(photo courtesy of The Rev. Jim Trimble)
[Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all heard a reading of the Passion by now, whether that was on Sunday morning or today, or both.
I like the Passion reading. It’s something I’ve done literally every year of my life, and yet, I seem to hear something new every year.
Before I get too far into this, I want to clear something up: one of Jesus’s apostles, whom you probably know as Peter (as in, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church”) plays a prominent role in this story. However, he was born with the name Simon, and that’s what he went by until Jesus gave him the Peter moniker. Preachers and others often refer to him as Simon Peter to distinguish him from another apostle who was also named Simon, who is usually referred to as Simon the Zealot because of the sect of Judaism he belonged to. There’s another Simon in the Passion narrative– Simon of Cyrene– and he’s not the same person as either of the apostles named Simon.
But tonight, we’re going to be talking about Simon Peter, the apostle.
When I was a teenager, and perhaps a bit younger than that, I was always a little disgusted by Simon Peter’s behavior in this narrative. Every year, I’d hear the Passion read, and think, “Really, Simon? Are you kidding me?” I mean, seriously. He makes Jesus one promise– “I promise I won’t deny you”– and then he goes and does it three times in the space of only a couple of hours! Maybe not even a whole hour! Like, how do you manage to screw up that badly when you only have one job? How are you that much of a coward? Come on, dude. Seriously? Simon was given three opportunities to not deny Christ, but he denies him all three times.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to realize a lot of my outrage toward Simon has to do with the fact that he and I are a lot more similar than I’d perhaps like to admit. Even though he’s the one person I’d like to think I’d never in a million years be in this story, deep down I know he’s probably the most like me. And, while I don’t know that I’ve ever verbally denied Christ, how many times have I denied him with my actions? How many times have I been cowardly? How many times have I chosen what’s safe or easy over what’s right? How many times have I let my fear be bigger than my faith? How many times have I broken a promise? How often have I been so sure I was ready to follow God to the ends of the earth, only to chicken out and run away from an opportunity to walk that talk?
So often, I am Simon Peter.
So often, I am the one who chronically misses the point. So often, I am a coward. So often, the way I behave is terribly, terribly unchristian.
In the words of a hymn often sung on Good Friday, entitled “Ah, Holy Jesus”:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
In Luke’s Passion narrative (not the one that’s a part of today’s readings– that’s John’s), the last we hear from Simon is after the third time he denies Christ. It says that Simon “wept bitterly” upon hearing the rooster crow and realizing what he had done.
Do you remember how Simon came to be known as Peter? The story is in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus asks Simon, “Who do you think I am?” Simon correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus then says, “You are Peter”– literally, you are the rock– “and upon this rock I shall build my church, and not even death shall be able to stand against it.” (Matthew 16:18, paraphrase) Jesus called Peter “the rock”. (Have you ever heard the English word petrified? It means something is hard as a rock, right? Same Greek root word as the name Peter.) A rock is pretty dependable, wouldn’t you say? The foolish man built his house upon the sand, but the wise man built his upon the rock. A rock is solid, steady, unbreakable. Jesus must have seen something in him that wasn’t evident in the Passion narrative. Jesus knew him to be someone other than the flaky, promise-breaking coward who denied him three times that night. Jesus knew who he really was.
Simon, by the way, is a Hebrew name that means “God has heard me.” That’s pretty cool, right? I think maybe on the night of his crucifixion, Jesus heard Simon– and not just his words. Jesus heard what was in his heart– the dependable, promise-keeping, brave Simon Peter that he had known and loved all this time.
So often, I am Simon Peter.
So often, we all are Simon Peter.
Let us not fall into the trap of believing that our cowardice, our sin, our shame is the end of the story. Let us not think that we will be left weeping, humiliated by our own weakness and disloyalty, for all of time.
As you may know, this isn’t the last time Simon Peter shows up in the Gospels. After the resurrection, just before the ascension, there’s the famous scene in John’s Gospel where a bunch of the disciples are out fishing, and Jesus walks out onto the water to greet them. Then, after they’re back on the shore and have finished eating lunch, Jesus asks Simon three times– the same number of times Simon denied him the night he died– “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon is given three chances to affirm that he loves Jesus, and all three times, he says yes.
I find that comforting, when my heart weeps bitterly from shame, knowing how many times I’ve behaved like Simon Peter did that night– how many times I’ve denied Christ by behaving like anything but a Christian, how many times I’ve broken my word, how many times I’ve chickened out at a crucial moment, how many times I’ve wanted to kick myself for screwing up so badly. I find it comforting to know that there was redemption for Simon Peter, because Jesus heard his heart even when his words and actions were so cowardly.
Thanks be to God that Jesus hears our hearts, too.
Thanks be to God that redemption is possible even for the worst of us.
Thanks be to God that Good Friday is not the end of the story.