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Peter’s denial

bible commentary
Mt 26:31-35; 69-75 Ingrid Prat

How could the first Christians build their church on someone who had denied Jesus? How could Jesus put his trust in someone who he knew would deny him? Because, right from the start, Peter is asked to be the foundation of what is to come: « Well, I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. Death itself will be powerless against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. » (Mt 16)

But Peter denied Jesus even as he was being questioned by the Supreme Council. I don’t know this man, I swear… three times.

Peter is no doubt afraid that he too will die. Peter is terrified. He doesn’t want to die.

Who would want to suffer the same death as Jesus?

No matter how many times we sing it in our pious hymnals, « to the death we will be faithful to you… », when we hit a snag, cowardice takes over. It’s only human! It’s almost inevitable, unless you’re mad… or a kamikaze. In this context, Peter’s denial is reassuring in a way. Solidarity can have its limits when it comes to the question of our own finitude.

The first question I ask myself when I read this story is: « Where have the others gone? They’re probably holed up behind a door somewhere, terrified of getting caught too. At least Peter braves that fear. He’s there. He follows from a distance. He won’t be able to do much, but he’s there. Only his denial betrays his fear. He hides behind words, but he’s still there.

And that, dare I say it, is Peter.

Peter is the gung-ho character in the Gospels.
• He is the only one to walk on water with Jesus. He sank, of course. But at least he tried.
• He is the only one to respond and to affirm that Jesus is the Christ, even though Jesus rebuked him by calling him Satan…
• It is he who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, goes and grabs a soldier’s sword to cut off his ear.

Peter is « all over it », as we say. Everything he does and says is taken to the extreme. And if he’s capable of the best, he’s inevitably capable of the worst, like everyone else.

But if Peter is so imperfect, how could Jesus have imagined entrusting him with the future of the Church? Yes, the question comes up again and again.

We imagine that there are perfect people to whom we can entrust special tasks…

And we’d got it into our heads that Peter and all the others must have something special, something unfaltering, to have been chosen like that by Jesus. Over time, an image of holiness was stuck on them.

« I tell you the truth: this very night, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times. »
So Jesus knew. But more than that, I realise just how well Jesus knew Peter. The announcement of his denial is a simple observation. Not a judgement! An observation.

And the denial that follows is patently obvious. It is again a statement of what Peter is in his humanity. Not necessarily a coward, but a man whom Jesus knows and loves as he is, without judgement, and to whom he continues to entrust all that will follow. He loves him as he is and he trusts him. He does not try to shut him up in the image that we project of everything he ought to be in order to honour his mission. He takes him as he is, capable of the worst as well as the best, and he loves him like that. Full stop.

If the crowing of the cock sounds like the death knell of disillusionment for Peter, it is also confirmation of this, « I love you like this ».

Peter certainly weeps at seeing himself as such a coward, weeps over the nature of his recognition. He thought he was strong, but he discovers himself to be fragile. The wake-up call is savage. But I like to think that these tears are the mark of an awareness of knowing that he is loved against all odds.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me cry to know that there is at least one person who loves me like that and who will never try to fit me into the box of their ideals. If we cannot count on our fellow human beings for that, let us at least count on God.

For it is with this promise that we can rise again with new strength and – why not? – build an empire.


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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