It is time to remember Jesus’ death and that means at some point soon most Christians will hear the story of Peter denying Jesus as he stands outside of Jesus’ trial (Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, John 18:15-27). Most people are aware that prior to being arrested Jesus makes a prediction that Peter (like the other disciples) will reject and leave him. Peter’s response to Jesus is to declare loyalty to Jesus and boldly state his intention to die with Jesus.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22:31-34
Peter gets a lot of flak for abandoning Jesus after making this bold promise to stay with Jesus until death, but so many people miss the events between Peter’s declaration and denial. First, though Peter is chosen as one of the lucky few invited with Jesus to pray with him, he is chastised for falling asleep with the others. Peter was told there would be a time of testing, now Jesus has told him he has failed to properly prepare for the test. Then as Jesus is being arrested we see this encounter:
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” John18:10-11
Imagine being Peter, you have vowed to die with Jesus and he has criticized your failure to prepare and rejected your effort to make good on the promise. Peter had known Jesus, listened to Jesus, and followed Jesus for years and in the end Jesus had rejected what Peter had done. I cannot help but think there is some truth behind Peter’s words, “I don’t know him” when he is confronted in the high priest’s garden. If I would have been in Peter’s shoes I think I would have been asking myself why Jesus would have rejected me when I had tried my hardest to get arrested with him. My first thoughts would have been in self-pity asking if I had misread my place within his world. What Jesus seems to have known when he predicted the disciples’ denial is how ingrained the concept of a king was in most people’s understanding of Messiah. Peter, it appears, was no exception; in his mind loyalty and faithfulness were equal to suffering Jesus’ fate along with him. To be worthy of Jesus’ fate Peter must act violently; I doubt Peter was trying to start a revolt, I think he was trying to prove he belonged with Jesus, and yet he failed because he had the wrong idea of what Jesus was about.
I think it is an over simplification to say that Peter denied Jesus from fear alone, I think there was also a sense of doubt and self questioning that was going through Peter’s head. I think Peter was, in modern terms, deconstructing his faith. Like Judas, Peter’s implicit beliefs about Jesus were challenged; Peter had not grasped who Jesus was completely and when those beliefs were challenged he ran. Whatever Peter had meant to do with his sword, he had radically misjudged Jesus’ response and message and he was forced to confront the fact that his beliefs about Jesus were wrong. This is a position that many find themselves in today. We are Peter sitting around the fire being lumped in with Jesus’ followers but completely unsure of our place in the world. How many people sit in the pews the way Peter must have sat in the rented rooms with the other disciples– alone surrounded by others, going through the motions but questioning what was right and what he knew. Peter, like Judas, had been forced to unlearn some, if not most, of what he thought about Jesus. Some might suggest that Jesus had rebuked Peter because God had preordained the timeline of events, but such a suggestion makes little of the encounter. Peter had to learn the means by which God elevating Jesus and changing the world. The force which Peter attempted to use was inconstant with the world Jesus was creating. Peter, like each of us, had to deconstruct this element of his belief system.
Each of us has beliefs that are not fully aligned with God’s plans for the world; each one of us should be on a continuous journey to deconstruct our beliefs. The trouble is that, like Peter, we live with Jesus for years on cruise control, never paying adequate attention to how his teachings impact our ingrained worldview. Suddenly we are blindsided by an event for which we are not prepared and in that moment either we are rebuked by Jesus or (more like Judas) we find our answers are not capable to bring us through the situation. Here is the rub, to some extent it is good and even necessary for each of us to go through some level of deconstruction, and yet it is risky and dangerous. Understanding who God (and Jesus) is and how God relates to the world and what our role in creation is requires unlearning ideas which we have been taught or conceived. Even though I have grown up in a church environment and have been taught about God from a young age, I have been forced to reevaluate many of the things I believed, some I have rejected and some I have maintained (and some I have maintained though with different meaning). My childhood understanding of science, math, history, and many other subjects has changed and grown, but my concepts of faith and Jesus are meant to remain static? No, rather Peter is a warning that the only way for us to not face the need to deconstruct is to bury our heads in the sand.
Thankfully for Peter, his situation was not long in changing, he did not have to sit and brood on how he had gotten things wrong, restoration came quickly. Many, though, are not so fortunate (again think of Judas), many sit in their questions and doubts with little recourse to finding answers and acceptance. Peter had to go through a deconstruction phase, had to re-encounter Jesus, find the core of Jesus’ mission, and truly receive forgiveness and none of us is different. Each of us must also go through these steps to grow and develop as a person. The trouble for many is they see that Jesus sat down and talked with Peter where they often feel they have no one. This is where the Church must step up and be the body of Jesus (you know like Romans 12 says). We are to sit and listen to people who are questioning where they belong and help them find the answers they need to properly reconstruct their beliefs. This includes listening to those questions and ideas without argumentative answers, instead a calm head and responses which correlate to “Let’s find out together”. If Peter can have this meltdown moment, chances are everyone else is subject to times of deconstruction, times when we recognize our answers do not meet life’s questions. Unless we are going to completely break down and quit on life we are going to reconstruct a worldview that answers the questions we are asking. The question is are people going to meet Jesus to help them rebuild while they rebuild.