More about hard issues

The Lapses of the Saints

See John 18:15-27

Jesus, Peter, and another disciple (whom I suspect was John) arrived to see the High Priest. Because the other disciple was known to the High Priest, he went in with Jesus, leaving Peter to wait outside. It was cold, so some of the officers and slaves who were out there built a charcoal fire to keep warm. Peter joined them to warm himself.

First, a slave girl who was the doorkeeper asked Peter if he were one of Jesus’ disciples. Mindful of the people around him, Peter denied it.

Second, the slaves and officers who were warming themselves at the same charcoal fire, perhaps hearing the slave girl and looking at Peter afresh asked him if he were a disciple of Jesus. Peter denied it.

Third, a slave of the high priest thought he recognized Peter from the Garden of Gethsemane, but Peter denied it.

I have heard people complain that the apostles had it very easy, because they lived with Jesus and saw all the miracles and had certain knowledge of the truth. Unlike, alas, poor us; who have to muck around the best we can with fallible minds and morally flawed souls.

I have heard people speak of the events of the New Testament as if it were some fictional account, or some factual account so embellished with the supernatural that the underlying reality is obscured beyond rescue.

I have heard people tell me that the true meaning of the New Testament is symbolic and ethereal, and not to be found as a straightforward account.

Today, I know that they are all wrong.

Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint. He walked with Jesus in the flesh, and witnessed many of His miracles. Yet in the end, when Jesus was on trial for His life, Peter was scared. The wonderful words of Jesus didn’t comfort him. The wonderful miracles of Jesus didn’t embolden him. He chickened out, plain and simple, at the first challenge to his allegiance. In this incident, I see Peter plainly depicted as a man on whom troubles pressed down sorely. A man whose previous assurance was overcome by trial, for whom remembered words and witnessed deeds became tenuous and uncertain in his mind; who feared for his life, and in that fear, his religious certitude came into doubt. In short, Peter was no soap bubble floating over events; he was sorely tried and afflicted by them.

Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint. Certainly, if the New Testament were a fictional story, he would be one of the heroes, and yet we see him engaging in some very unheroic, yet human behavior. This incident, so characteristic of the New Testament, is not fictional in character: our “hero” shows an unsympathetic side, he betrays his Master at a crucial moment. Events turn exactly as we would expect them to in real life: No angel ministers to Peter. In fact, he’s so cold that he doesn’t care that he mingles with his Master’s enemies to get near the fire; and when they recognize him, he lies to save his hide. So this can’t be fiction: if it were, the author never would have inserted this episode. It is unflattering to a hero, it does not advance the plot (in fact, if anything it sets it back a bit), it is mundane. The only reason I can see for the author including this incident is that the incident occurred, was well known, and had to be included for that reason.

Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint. And if this story is supposed to possess solely symbolic meaning, then why do the bare events speak to my soul without interpretation? I can feel the cold that Peter felt, waiting outside for the end of the trial. I could need the warmth enough to consort with my Master’s enemies. I can feel his fear of being tried alongside his Master for the same offense, of suffering perhaps the same penalty, so that I would deny my association to even a slave girl whose job it was to watch the door. I could feel fear and cold enough to dismiss any talk of Jesus to stay warm and out of trouble.

And I could feel the knife of anguish as the rooster crowed and I realized my duplicity.

Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint. And yet he experienced the same dark night of the soul that I can feel. He betrayed his Master in an effort to stay warm and out of trouble. He lost faith and tried to protect himself. The words and miracles of his Master came to naught in him that night, as they sometimes do in me. For in my trials, I often doubt; and when I find myself in hostile surroundings, I try not to act religious, and when I am sorely pressed, my God seems far away; my religious experiences are called into question, and my theology is no longer sure.

Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint, and yet I find in him a man like me: ashamed and anguished by my own behavior at times; amazed at the love of my Master who chose me despite my deficiencies; repentant of my many faults; empowered by His calling.

So if Peter was an apostle, and is also called a saint, despite the dark side of his character and the deficiencies of his soul, then what excuse do I have? How can I give up and count myself worthless?

And what about you? For the same Master who called Peter, calls you to service too.