Reading: John 13:1-11
For the sermons for Holy Week and Easter, I am thinking of our Lord’s death and resurrection in the light of four characters. On Palm Sunday, I looked at Judas. Tonight, for Maundy Thursday, I want to think about Peter.
Peter is an interesting character to look at after Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus; Peter denied him. In the eyes of many, Judas and Peter are essentially guilty of the same crime; the difference being that Peter found a way back after it. Their crime was that they both failed Jesus when it mattered. Their respective failure is seen as a matter of degree, betrayal being worst than denial, but, nevertheless, still of a similar nature to it. It is, I think, more complicated than that – isn’t it always? Despite it ending with his denial, Peter remained faithful to Jesus until the moment Jesus seemed to betray the faith Peter had in him, even then Peter didn’t so much lose faith in Jesus, as get lost in the confusion of what was happening.
Let’s go back to where it all first started.
When we think of where it all began for Peter, we probably think of Peter with his brother Andrew and their partners as fishermen, James and John (Luke 5:10), sitting by the lake in Galilee, mending their nets (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus seeing them calls them to follow him. In the way we often imagine it, this is the first time they meet. It is a sort of ‘love at first sight’ type of encounter. Again, it’s more complicated than that.
St John tells us in his Gospel that some of those who became Jesus’ disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist (John 1:35). Peter and his brother Andrew were among them. St John tells us that they came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), although, by this time, their home is in Capernaum. Philip, another of John’s disciples who becomes a disciple of Jesus, also comes from Bethsaida. These are people who know one another and who share the same beliefs and convictions.
That these fishermen had already left their nets to follow John the Baptist gives us an idea as to what their beliefs and motivations were. John spoke of the coming Kingdom of God and the One who was to come. According to John himself, the reason that John baptized people was so that the One who was coming would be revealed to Israel (John 1:31). These disciples were, then, deeply devout Jews who were committed to the God of Israel and who were looking forward to the day when God’s Messiah would appear and the promises of God to Israel in the Scriptures would be fulfilled.
Believing in the promises of God to Israel, as I have said many times, meant looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ (Luke 24:21) that is, her liberation from pagan forces and the restoration of the kingdom to her (Acts 1:6). When John identified Jesus as the One whose coming he had been talking about, these disciples of John left John to follow Jesus. St John writes that it was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and another unnamed disciple who makes the move first (John 1:40). Andrew, although he is the first to respond to Jesus, is identified as Simon Peter’s brother, even though Peter hasn’t himself been mentioned yet. Andrew then, brings his brother to Christ with the words, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (John 1:41). It is a life-changing moment for all of them, but for Peter especially. Not only is Peter’s life about to change, his name is to be changed by Jesus too! Jesus says to him:
‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).’ (John 1:42)
The name ‘Cephas’ is a significant one. Cephas is Aramaic for ‘rock’, which is petros or Peter in Greek. Jesus right away sees Peter as someone he can rely on and upon whom he can build the community of followers he intends to establish. Jesus makes clear that this is his intention later in his ministry (Matthew 16:13-20).
From the moment Peter becomes a disciple, Peter becomes the leader-designate of the disciples, and he will often speak for them. With James and John, the three will become the inner circle of Jesus’ closest disciples, known as the Twelve. Previously partners in fishing, they are now partners in faith. Peter, James, and John are allowed to share moments in Jesus’ ministry that even the other disciples who are part of the Twelve are excluded from such as the ‘Raising of Jairus’ Daughter’ (Luke 8:40-56) and the ‘Transfiguration’ (Luke 9:28-36).
Jesus not only relies on Peter, Jesus trusts him. He credits Peter with having unique spiritual insight (Matthew 16:17)). Peter, for his part, is rock solid in his support for Jesus. It is Peter who leads the disciples in remaining loyal to Jesus when many decide to give up and abandon Jesus (John 6:68).
There is clearly a close bond between them. So much so that after the wedding at Cana of Galilee, where Jesus performs his first miracle in the presence of his disciples (John 2:1-11), that Jesus moves the family home to Capernaum with Peter’s house becoming a base for Jesus’ movement in Galilee (John 2:12; Matthew 4:13). We know that Peter was married with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law being one of Jesus’ early miracles (Luke 4:38-39).
