, Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out the merchants in the temple courts, infuriating the religious leaders and sealing his fate.
Each day that week, leading up to Passover, Jesus and the disciples return to the temple so that Jesus can teach. There is a growing intensity about his words, including, at times, barbed criticism of the religious leadership. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife, given that Jesus is teaching and critiquing the Jewish leaders and calling for their repentance, right in the center of their power.
At night Jesus and his followers stay on the Mount of Olives, so on Thursday morning Jesus sends Peter and John into town to prepare the Passover meal for the disciples. They buy the slaughtered Passover lamb, find a guest room Jesus has made arrangements for, get the lamb roasted and the other parts of the meal prepared, and make sure the room is ready.
That evening when the disciples walk into the upper room to share this Passover meal, they do not yet know that this will be Jesus’ last meal before his execution. As they enter the room, they would remove their sandals, leaving them by the door. Remember, the furniture of people in the ancient Near East consisted of mats or pillows that were placed on the floor. They ate at low tables while reclining on cushions, also on the floor. They slept on mats on the floor. People took off their shoes at the door so as not to track in dirt on the soles of their shoes. It was a sign of good manners, but it was also about cleanliness, avoiding tracking dirt into the home’s living and eating areas.
But after people took off their sandals, their feet were still dusty, so there was a custom of providing water, a basin, and a towel to rinse off one’s feet as you entered a house. If there was a household servant, this might be part of their job, but if no servant was available, the pitcher and bowl, plus a towel were left by the door so those who entered could wash their own feet.
Yet as the disciples walk into this borrowed room, none of them stop to wash his feet. I wonder why. Perhaps it was because each was afraid that if he stopped to wash his own feet, Jesus might well expect him to take the role of a servant and wash the feet of everyone who followed him into the room. No one wanted to get stuck doing such a demeaning task.
To the disciples’ astonishment and embarrassment, shortly after they are seated, Jesus gets up, retrieves the pitcher, basin, and towel, and himself assumes the role of a servant, washing each man’s feet. The discomfort is palpable. There is something terribly wrong with this picture. The teacher, the Messiah should not be washing their feet. But no one speaks up.
Earlier that evening, the followers had been debating, quietly so Jesus wouldn’t hear them, which of them would sit in the seats of authority and power when Jesus inaugurated his kingdom. In the act of washing their feet, Jesus is delivering a stunning and deafening rebuke of their notions of kingdom and power.
When Jesus comes to Simon, it is the Rock who finally speaks up. “No! You will never wash my feet!” This isn’t anger or stubbornness but an appropriate sense that it is he who should be washing Jesus’ feet, not the other way around. “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me,” Jesus replies. In other words, unless you allow me to serve you in this way, you really don’t get it. You cannot share in the kingdom that I am proclaiming if you don’t understand what it means to serve others.
Peter’s response indicates both his passion and his ongoing confusion. “Lord, not only my feet, then, but also my hands and my head!” Suddenly, Peter is “all in.” As usual, it is Peter being Peter. Open mouth; insert foot.
After finishing with the last man, Jesus puts away the utensils, then says to the twelve, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly because that is what I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do.” It was a lesson they would never forget.
For us, of course, the lesson isn’t really about washing feet since that’s not a routine need or custom in our culture. No; Jesus’ message goes much deeper, asking us to consider how well we practice serving others. At home, marriages are successful when two people act as servants toward each other, recognizing the importance of encouraging, blessing, and affirming their partner. In business, companies who take customer service seriously are the most successful. In the classroom, in the neighborhood, and certainly in the church, serving one another is a sign of our discipleship. No one should have the attitude that, “that’s not my job!” We can only be the church Jesus calls us to be with an attitude of humble service towards others.
Following the foot washing, Jesus and the disciples break bread together, sharing the Passover Seder. Matthew records that at some point in the night, Jesus looks around the table and says, “You will all become deserters because of me this night.” Peter, as bold and brash as ever, contradicts Jesus: “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” And then, Jesus’ fateful words, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter sticks to his guns: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And everyone around the table agrees.
Here’s the thing: Peter sincerely meant what he said. He had every intention of being a trustworthy, loyal friend. But he didn’t know what was ahead, didn’t know what would be asked of him, didn’t know what being faithful to Jesus was really going to cost. And when it comes down to the moment when he himself might be arrested, he will be overcome with fear. Bold and courageous. Fearful and flawed. That is Peter.
