Peter's DenialCounselling in times of brokenness
Its 4.30a.m when the front door of my home is rattled with a ferocity that sends every mental alarm bell jangling as I wonder who it could be. Jesus who calls Himself the messiah had arrived in Jerusalem a few days ago and I’d been there when the crowds cried, ‘Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’. Infact I too surreptitiously had laid a palm branch of my own down in front of Him. I had also paid attention to Him on His previous visits listening from the sidelines, and although He was never noticeable in a crowd there was an undeniable magnetism about Him and I couldn’t help but think if some or more of what He was teaching about God and Himself could be true. Rumours had been swirling through the city for the last two days, some saying that after the sound whipping He gave to all those money changers and unscrupulous marketeers in the temple courts He’d take on the Roman authorities next as the promised Messiah to overthrow all authorities and establish the kingdom of God. But these Roman occupiers were no easy pushovers. When Judas Maccabee and his gang had sought something similar they had come down mercilessly hard on them and all sympathisers too. Had that surreptitious branch laying of mine been spotted? Or perhaps they’d found that I was a distant relative of Peter through his marriage. All of those thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to come to terms with the continued banging of my front door as I with much trepidation opened the door a crack.
Instead of a Roman cohort one man stood there and a man that I had not expected at all. It was Peter, but a Peter I’d not seen in this way. Gone was the glow of a man enjoying the company of Jesus, the confidence of being a member of His growing disciples and the bluster that was always part of his personality. Instead the man I let into my front door was a disheveled and fearful shadow of the man I’d known and engaged with over the last decade and especially the last three years during those chance meetings when Jesus was in Jerusalem. As he gulped thirstily out of the water bag the story came out in gasps and I heard between his sobs the sorry details of Jesus’ capture, ill-treatment and the fearful and guilt ridden confession of a broken man my heart too sank. Secretly I too had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah and particularly I remember being sent by John from prison to ask Jesus if He was indeed the Messiah. His answer still ringing in my ears continued to resonate in my heart as I remembered how he had said with such authority, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5, ESV). And even though Peter gave me the additional tragic news of how the Romans had decided to crucify Jesus my heart in that moment was strangely warmed as I remembered the words of the prophets of how the Servant of the Lord would be “crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5-6, ESV) Could it be true at this tragic moment that instead of seeing the impending death of the Lord we needed to see it as His vicarious death as the lamb of God that John had declared whilst I stood by him at the Jordan river? And what could be a more opportune time – last night along with every Jewish family we too had celebrated the Passover, remembering the greatest of our stories of God’s deliverance and the pointing forward to when God’s great Passover Lamb would be sacrificed for our sins. Could it be that this was to be that time, that Jesus was that Lamb and that we would have freedom from the tyranny of sin which was an even more demanding master than the Roman overlords we had to painfully cope with?
It’s amazing how the human mind and heart can process these moments of revelation for all of this happened whilst Peter was still gulping water and gasping out bits of his story including of how despite being warned by the Lord Himself He had denied any relationship with Jesus. And as had been warned the moment his third denial slipped out of his mouth the cock crowed, and the Lord looked at him through the crowd. As he sat down still sobbing and gasping I sought to calm him down. As he slowly did, other parts of the story slowly emerged and I listened with care picking up the details of how the Lord had said during last night’s Passover meal to his closest disciples that they were no longer disciples but friends. And as he said that I was reminded of that helpful proverb, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24, ESV). Using that memory I began to ask Peter a series of questions about his friendship with Jesus and learnt about the deep and shared loved that they had for the last three years as they journeyed together. I heard of Jesus’ affirmations of and encouragements to Peter. Picking up those encouragements I sought to help Peter see how the Lord was gracious, generous and kind in those encouragements. Rarely did the Lord put Peter down, rarely did he ever not express kindness and affirmation. As the stories unfolded it became increasingly clear that Peter was struggling massively with guilt – how could he have let his friend and Master down at such a crucial moment? Yes, he too had slept as the others had in the Garden before Jesus’ capture but even though he had been warned he had refused to pay attention and he had failed the Master. His guilt, just a few hours old, was eating into his soul and killing every trace of the joy, love and peace that he had enjoyed with the Lord for the past three years.
I let Peter talk some more and gently began to turn his attention to the kindness of Jesus in particular picking up on how Jesus had been so compassionate to the prostitutes and tax collectors, of how He had reached out to the lepers and how even now if He had been present in the room He would have reached out to Peter without any condemnation and asked him of his love for Jesus. Sure Peter had denied him three times but Jesus would probably have given him the same number of opportunities to declare his love and would have definitely forgiven him. We talked further of our shared sacred history pulling out in particular God’s dealings with rebellious Israel and noting that how over and over the Lord would forgive and how supremely He had said through the prophet Hosea, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah?How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8, ESV). As we talked further of the compassions of our God we remembered the Lamenter declaring his hope when he said bang in the middle of his pain and suffering, “But this I call to mind,and therefore I have hope:The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;his mercies never come to an end;they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23, ESV).
It was well past 7 in the morning and I could hear the rustling from the adjoining rooms as other family members were waking up. It was the Sabbath and the one after the Passover and everyone was going to have a longer lie in today. But the morning also reminded Peter and me that God’s mercies were new today. His mercies as we remembered together were celebrated last night and were fresh this morning. With renewed hope we prayed together. It was clear that Peter was far from free of his sense of condemnation and the burden of guilt he carried. But as we prayed my hope was that over the next few days we could do more of what we had done in the last few hours – remind ourselves of the great mercies of God.
Little did we know that Jesus would be crucified later in the afternoon. And at this point we hadn’t the foggiest that He would rise again. Yes, He had said it but in the excitement of the present those words of the future had been completely forgotten. But He would rise, vindicated by God to give us who believe a new hope and a new power. And He would single out Peter and strengthen and commission him as only He could. At this moment we didn’t know that. But we would experience it. And be completely changed by that encounter and future ones with the Lord to be whole again – even Peter!