Powerless. That’s how I feel every time a bomb goes off in an airport or subway station, every time gunmen attack the innocent whether it be on a beach, in a nightclub or school, an office building or movie theater either in the US or anywhere else in the world. Violence and hate are everywhere, stirred by apocalyptic proclamations that misunderstand God’s intent for the world, stoked by fear of the other, enflamed by those who would make themselves big by making others small. In the face of it, I feel powerless.
I come into this Holy Week in prayer and fasting, asking God how to find myself in this story and whether he can teach me something about living in a death-dealing world. As I walk with Jesus through this story, I pause with Peter in the courtyard.
I wonder what it must have been like for him? I imagine him standing in that courtyard, warming his hands over the fire as Jesus was being put on trial, feeling immensely powerless. He had spent the last three years with this man. He got out of his boat, left the fish behind to follow him. He learned his ways, and even saw him transfigured into the glorious image of what he always imagined God was like.
Peter was the one who first called him “Messiah,” anointed One, Savior, Son of the Living God. Oh, how good it felt to be commended by Jesus for his declaration. “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you, but my Father in heaven has shown you. From now on I’ll call you Peter, because on this rock I will build my church.” Peter thought he understood Jesus. He was the Messiah. Messiahs save. They are the military heroes that throw off the yoke of oppression and set people free. Peter was the first to see it, to say it, to declare it publicly. He would, from then on, be Jesus’ right-hand man, ready to lead the charge.
Of course within five verses, Peter went from being the Rock upon whom Christ’s church would be built to being a stumbling block for Jesus. When Jesus talked about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of his own people, it simply did not compute for Peter. Messiah’s don’t suffer. They don’t die. That is not part of the job description. He would be welcomed, heralded, acclaimed as king with palm branches waving. So he took Jesus aside to rebuke him and school him a little bit on his role as Messiah. He can’t talk like that. It is discouraging for the troops.
Jesus turned his back on Peter and said, “get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could be a stumbling block for me if I start to think that way. You are thinking in terms of human kings and kingdoms. I’m talking about an eternal kingdom that you have only begun to glimpse.”
Chastised, Peter played along until again Jesus began talking about his death, predicting they would all flee. Peter boldly proclaimed, “Not me! I’m with you until the bitter end! I’ll defend you and even if I have to die with you I will not quit.” Jesus looked at him sadly, as if to say, “after all this time, you still don’t get it.” Then said with compassion and clarity, “before the cock crows tonight, you will have denied me three times.”
To prove his resolve and zeal, it was Peter who drew the sword in the garden and struck off the ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus sharp rebuke: “Enough of that. If you want to live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword.” Peter was dismayed. This is where the insurrection was to begin. This is where the battle was to be joined to propel Jesus to his rightful throne. The crowds had demanded it just a few days before, extolling him with palm branches waving as he entered the city.
Peter’s resolve thickened. “I will not leave him,” he thought to himself. So he followed along and, trying to keep a discrete distance so he would not be noticed, warmed his hands over the fire while Jesus was put on trial. It was there in that moment, that the questions and the doubts began to arise. Why would he not let me defend him? Why will he not accept the crown that is rightfully his? Why is he willing to undergo such abuse and scorn by the powers? Peter was asked by a servant woman whether he was with Jesus, but he denied it, saying simply. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He was so caught up in his own thoughts, he did not even notice the first denial.
Peter watched as Jesus was tried and how he remained silent. “Why doesn’t he speak?” he wondered. “Why doesn’t he defend himself?” Anguished, Peter went over to the gate where another person recognized him and said, “You were with Jesus, the Nazarene.” Peter pledged an oath: “I do not know the man.” Then plunged back into his contemplation.
“He is the Son of God. Where are the angel armies? Why does he just stand there as if he is powerless?” And then came the horrifying thought: “What if he’s not the Messiah we’ve been hoping for?” A third time some one came up to him and said, “your accent gives you away. You are with the Galilean.” Then he cursed as he realized his folly: “I really don’t know the man,” he confessed. At that moment, the cock crowed, and Peter ran out weeping bitterly.
We always give Peter a hard time about denying that he knew Jesus. We usually treat him with scorn for his duplicity. If he had been a real man, he would have owned up, we think. But let me suggest another way to read this. What if instead of lying about knowing Jesus, Peter was telling the truth.
His words are clear and spoken with emphatic force. “I do not know the man.” What if Peter, at this crucial moment, begins to realize what Jesus had been telling him all along? What if Peter was telling the truth. “I do not know the man.” I thought I knew him. I thought he was to be Messiah. I thought he was the Son of God. I thought we would go into battle together and I would die by his side before letting him be taken, but here he is on trial and not even offering a defense. He made me give up my sword. He turned away from violence. And here he is being mocked and spat upon. I thought I knew him. I thought he was the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I really do not know the man.
As I stand with Peter warming my hands in the courtyard, I wonder why God does nothing to stop the violence in our society and world. I wonder why the army of angels is not raining down fire from heaven on those who perpetrate violence. Then I realize that we have created our own army of angels to rain down fire from heaven. We have taken on ourselves the role of vengeance-taker and executor of justice. We believe in the power of shock and awe and have assumed for ourselves the powers of the Almighty and Righteous Judge. God does not act because we have left God no room. I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.
I look at the terrorists and I recognize the face of Barabbas. I see the insurrectionists of Jesus’ day who were intent on provoking Rome, the world’s mightiest military power, into an apocalyptic battle. I turn and I see the Prince of Peace being mocked, belittled and spat upon for his powerlessness as the angry crowds cry out for more violence, more hatred and I find myself wanting to cry out with them because this One’s cause is so obviously impotent. What can he do? We hold all the power. I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.
I look on our streets and see a collective decision to arm ourselves, to be able to defend ourselves or execute our own brand of justice at any given moment. I wonder, have we in our fear come to reject of the crucified One because we’ve come to believe he has no power here? As long as I’m in charge, I have no need of You. I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.
Yet it is in that powerless moment that Jesus comes to meet us. It is in that moment when we’ve nowhere else to turn that he turns to us. It is in that end of the rope cry of desperation that we can release ourselves and the world around us into his hands. Do we dare trust the Crucified One? Do we dare lay down our arms at the foot of the cross? Do we dare place our hope in another way? Do we dare release our lives and the life of our world into the hands of One who has the power to save as no other?
Can we claim here, at this table, a new kind of faith that says “I know the man” because he knows me? I know the man because he entered into my darkness and brought with him the light of life. I know the man because he came into my suffering and took it on his back. I know the man because he caught me when I could no longer hold onto the end of my rope. I know the man because here he embraces my life as part of his body, taken, blessed, broken and given for the life of the world. I know the man because here I find a life more full and abundant than any life I could imagine much less make for myself.
Peter had to confess “I do not know the man” before he could ever truly find life. He had to let go of his pretensions to discover his possibilities. The only way we can come to the altar is powerless, bringing our fears, our broken world and all our intercessions with us, crying out, “Lord, save.”