The only area where it seems there was a problem between them was that Peter had more faith in Jesus than Jesus seemed to have in himself. After Peter tells Jesus that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, the One that John said would come, Jesus appeared to have a crisis of confidence in himself and shows signs of severe self-doubt. Peter tries to encourage Jesus to believe in himself, but Jesus will have none of it (Matthew 16:23).
We blame Peter for being spiritually dull, but Peter in his reaction to Jesus’ apparent self-doubt is simply reflecting what devout Jews had come to believe about the Kingdom of God and the Messiah who would inaugurate it. Jesus said he was going to suffer and die. That could not happen to the Messiah. We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter or the disciples for only believing what it was generally believed the prophets themselves had said.
Essentially, the difference between Jesus and Peter was over a matter of Biblical interpretation. It appeared that Peter believed in the Scriptures and Jesus didn’t. Jesus’ understanding of the Scriptures was new and novel. There was nothing new in how Peter understood them. Peter seems to have been able to live with Jesus’ self-doubt. He possibly thought that when it all kicked off Jesus would see that he, Peter, had been right and all would be well.
Again, we need to see that when it came to his understanding of himself and his mission, Jesus seemed to give people mixed signals. On the one hand, Jesus did everything that the Messiah was expected to do and more, and he encouraged people to believe he was the Messiah, the One that John the Baptist spoke of (Luke 7:22-23). But then, on the other hand, Jesus was hesitant in it being talked about in public as well as openly expressing his fears about where it was all going to end.
As I said in the sermon for Palm Sunday, Judas seems to have come to the conclusion that Jesus was not the Messiah after all and decided to cash in on it. Judas was to regret betraying an innocent man (Matthew 27:4), but despite regretting his action in betraying Jesus, Judas doesn’t appear to have changed his mind about Jesus not being who he had originally thought him to be. Jesus may have been innocent, but he was not the Messiah. In despair, Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).
Peter, however, remained convinced to the end. The events of what we now know as Palm Sunday would have done nothing make Peter think otherwise. Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would, must only have reinforced what Peter believed about Jesus (Zechariah 9:9; Luke 19:28-40). How could it not?
The atmosphere and tension amongst the disciples in the days after Palm Sunday must have been electric, and it all came to a climax at the Last Supper. The disciples must have been wondering what Jesus’ next move was going to be. When would he declare himself King of Israel and start the rebellion? Would it be during the Passover?
As they gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover and Israel’s liberation from pagan oppression in the past, they must have been incredibly excited. It would, then, have come as something of a shock to them when the one they believed was going to lead them to freedom in the present started washing their feet. This was something only the lowliest of slaves would do (John 13:4-5).
When Jesus gets to Peter, Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. Peter knows how completely inappropriate this is. Jesus tells him that unless Peter allows Jesus to wash Peter’s feet, Peter can’t join with him. Peter’s response again expresses his absolute commitment to Jesus. His response is to ask Jesus to wash all of him, if it means they can be in this together. Jesus’ reply indicates he knows that he is about to be betrayed (John 13:6-11).
[The Meal in the Upper Room is described by all the Gospel writers with each adding details of their own (Matthew 26:20-35; Mark 14:17-31; Luke 22:14-38; John 13-17). St John does not have Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup, but he does record Jesus’ teaching during the evening in what is known as the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17). St Paul also gives an account of Jesus’ words at the Meal (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).]
As they sit down for the Meal, the disciples are in for another shock. Jesus reinterprets the Passover Meal to refer to himself. The bread, he says, is his body given for them. The cup of wine is his blood of the new covenant shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. They are to continue to do this ‘in remembrance of him’. For good measure, Jesus adds that one of them is going to betray him.
Quite what the disciples made of this at the time, we are not told. Given that believers since haven’t been able to agree on what Jesus meant, the disciples probably wouldn’t have known quite what to make of it either. St Luke records that they then had a discussion about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus reminds them that he is amongst them as one who serves, and they are not to think of greatness the way the pagans do.
Having seemed to have ruled out being the sort of Messiah they thought he was, Jesus then, as he does consistently, goes on to say something that suggests the disciples are right in the way they are thinking, after all. St Luke writes that Jesus says:
‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (Luke 22:28-30).
The Kingdom, of course, would first have to come if the disciples were to eat at Jesus’ table and sit on thrones in it. We can perhaps begin to understand why the disciples were confused!
