Monday, June 30, 2003

Time for an afternoon coffee break after a contentious meeting, and a little rumination on Peter's denial of Christ. A week ago, in Sunday school, the teacher pointed out an interesting verse in Luke that I had never noticed before.

In Matthew and Mark, the story is fairly straightforward. For instance, in Matthew 14 (NET version):

Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away, for it is written,
'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.'
But after I am raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." Peter said to him, "Even if they all fall away,
I will not!" Jesus said to him, "I tell you the truth, today -- this very night -- before the rooster crows
twice, you will deny me three times." But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I must die with you,
I will never deny you." And all of them said the same thing.

Both Gospels follow nearly the same text, which is pretty curt. Christ acknowledges that bad times are coming, but he reiterates that he will return to reassert his own leadership over the flock. The version in John is very similar, with even more of a hurt tone:

Peter said to him, "Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you!"
Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? I tell you the solemn truth, the rooster
will not crow until you have denied me three times!"

These depictions emphasize Christ's role as a shepherd and leader, and simultaneously reiterate the fact that we are a bunch of dumb sheep that will bolt at the first sign of danger. There's very little here to prevent the reader from imagining an exasperated Christ, muttering as he rummages around the hillside after his flock.

That's what makes Luke's remembrance so spectacular, because he remembered a key piece of dialogue that was not included by the other authors. After telling the Disciples to shut up about which of them was the greatest -- not their finest hour, certainly -- Jesus explained that they should serve each other on earth so that they would sit in judgment in the Kingdom. He then got irritated that Peter's attention was drifting:

"Simon, Simon, pay attention! Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat,
but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. When you have turned back,
strengthen your brothers." But Peter said to him, "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to
prison and to death!" Jesus replied, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until
you have denied three times that you know me."

I find this additional language to be absolutely incredible; an unparalleled statement of forgiveness. First, Jesus isn't speaking as a disgruntled shepherd here; he's trying to prepare the sheep to take care of themselves. It's more dangerous from His point of view; like letting the kids stay home without a babysitter. Second, carrying the babysitter analogy further, Jesus picked one person in particular who would receive supernatural help in carrying his burden. Sometimes Jesus picks people for his own purposes, and he doesn't always pick the most faithful or the most learned. A sunburned fisherman was chosen to a position of leadership, even though he was the very one that Jesus knew would fail in his initial task. John wasn't the one chosen, despite being the particular favorite.

Third, and most of all, I am taken by the magnanimity of Jesus. Jesus did not pray that Peter would not betray him, which would have been so much easier, but rather prayed that Peter's inevitable failings would not destroy his ultimate faith. Jesus was willing to forgive the betrayal before it happened -- how many of us can say that? -- and indeed was so devoid of vengeance and spite that he prayed for the well-being and recovery of his betrayers. This was just a microcosm of his larger sacrifice: made not only for the people he had met, but also for those who would follow, and who would undoubtedly sin, and sin again.

What I find in this language is a repudiation of the "reluctant Christ" that can emerge from legalism. This is the notion that Christ wrote out a contract of forgiveness and is somehow obligated to accept anyone willing to sign it, no matter how contemptible He finds them. (Or, as Dennis Miller said of Chuck Colson's conversion, "Colson says he gave his life to Christ -- I wonder if Christ saw him coming first. Maybe he said 'There's that bastard Colson coming; he probably wants to give his life to me. Taxi!'"). But the Jesus in this passage is not reluctant; he's passionate in his love for the people that will hurt him. He not only forgives Peter in advance for hurting Him terribly, but he also prays that Peter will have enough faith to cast off his shame and forgive himself. Or, to put it another way, just because the church is the Bride of Christ, we should not assume that we're part of an arranged marriage. Christ ardently loves his bride, and wants to build her up. When I think of how much I love Shannon, and how infinitesimal that earthly love is compared to the Divine, I am simply overwhelmed.

I also find in this passage an insight into the purpose of this life. Christ could have easily reinforced Peter so that he would not fall away, but that wasn't His plan. Christ wanted a redeemed Peter, not a flawless one. And that's what he needs from each of us -- redemption, not perfection.

 5:07 PM

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