I always feel sorry for Peter at this time of year, when he is recorded as denying Jesus - although he did. But only because he was there. Each Gospel has a slightly different recording of it: Matthew, Mark and Luke have Peter following the arrested Jesus on his own – or, at least, no companion is mentioned, and the other disciples have run away. John doesn’t mention the other disciples, except for the one who follows Jesus and the guards with Peter. This disciple brings Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest, while going on into the house himself. What all four gospels mention is Peter’s declaration at the Last Supper that ‘even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you’. Peter attempts to follow that through. I can imagine him upset, confused and scared, but determined, out of love for his master and consistent to his earlier declaration, not to let Jesus go through this alone, to see what would happen. Maybe, even now, he didn’t truly realise that Jesus would die.
Either way, Peter said he would be there, that he would never deny Jesus, so in following the arresting group, he was following through on his words. Or he was trying to. It must have been confusing and upsetting enough after the arrest, without the additional terror of being in the courtyard of the High Priest as Jesus was tried; it must also have felt very lonely. Whether or not he was the only disciple to follow Jesus, most of them had run away, and Peter was in the courtyard alone (his companion, in John, having gone into the house). Alone, miserable, his life turned upside down (again – presumably it had done so once when he began to follow Jesus) – and cold. He could do something about the cold, and would feel less isolated with the crowd around the fire. It may have seemed less conspicuous and suspicious than lurking in a corner. Whatever his motivations, Peter joins the crowd round the fire – and is recognised.
Again all the gospels have it slightly differently; in Luke, there is a link to the light of the fire, John has the first denial as he goes into the courtyard. But all four gospels have three denials and all four have the fire. So, Peter is sitting in the crowd, feeling tense, but warmer, and maybe hoping to be taken for one of them, while he waits to see the outcome of the trial. But he is recognised. Of all the disciples, possibly Peter is the one who is least likely to escape notice. He is portrayed as very much a leader, and Jesus had had a very public ministry. In any case, a maid points Peter out as one of Jesus’ disciples – and Peter denies it. It must have been so easy to do. Jesus was arrested, and facing death.
No one knew what the official policy towards his disciples would be. Peter must have been so willing to stand by his master – it’s why he was there. But at the point of being recognised, lonely, upset, afraid, he says he isn’t. Possibly on the spur of the moment, an instinctive answer, defensive, not thought through. But no one believes him – he is asked two more times. Each time, he declares that he isn’t one of Jesus’ disciples. Once he’d said he wasn’t, he was locked in, needing to stick to his story. Then the cock crows – and Peter, remembering Jesus’ warning, realises what he has done. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, his response is to cry.
I wonder how different history might have been if Peter’s response had been different. He could easily have justified himself – he was the only disciple there, most of them having fled; he could have denied he’d denied Jesus; he could have decided he’d had enough of it all, and cut himself off from the others – and from the risen Jesus. But his response is to weep (except in John, where no response is given). To weep, in the full knowledge of what he has just done, in the knowledge that he has failed, in sorrow for his weakness and betrayal of his master. The master that he didn’t then know he would meet again – but whom he may have known would forgive him. The bond of love between Jesus and Peter is strong enough to overcome those denials. Peter joins the other disciples, gathering together; there Jesus would find him, and the next stage of his upturned life would begin.
The reason I feel sorry for Peter is that he only denied Jesus because he was there; the other disciples who ran away weren’t in a position where they would be recognised. But Peter tried to follow through on his declaration that he would die for Jesus (as indeed he would – years later). He followed Jesus as far as he could, but fell at the last hurdle. It’s so easy to do – to say something in instinctive self-defence, that we feel we have to stick to, but that is nothing like what we would have said in other circumstances, where we have time to consider our response. It feels so normal; attempting to follow through on promises rashly made, trying to act in our own strength, not God’s, but trying to be true to what we have said. (Would Peter’s response have been different if he had been able to pray in Gethsemane? We will never know.) Is our response as honest as Peter’s? Those tears of remorse; that ability to go to the other disciples – and presumably admit what he had done; that willingness to see his Lord …
To come before Jesus in sorrow and repentance; we can be sure of being forgiven. How many times do we fail like Peter? He was the rock on which Jesus would build his church. I can’t help thinking that it is this incident that partly forged that rock. Peter’s ability to cry, to acknowledge his failing, but above all his love for Jesus, surely forged a stronger rock than he would have been without those denials. A rock that knew he could only act in the strength of his Master, not in his own strength; a rock that knew remorse for wrongdoing, but also the freedom of being forgiven; a rock that knew exactly how much he was loved. Let each of us in this Holy Week be willing to acknowledge our failings and be forgiven, willing for Jesus to show us how much we are loved, to make up the lack of our own love, to be forged into part of that rock that Christ’s church is built out of.