This week we have heard two accounts of Jesus’ passion. What I am drawn to in both accounts is Peter’s denial. Both the gospel of Mark and the gospel of John detail Peter’s denial, but the denial of Peter is a bit different in Mark than in John. On Palm Sunday, we heard Mark’s version. In Mark, when the servant girl and others ask Peter if he is with Jesus, Peter three times denies Jesus, saying, “I do not know the Man.” The denial is bitter to us, since we know that Peter not only knew him, but seemingly loved him intimately. To proclaim that he did not know Jesus is akin to erasing Jesus’ presence in his life. Peter’s denial of that intimate knowledge seems like the ultimate betrayal.
But then we read John’s passion narrative today. Although Peter denies Jesus three times again, this time the denial is a little different. This time, Peter is not asked whether he knows Jesus, but whether he is a disciple of Jesus. To this question, Peter responds, “I am not.” The denial in John’s gospel sounds less personal and less offensive. Whereas in Mark, Peter’s denial feels more like a lie – to state that Peter did not know Jesus when in fact he did. In John’s gospel, Peter’s denial feels more like a smoothing of the denial. He does not deny that he knows Jesus, only that he is not a disciple of Jesus. The trouble with this kind of denial – the denial of Peter’s discipleship – is that in some ways this denial is much worse. By denying his discipleship, Peter denies his relationship with Jesus – all that they have been through, all that he has professed, all that he has learned and grown to love. Peter is denying how Jesus gave him his name, Peter. He is denying the times that he professed his faith in Jesus – in fact the time that he said he would lay down his life for Jesus. He is denying that intimate moment when Jesus washed his feet, and he longed for more – that his whole body be washed. He is even denying how he passionately cut off a slave’s ear just to protect Jesus. In John’s gospel, Peter not only denies Jesus, he denies an entire relationship. He denies his discipleship.[i]
As I was thinking about Peter’s denial this week, I was reminded of popular movie. Though the movie is a pretty cheesy romantic comedy, the movie Thirteen going on Thirty reminded me of Peter. In the film, the main character, Jenna, is frustrated that her life has not turned out how she would like at age thirteen. She is not popular, she is not a part of the cool crowd, and her best friend is a rather chubby, unattractive, but sweet boy named Matt. And so, in order to reach what she thinks will give her the most happiness, she ends her lifelong friendship with her best friend, Matt, remakes her life, and when she magically wakes up at the age of thirty, she has everything she wants – friends, a job in fashion, an athlete boyfriend, trips around the world – basically the glamorous, comfortable life she always wanted. All she had to do was deny her relationship with her best friend – even when that denial involved mocking him in front of others to gain status.
What makes that movie so relatable is that we all remember how monumental life seemed as a teenager. One slight, one suggestion that we did not quite fit in could make our self-worth plummet. Unable to see beyond what felt like ultimate importance at that age, we all said and did things that we look back upon now and feel shame for doing. And although most of us would like to think we grow out of that undiscerning teenage phase, the truth is that we continue to struggle with those impulses into adulthood. When put on the spot, we can waiver between the right thing to do and the most advantageous thing to do. We can struggle with what our conscious would have us do and what we know will make us the most comfortable or safe. When we are really honest with ourselves, we can admit that we are creatures who seek comfort. We regularly choose the path of least resistance so that we can avoid conflict, keep the peace, or just remain in a comfort zone. The phrase, “don’t rock the boat,” is a phrase that we use when we are encouraging people to just keep things as smooth as possible. In fact, the only time we want to rock the boat is to toss over the person who is causing us discomfort, so that our boat can get back to smooth sailing – despite the cost. That impulse is in every one of us, and controlling that impulse is more difficult than most of us like to admit.
That is why reading John’s version of Peter’s denial is so hard today. Though we have heard the story a hundred times, there is some part of us that always hopes the story will end differently this year. When we hear Peter answer the question about whether he is Jesus’ disciple, our heart breaks again when he says quite simply, “I am not.” We mourn Peter’s response, not only because Peter’s response is a denial of all the goodness of his relationship with Jesus, but also because Peter’s denial reminds us of the times that we have denied Christ in our own lives. We recall today the times when we have downplayed our faith to make others more comfortable; the times when we have avoided caring for the poor when we know that is what Jesus would have us do; the times when we have wrested control of our lives from God because we think that we know better; or maybe the times when we have simply stepped away from faith, or God, or Church because we just could not offer that part of ourselves anymore.
The good news is that in the face of denial, Jesus is ever strong when others cannot be. When Peter is questioned, his response is, “I am not.” When Jesus is questioned, his response is, “I am.” When the crowds say they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus says, “I am he.” When they seemed stunned into silence, and Jesus again asks who they are looking for, Jesus says, “I told you that I am he.” When Peter is faced with the heat of confrontation, he crumbles with an “I am not.” But Jesus calmly, strongly, steadfastly faces the heat with, “I am.” Of course, Jesus’ response is not just a response of strength. His response is a claiming of the divine name. Jesus takes the same name that God gives to Moses when God says, “I am who I am.”[ii] Jesus is faithful, strong, and bold because Jesus is the one through whom God is revealed. Though Peter is not, Jesus is.
In the midst of our failings, in the midst of our shame for the ways in which we deny and betray our Lord, Jesus’ words, “I am,” are what give us comfort today. When we cannot be who we are called to be, when we fail in our discipleship, or when we deny our relationship and commitment to Jesus, Jesus firmly remains the great “I am.” Jesus in John’s gospel steadily steps forward to his death, constantly in control of his death. He carries his own cross, he dies with his mother and beloved disciple with him, and he determines when his mission is “finished.”[iii] When we are weak, he is strong. When we fail, he succeeds. Jesus’ strength, his clarity in his identity, and his determined focus to the very end is our stronghold. We will never be the as great as the great “I am.” But by holding fast to Jesus this day – our strong, beloved, crucified Jesus – perhaps we too will be able to turn our “I am not,” into an “I am.” And in the meantime, Jesus will lead the way. Amen.
[i] The concept of the differences in John and Mark’s version of Peter’s denial presented by Karoline Lewis, in her Sermon Brainwave podcast at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=610 on March 27, 2015.
[ii] Guy D. Nave, Jr., “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 305, 307.
[iii] Nave, 309.