Denial! – June 21, 2020
We’ve been thinking of Holy Week, as we’ve been making our way through this time of quarantine. And as we think of Holy Week, we often think of the outside forces that were “closing in on” Jesus. We think about those Pharisees and religious leaders who were plotting his destruction.
But as we saw last week, there was a certain “breakdown” within his group. There was a breakdown that went along with the pressure from those outside forces. Last week, we talked about Judas. That was a dramatic part of the story of Jesus and his arrest. “The Savior of the world, at a pivotal moment in all of history, is betrayed by one of his own.” That’s how I described it last week.
Well, this week I thought I would continue that theme, by looking at another of Jesus’ followers who had a similar failure of his own. Today we look at the story of Peter. And like Judas, talking about Holy Week without talking about Peter, is like not talking about that same elephant in the living room!
I read this story a moment ago. Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he is led away by the soldiers. And as he is led away, Peter is somehow following along with the crowd. And soon we find him hanging around the courtyard of the High Priest’s house with some of the crowd, some of the soldiers who came the garden to arrest Jesus. That’s what it says here. Those who arrested Jesus, those who came armed, ready to use force if there was any kind of resistance, took Jesus and delivered him to the High Priest, and then went out to his courtyard and lit a fire to warm themselves. And oddly enough, Peter was there by the fireside with them.
As I read this, I don’t quite understand it. But somehow, up until the dialogue began, it wasn’t noticed by any of them, that Peter was in the group with Jesus at the time of the arrest. I’m not sure how that could be. But that’s what it says.
So, Peter is sitting there with everybody else, when one the maids of the High Priest came out to the courtyard, and she notices Peter sitting in the group. And she says – to him – “Hey! You were one of them!” How she knew it, and those who were there in the garden making the arrest didn’t, is odd to me. But that’s what happened. Well, Peter gets nervous. He says, “No! You must be mistaken.” So, the woman turns to the others sitting there, and says to them, “This guy was with the man you arrested!” “Don’t you remember him?” “Didn’t you notice that he was sitting right here with you?” Now the heat was on Peter more – and I’m not talking about the fire! And he denied it again. But then some of them picked up on it. “Hey… She’s right!” “You were with him!” At that point, Peter’s denial shifts into high gear, and he curses and swears he wasn’t with Jesus. Never heard of him before! Two thousand years later and that’s still uncomfortable for us to read! It’s hard to tone that one down with our “Bible voice!” Isn’t it?
So, denial was part of the story of Holy Week. And like last week, I went with a simple title for this message. Last week it was “Betrayal.” This week, I’m calling this “Denial.” And as we think of this story, I’d like you to consider that “Denial” is a common problem for God’s people – throughout the ages! And I want you to consider that it might just happen in each of us from time to time. Sometimes we too deny that we have been with Jesus. You know, something threatens us, something makes us uncomfortable to be identified as one of Jesus’ followers, and we deny that we are. Do you know that feeling?
The threat for these guys was real! Jesus had been arrested, and they were his lieutenants! If “the powers that be” were truly “hell bent” on silencing Jesus, surely, they would also be seeking to silence his lieutenants, too! Wouldn’t they? I’m sure those guys were thinking that. They would soon go into hiding. And when we read the book of Acts, we see that their fears were real! The authorities did try to silence them, too! The threat was very real to them. So, Peter is seen here as “saving his own hide.” And that’s been the prevailing interpretation of this throughout the centuries
So, what about us? What’s the threat for us? What are the circumstances that would cause us to deny Jesus? Are there times when we might feel like we might be criticized, or ostracized, or labeled in some way if we are seen as Christians? Maybe someone is talking about the failures of the church throughout its history. And we’re afraid of being associated with whatever bad thing they’re describing. And the church has had its failures! And it still has its failures. And some of the things it believes and some of the stands that it takes are seen as not being “politically correct.” So, the church sometimes does a lot of “back-pedaling.” And are we are ever “uncomfortable,” being thrown in with all of that? Maybe. Maybe there are times we feel we’d do better in the “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” category!
I throw all that out there, because those are important things to think about in our lives and in our world today! As God’s people, how do we “appear” to the world? What is the Church’s image going to be in the 21st century? What will its message be? Are we comfortable being a part of it, and being “identified with it?” (And sometimes I’m not sure the church knows what its message is going to be!)
