“The patient and humble endurance of the Cross – whatever nature it may be – is the highest work we have to do.” – St. Katherine Drexel
SCRIPTURE & DEVOTION: Mark 14:53-72; focused on Mark 14:53-54, 66-72
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire. While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you are talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. When the servant girl saw him there, she again said to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you are talking about.” Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Lessons from the courtyard
The scriptural accounts of Peter’s denial, present in all four gospels, elicit a range of conflicting emotions. I imagine Peter stunned by Judas’ betrayal, traumatized by the violent apprehension of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, separated from the other disciples (who had fled), terrified about what might happen next. It is not difficult to see why he would find it difficult to admit his association with Jesus. My heart goes out to him.
At the same time, I am angry and disappointed with Peter. Here is the disciple, so strong in proclaiming his belief that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” that Jesus changed his given name “Simon” to “Peter” and called him “the rock upon which I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16-18). He was one of Jesus’ closest friends, almost a brother. How could he deny knowing Jesus? And if someone as devoted as Peter could deny Jesus, he who saw Jesus in the flesh, a real-time witness to the Lord’s miracles and ministry, what is to prevent us from doing the same? His denial shakes my faith.
So why do all four gospels contain this story? Clearly, it must be more than just part of the historical or literary narrative of the week leading up to the crucifixion. Here are a few possible ideas for consideration.
The accounts of Peter’s denial serve to remind us that our faith can be vulnerable in times of crisis. Because our country’s Constitution guarantees religious freedom, our daily lives are exempt from the fear present in other times and places in the world that professing Christianity will get us thrown into prison, tortured, or even killed. We may feel very confident in our relationship with Christ and committed to a life of service to him. And yet, unless we are aware of the ways in which events and circumstances can conspire against us and threaten our resolve, we risk opening the door to temptation. Peter refused to acknowledge the possibility that he could ever be compelled to abandon Jesus. Yet, when the circumstance presented itself, Peter’s fear led him to deny even the accusations of a lowly servant girl in his frantic attempt to disassociate himself from the Lord. His denial is a cautionary tale.
The story of Peter’s denial contains an element of prophecy which points to Jesus’ divine nature and confirms his identity as the promised Messiah. We are told in Mark 14:27-30 and elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus knew ahead of time that Peter would disown him and that the other disciples would scatter. He told them of their impending desertion. Jesus understood that this abandonment, even by those who knew him best and loved him most, was necessary for the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy according to scriptures such as Isaiah 53:3-6, which states, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
The account of Peter’s denial is only the first half of a story about the nature and power of forgiveness. The second part is found in John 21:15-17. After his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples and asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me”? In so doing, Jesus presented the repentant Peter with the opportunity to reaffirm his devotion, thus expunging in turn each of the three times that Peter had insisted he did not know Jesus and had no connection with him. What an affirmation of God’s goodness and love that sees beyond the weakness of human frailty!
Redemption has no greater illustration than forgiveness of the seemingly unforgivable. This aspect of the nature of Christ transcends the incidents that happened so long ago on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. It reaches across the millennia to touch our lives in the here and now. It is the defining element of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, the promise that gives hope to each new generation. The judgment of sin and its condemnation now rests upon the shoulders of the Savior. Unlike Peter, though, we know that the long night of anguish will pass. Easter is but a few days away. At dawn on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, denial will turn to re-affirmation; estrangement to reconciliation. This is the lesson we can take away from the courtyard. This is the teaching that transforms lives.
Yes, Lord. May we learn the lesson from the courtyard - that You have taken the sin and condemnation that we often try to heap on ourselves. May You continue Your transforming work in us this week as we journey with You to the cross...through the darkness into the light of Your greatness.