Jesus’ words must have been painful for Peter to hear, to be singled out by Jesus and told of his impending failure. Later, these words will cut Peter to the quick, because of course, Jesus knows Peter’s flaws and fears better than anyone. But I believe Jesus is also setting in motion the ultimate restoration of Peter by naming his failure here. It won’t be in spite of his failure but because of it that Peter will become the effective servant leader of the church that we see later.
As they finish the Seder and move into the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter continues to show flashes of faithfulness amidst his fear and failures. He falls asleep on Jesus when Jesus asks him to keep watch while he prays, no doubt full of both food and wine from the celebratory Passover meal. This happens three times. After the third time that Jesus shakes the disciples awake, they see torches coming toward them. The torches are carried by armed members of the temple guard. Judas Iscariot is with them, along with some of the religious authorities. A crowd is behind them armed with swords and clubs. Judas identifies Jesus for the authorities by kissing him on the cheek.
Now fully awake and on high alert, Peter springs into action, drawing a sword he is carrying and striking one of the men who has come to arrest Jesus, a servant of the high priest named Malchus. Peter’s sword makes contact, cutting off a piece of Malchus’ right ear. Don’t fail to notice that once again, Peter is the only one of the disciples to act. His act of courage is an attempt to do exactly what he had promised Jesus, to stay with him rather than desert him. But it also could have gotten Jesus and all the other disciples killed on the spot, ending all the work Jesus had done over the preceding three years to mentor and pour into them his vision for God’s kingdom. These men are the ones Jesus is counting on to carry on his mission. Once more Peter is acting boldly, trying to protect Jesus and once again, Jesus has to correct him because he’s using human logic and failing to understand what God is doing.
Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus picked up Machus’ severed ear, put it back in place and healed him. Jesus heals the servant of an enemy, even as his enemies are arresting him. And then Jesus pleads for his friends. “If you are looking for me, then let these go.” As Jesus is led away, the disciples run in fear, deserting Jesus, just as he had said they would.
Jesus is taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest where the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, had been hastily assembled. Peter and John follow the procession in the darkness, unwilling to completely leave Jesus. Upon arriving at the house, they find a small crowd gathered in the courtyard. A fire pit is lit around which people are keeping warm. Peter takes a risk and joins the crowd, hoping he will not be recognized.
We remember Peter for his denial of Jesus on this night, of course, but consider the courage it took to step into that courtyard, where temple guards were present. If you’d just cut off the ear of one of them, this wouldn’t be a very safe or smart place to be. And sure enough, first a servant-woman, then another woman, then finally a man, a relative of Malchus, as it turned out, all recognize Peter as someone who has been with Jesus. With each encounter, each accusation of association, Peter swears and curses his denials of even knowing the one he has so recently identified as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It’s not hard to imagine Peter fleeing into the darkness following his last denial, sobbing in grief and regret.
Like Peter, we have all denied Jesus by our thoughts, our words, our deeds and attitudes, by what we have done and by what we should have done but didn’t. We have all lived at times in ways that are inconsistent with the faith we proclaim and the relationship with Jesus that we treasure. We’ve hurt and wounded others, failing to serve them. We’ve given in to fear or worry or idolatry or pride. For all of us, there have been moments when our witness or example was needed, but we remained silent and did nothing.
We’ve spent six weeks on Peter’s story because we need to be reminded that we are not defined by our failures. God does not define us by the worst thing we have ever done. Jesus makes amazing use of flawed disciples. He continually invites us back, forgives us, restores us, and keeps on giving us a job to do. Like Peter, sometimes he uses us even more profoundly, not in spite of our flaws and failures, but because of them. Jesus is the Lord of the second chance. If the disciple who denied even knowing Jesus could become the Rock on which the church was built, there is hope for us, too. Peter wasn’t afraid to talk about his shortcomings as a way to help others learn, grow, and find grace. He knew that every person who commits to follow Jesus will fall short, but that Jesus’ love and grace is greater than our sin.
Flawed. Forgiven. Faithful. That is Simon Peter’s story. The question to ponder this Palm Sunday is, what is yours? Will you, like Peter, confess your shortcomings so that in God’s hands they can become a source of strength and grace for others? Let us pray….