But Jesus has another shock in store, this time for Peter himself. Peter has expressed 100% commitment and devotion to Jesus. When Jesus says that one of them will betray him, Peter says that even if all the disciples abandon Jesus, he will not. He is ready to go to prison and to death for Jesus. Jesus tells him that before the cock crows later in the morning, Peter will deny him three times.
Jesus said more at the Last Supper, and St John, in particular, writes that Jesus said a lot more. Something that St John records Jesus as saying, though, is, I think, especially interesting. Jesus speaks of how ‘sorrow’ has entered the disciples’ hearts because Jesus has said that he is going to leave them (John 16:6). As the Last Supper draws to a close, do the disciples at last begin to see that Jesus really is going to die and that things are not going to work out as they had hoped and expected?
Jesus and the disciples leave the Upper Room and go as was Jesus’ custom to the Garden of Gethsemane, a place where he often met with his disciples (Luke 22:39; John 18:2). It is a fatal move. The Jerusalem authorities have been unable to arrest Jesus because they have been unable to get at him without a crowd being present, and they fear a rebellion will break out if they try to arrest him in public (Matthew 26:3-5). Judas, however, knows Jesus’ movements and, with Judas’ help, this gives the authorities the opportunity that have been looking for. Jesus, meanwhile, also knows that this is the moment it has all been building up to. It doesn’t, however, make it any easier for him and, as is well-known, Jesus is in great distress at the thought of what lies ahead.
Of the Gospel writers, St Matthew, St Mark, and St Luke each describe what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus’ arrest each again adding their own details to the account (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39-46).
Jesus has taken the disciples with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, he now takes with him just the three who are closest to him, Peter, James, and John, and moves some distance away from the others. Jesus tells them to stay awake with him and to pray. Jesus then moves away from them too and prays on his own. When he finishes, they are sleeping. St Luke says they are sleeping ‘out of sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). It is same word that St John tells us Jesus uses to describe how the disciples were feeling at the end of the Meal. The disciples are overwhelmed and exhausted. The events of the past few days, and of this evening especially, have caught up with them.
The evening, however, isn’t over yet, and events are about to take a very serious turn for the worse and for Peter, in particular.
As Judas arrives, and those he has brought with him move to arrest Jesus, St John tells us that it is Peter who leaps into action. Peter draws his sword to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of the slave of the High Priest. St John tells us the slave’s name was Malchus (John 18:10). We don’t know what was going through the mind of Peter at this point. Did he think that this was the beginning of the rebellion that would lead to the coming of the Kingdom of God or was it the last desperate fling of a man who could see that things were going against them?
Whichever it was, Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away. Jesus heals the servant’s ear and goes with those who have come for him without any struggle or resistance whatsoever. Psychologically, this must have been devastating for the disciples. This was not how it was supposed to have ended and not how they thought it was going to end just hours earlier. And the fact it does end this way means that Jesus can’t be the one whom they thought him to be. They leave Jesus and flee. If Jesus won’t fight and he won’t let them fight, what else can they do?
Peter, however, still hasn’t deserted Jesus. Peter and another disciple follow those who have arrested Jesus to see where they are taking him. Where else, but the High Priest’s house? This is not a good place for Peter to be given that he is Jesus’ right hand man and has just attacked one of the High Priest’s slaves. The other disciple is able to get them both into the courtyard. Peter is brave to go there. Before we criticize Peter for what happens next, we need to see how dangerous a situation this is for Peter.
All Peter’s hopes have been dashed tonight. Jesus has failed him and let him down badly. Jesus refused to put up any fight and has put them all, as his followers, in great danger. Peter is now in no state of mind for bravery, particularly not bravery that will get him killed. So, when Peter is challenged about being one of Jesus disciples, the inevitable happens: Peter denies knowing Jesus three times and the cock crows. St Luke writes:
‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter.’ (Luke 22:61)
We can’t know what was in either man’s mind at this point. It is, however, a desperately sad moment for them both. Peter leaves and weeps bitterly, as did Judas when he realized what he had done.
There is, however, a difference. Judas had stopped believing in Jesus. Peter, despite everything, hasn’t. He is confused. He is not capable of publicly standing by Jesus. But he still loves Jesus. He loves Jesus, but he is helpless to know what to do. Jesus had failed him and now, he has failed Jesus.