When we find ourselves in those moments, when we’re sitting by the fire and someone says, “He, you’re one of Jesus’ followers,” what does our denial look like? Think about it. Denial comes in many different forms. Sometimes it’s strong. And sometimes it’s very subtle. Maybe it’s simply a matter of downplaying our involvement in the church, or its importance in our lives. “I’m not that much of a ‘Church-goer.’” Maybe it’s changing the subject. Maybe it’s as simple as agreeing, when someone is talking about one of the fallacies of the Church. Or maybe it’s saying nothing in its defense. And the problem with saying nothing, is that some people take silence as agreement! (Watch out for that one!)
We pin “denial” on Peter, just like we pin “doubting” on Thomas, and “betrayal” on Judas. And yes, Peter’s denial was egregious. Because it’s out there! It was bold and it was loud! And Peter was a bold, impetuous, and “in your face” kind of guy. But we need to be sure that we don’t “excuse” or downplay our denial by comparing it his more serious example. “Hey, I might shy away from the Church from time to time, but I’m no Peter!” We said the same thing about Judas and his betrayal last week, didn’t we? “I may have problems, but I’m no Judas!” I think we need to be honest with ourselves, and think about how we show, or don’t show, our allegiance to Jesus.
Then, we need to recognize something else. We need to recognize that, following right on the heels of “denial,” is “abandonment.” And Jesus predicted both! He told Peter he would deny him. He told the rest of the disciples they would scatter! They would cut and run! And that’s what they did. Mark was very specific in his description of that. The soldiers arrested Jesus, “And they all forsook him and fled!” (Mark 14:50) In a sense, they denied Jesus with their feet! And, if you think about it, their denial was really no less. It was just a less dramatic story!
So, let’s not pin this all on just Peter, when it was really all of them. And let’s not pin it on all of them, when we too may just as easily deny Jesus ourselves! I was thinking that, of the two things, “Betrayal” and “Denial.” And I think denial is the one to which we are most susceptible. We are more likely to deny our Lord than betray him.
We’re not singing hymns in this setting. And we’re told that we should limit that, even when we’re worshipping together again. But I was thinking, if we did sing a hymn, maybe a good one for today would be, “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross. Lift high the royal banner, it must not suffer loss!” Do we stand up, stand up for Jesus?
Over the years, I’ve heard people say, “My faith is a very personal thing to me. So, I don’t talk openly about it, like some do.” And I agree with the first part of that. Faith should be a very personal thing. But I wonder about the second part. Does a person “not talk openly about it” because they fear being too “in your face” with it, or could there be a little of the “so people don’t know about it” in there. I think people should know about our faith – and why it’s very personal to us!
Now I’m not suggesting that it’s on all of us to get out a soapbox – if any of us even knows what a soapbox is! – to get out a soapbox and go stand on a corner preaching salvation to the masses. Not many of us can do that! But, acknowledging our Lord, in how we live, is something we can do. Yes, faith is very personal. But it shouldn’t be hidden. “Having a personal faith” should never be an excuse to hide our faith, or to subtly “deny” our faith.
For a couple of years, I drove a school bus. And I’ll never forget what someone said in the time of training for that job. He said, “You have to be very careful how you conduct yourself in this job. Because no matter what kind of person you are, in this job, you always have the company name in very large letters on the side of your bus. The whole time you’re driving, you are the company’s representative, whether you want to be or not!” I’ll never forget those words. I may be Skip in my perception of myself, but behind the wheel of that bus, I am “Laidlaw.” (That was the name of the bus company.)
Think about that whenever you see a large commercial vehicle on the road. It’s funny, because not long after that training session, I actually saw a guy in a plumbing company truck get into a shouting match with another driver. (At one point, he even waved at the other driver with “less than the requisite number of fingers!”) And I heard those words in my head. And I said to myself, “Dude! The company name is in big letters on the side of your truck.” (And in some cases, so is the phone number!)
In a very real sense, we represent Jesus in a similar way. Calling ourselves his followers, we have his name in big letters on the side of our bus. The way we conduct ourselves represents him. What does that say about the kind of people we are called to be?
As we think about that, I will close with the words of Jesus himself. And this is a great challenge! And I hope it’s one we will keep in mind. Jesus said this. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)
Eternal God, we acknowledge your great love for us. Help us, in everything we do, to acknowledge our great love for you. May be truly be your ambassadors here in this life. May it be evident to the world around us know that we are yours. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.