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Jesus’ truthfulness and Peter’s denial

4.15. 2019 Posted By: The Mennonite 750 Times read

There’s an old story—it’s probably a legend—about an evangelist who travels to Indiana, to farm country, to share the gospel, to convert people to Christianity. He meets a Mennonite at the general store. The evangelist says, “Sir, are you a Christian?” And the Mennonite responds, “I’m not the best person to answer that question. You should ask my neighbors.”

The point of the story is that it’s one thing to say we have faith, but it’s another thing to live like we have faith, for the people around us to notice our faith. It’s one thing to say a few words; it’s another thing to ask our neighbors what they hear our lives saying to the world. Words are important, and their context is important—the context of our lives, words spoken by bodies. What truths do our whole lives speak?

After Jesus washes Peter’s feet, Peter makes a confession of faith, a commitment, a promise to Jesus, to be by his side no matter the cost. “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). However, later, when soldiers arrest Jesus, Peter keeps his distance. He stays far away. His words and his body deny any connection to Jesus.

There’s artfulness in this scene in John’s Gospel—the way the author highlights Peter’s denial, his shift away from Jesus. When Peter is asked if he knows Jesus, if he is one of the disciples of Jesus, Peter offers a blunt denial: “I am not.” Two words in Greek, ouk eimi—“not me.” He says this twice, the same two words, whenever he’s asked about his association with Jesus (18:17, 25).

Are you a disciple?
I am not.
Are you a disciple?
I am not.

Earlier in the chapter, when Judas comes with the soldiers—with their torches and swords—there in the darkness of the garden, the armed soldiers step up to Jesus and ask him, “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” And he offers a clear answer—direct and concise: “I am he.” Two words in Greek, ego eimi—“I am.” He says these words twice as his response (18:5, 8).

 Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
I am he.
Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
I am he.

There’s a stark contrast between Jesus’ truthfulness and Peter’s denial.

Not only does Peter deny Jesus with his words, he denies Jesus with his body. Peter stands on side of the people who have captured Jesus—Peter is “standing with them and warming himself” by their fire (18:18). This is the same phrase used earlier in the same chapter to talk about Judas, when he hands Jesus over to the soldiers. “Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them” (18:5). Standing with them. Judas stands with the soldiers who arrest Jesus. And Peter stands with the people putting Jesus on trial. Like Judas, Peter stands with the enemies of Jesus. He denies Christ with his body, by where he stands, by his position in the crowd.

We want to be like Jesus, but most of the time we are like Peter. He says he has faith, he says he will follow Jesus, he says he will stand by his side. But when it matters, when his confession is tested, when his words are put on trial, his life confesses his lack of faith. “Are you a disciple?” they ask him. “I am not,” he says as he stands with the enemies of Jesus.

Even though Peter stands with the enemies of Jesus, warming himself by their fire—even though he denies his relationship with Jesus three times, he is welcomed back to the community of disciples. He’s welcomed back, when Jesus returns from the grave, after his resurrection. Even though Peter abandons Jesus, Jesus doesn’t abandon Peter. That’s the gospel, the good news of God’s love—that Jesus never denies his faith in us, that he never stands with our enemies against us, because the only thing Jesus says about us is that he loves us. His only confession is love.

Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship.

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