What, then, can we learn from Peter? Normally, when we look at the life of Peter, the message we take away from it is that even if, like Peter, we fall and fail, there is hope and forgiveness. In other words, we are quick to move from the story of Peter before the crucifixion to the story of Peter after the resurrection. We do this seeking to find reassurance for ourselves as we see Peter forgiven and restored to be once again the leader of the Jesus movement.
But this a story for after Easter. Where we are tonight with Peter is still before the resurrection. What can we learn from Peter before he finds his way back?
The Devil is Behind Him
Firstly, we saw with Judas that there was a satanic dimension to what Judas did. There was with Peter too. When Jesus seems to be having doubts about what it means to be the Messiah by talking about how he is going to suffer and die, Peter tries to reassure Jesus. Peter rebukes him with the words:
‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ (Matthew 16:22)
Jesus’ response is well-known. Jesus says to Peter:
‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:23)
Satan, however, doesn’t leave either Jesus or Peter alone. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter and the disciples:
‘Simon, Simon, pay attention! Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (Luke 22:31-32)
Jesus says that Satan has demanded to have all the disciples to sift them like wheat. Jesus tells Peter, using Peter’s original name, Simon, that he has prayed for him. Looked at positively, what Jesus says means that Jesus hasn’t lost faith in Peter, and Jesus expresses confidence in him and his conviction that Peter will be able to find his way back after his denial and spiritual collapse.
What Jesus says, however, is a warning to us of how real the influence of Satan is, even amongst those who follow Christ. The early Church was aware of this and frequently warned against it. They took the Devil seriously. We, however, do not.
Jesus tells the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to ‘stay awake’ and to pray that they do not enter into temptation (Matthew 26:41). This sounds like the Lord’s Prayer that we pray regularly. We pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. The phrase ‘deliver us from evil’ comes from the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:31). It can be translated either ‘evil’, as we say it today, or ‘evil one’, meaning the Devil. Whichever way it is translated, Jesus teaches us about both the reality and the danger of evil. St Peter will write to believers after the resurrection:
‘Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour.’ (1 Peter 5:8)
St Peter knew how that felt!
When we think of the Devil and of being tested and tempted, however, we naturally think of specific sins and weaknesses that we might have and how we are tempted to do things that are contrary to God’s Law. Sin is serious, but, truth be told, we don’t need much help and encouragement from the Devil when it comes to being selfish and doing things we know to be wrong.
The key to understanding the way the Devil attacks us, both as individuals and as a Church, is to realize that, when the Devil can’t snatch away the Word of God and prevent us from coming to Christ (Luke 8:12), he will always want to get us either to deny Jesus or to have a wrong view of him.
Many find doctrine, teaching, and thinking about our faith boring. It’s too much like hard work. We would rather be doing things or having experiences that focus on how we feel. But there is a reason why the New Testament focuses on what we think, for, as with Peter, what and how we think can provide the Devil with an entry point into our lives.
A Petrine View of Jesus
Secondly, when it comes to thinking about Jesus, we in the Church often have what can, perhaps, be called a Petrine view of Jesus. This was the view of Jesus that, before the crucifixion, Peter and the other disciples all shared. We today know that Jesus had to suffer and die; we can’t really argue about that: it happened. Ironically, however, now that it has happened, and we are this side of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we have gone back to seeing Jesus in the way the disciples saw him before it. We think that the message of suffering and death are now all behind us and that, instead, we can talk of victory and life. We can’t wait to move on to Easter Sunday.
Peter didn’t think that Jesus, as the Messiah, could suffer and die. Jesus’ Kingdom for him was about power and glory. This Petrine view of the Gospel expresses itself today in a number of different ways. One way it expresses itself, which is all too common in the Church, is in what is often known as the ‘prosperity Gospel’. This teaches that believing in Jesus and being faithful to him will make you both healthy and wealthy. Preachers of this Gospel boast of how much money they have and of the material possessions they own.
Most of us probably don’t express what we believe in this way, but we do still think that believing in Jesus should make our lives here and now, in this world, better materially. You only have to listen to what people thank God for in their prayers. We thank God, for example, when things go well in our lives, when we have success at school or work, when we find healing after sickness, or overcome difficulties that were making us unhappy. We see all these things as a sign of God’s blessing. But we begin to doubt and question him when things don’t go well, when we get ill, or experience hardship in our lives. The difference between how we think of the spiritual life and how the preachers of the prosperity Gospel think of it is often only a matter of degree.
And what is true of us as individuals is true of us as a Church. For us as a Church, the Devil’s temptation is also for us to see success in our ministry in material terms. So, when we thank God for blessing us as a Church, we think of how many members we have, the number of people who turn up for our services, the amount of money we get in the collection, the number of people we have on the staff, and how big our buildings are. Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea who thought like this:
‘For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17)
When it comes to our mission as a Church, we also think in the way the Devil tempted Jesus to think and in the way Peter did think. We see our mission in political and material terms. This isn’t just about feeding the hungry, healing sick, and helping those in need, which is something we should do, but about gaining power and influence in our world. We tell ourselves, of course, that we want that power and influence so we can do good and advance God’s Kingdom on earth, but the history of the Church tells another story. When, in the past as a Church, we have had political power and influence, rather than us using it for good, it has corrupted us and led us, not to do the work of God, but the work of the Devil. Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), but, like Peter and the disciples, we refuse to listen.
It all comes down to who we think Jesus is and what it is we believe he calls us to do. The Devil will seek to persuade us that Jesus is not who he claimed to be or, failing that, that Christ is someone different to the person described in the New Testament. The Devil will tell us that we should worship Jesus by seeking power and glory now, in this world, with the result that when we find it, it is not Jesus we are worshipping, but the Devil himself.
Peter thought that what he believed about Jesus was right. He was trying to be true to Jesus but ended up being false. We need to be careful that Jesus doesn’t have say to us what he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan’.
Following Jesus, as Jesus explained, is not about leaving the Cross behind and focusing instead on the empty tomb, but about taking up our Cross and following Jesus on the way of suffering and of death. It is those who follow Christ on the way of the Cross who win his praise (Revelation 12:11).
The Way of the Cross
Finally, tonight, we remember that the last thing Jesus did before his betrayal and death was to have a meal with disciples. Jesus tells them that that he has earnestly desired to eat this Passover meal with them before he suffers (Luke 22:15). It was, in other words, important to him. It should, in turn, alert us to how important this meal should be to us.
At the Meal, Jesus says that the bread is his body and the cup of wine, his blood. They are to do this, he tells them, ‘in remembrance’ of him. Jesus puts the Eucharist at the heart of the Church and its life. Tonight, on Maundy Thursday, we think especially of this gift.
Even those churches that make the Eucharist a regular part of their church services, however, find themselves shying away from the significance of it. This Meal is about Jesus’ death. This is his body sacrificed for us. This is his blood shed for us. When we share in this meal, we are not primarily celebrating the gifts of God in creation, we are celebrating the gift of his Son in dying for us. More specifically, we are celebrating the death of his Son for the forgiveness of sins: our sins.
Yes, Christ gives us life and the power to live life to the full, but it is his death that makes this life possible. It is his blood that washes us clean and gives us life. St Paul writes to the Church at Corinth:
‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)
Every time we share in this Meal, we proclaim Christ’s death. Whenever we are tempted to leave all thought of his death behind, we are brought back to it by the Meal he gives us and in which he gives himself to us. St Paul writes, again to the Church at Corinth:
‘… but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …’ (1 Corinthians 1:23)
The idea of Christ being crucified was a stumbling block to Jews like Peter. It didn’t fit with their idea of who Christ was. To Gentiles, says St Paul, it was just foolishness. Who would want to believe in a crucified failure? And we too are tempted to move on and forget his death, but Christ tonight calls us back to it: this is my body; this is my blood; as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
We are not being morbid in proclaiming Jesus’ death, for it is in his death that we find hope. For we too are tempted as Peter was; we too, like Peter, fall and fail; we too deny Jesus; and we too are ashamed and afraid to admit to being his disciple. But it is in the death of Christ that we find forgiveness and the strength to keep going despite our failure, faithlessness, and fear.
Being Christ’s disciple is not easy. Jesus never promised it would be. Carrying our Cross and becoming like him in his death is demanding. As Jesus warned Peter and the disciples at this his last meal with them, those who carry the Cross will not be liked, they will not be popular, the world will hate them as it hated him. In the world, Jesus tells them, they will have trouble. Jesus’ last words to them, however, before they leave the Upper Room to go to the Garden where Jesus will be betrayed are words of encouragement and of hope. Jesus says:
‘… take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (John 16:33)
Peter was to discover that courage and become the rock Jesus knew he would be.
May we find the same courage and follow Jesus faithfully as we proclaim his death until he comes.