Was Peter’s denial a sign of cowardice?
Every Lenten season we bump into the Peter who denied his Lord in the courtyard of the high priest. More than one sermon on the text has compared us Christians to Peter and reminded us that, like Peter, we can be afraid of persecution and similarly deny being associated with Jesus.
But is it possible that Peter denied his Lord, not from cowardly fear, but from another motivation? This is Peter, after all, who, after only one invitation from Jesus, jumped out of the boat on the stormy sea of Galilee and walked on water to Jesus, while the rest of the disciples cowered in their violently quaking boat. This is the Peter who put his life on the line in the Garden of Gethsemane just as he promised he would do in the upper room when he had said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33) We might call Peter “impetuous,” even hot headed, but cowardly? I don’t think so.
When the mob showed up to arrest Jesus, Peter put his sword where his mouth had been. He must have known that his little short sword was no match for the “great multitude with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47), but he didn’t play it safe. He swung away and probably braced himself for the counter attack. How does Jesus respond? Instead of patting Peter on the back and thanking him for his self-sacrificing bravery, Jesus scolds Peter in front of everyone, disciples and enemies alike.
Can’t you just imagine the crimson tide rolling up Peter’s neck and making his ears burn? It is no wonder that Peter welcomed the opportunity to duck off into the dark with all the rest of the disciples and disappear. Can’t we imagine how humiliated he felt and how he must have seethed with self-pitying rage? Haven’t we seethed ourselves when we have “burned ourselves out” for someone else or for the church and our efforts weren’t even recognized?
If you were Peter, how would you feel?
Can’t we imagine that Peter would be willing to tag along with John who had contacts at the high priestly palace, just so he could see what would happen to this guy for whom he had given up over three years of his life? By the time he reached the courtyard, he had had plenty of time to rehearse over and over again how much he had given up for Jesus, how he spent time away from his wife, and how he had put a lucrative fishing career on hold. We can just imagine Peter feeling that he had wasted the best years of his life for this ingrate only to be humiliated and embarrassed in front of everyone. So, when the servant girl and the others think they recognize him as one of Jesus’ disciples, he could have snarled with indignation, “Naw, I don’t know this guy.” When they suggest he has the same accent as Jesus, he curses and swears.
Haven’t we all “been there, done that”? We have toiled and labored in God’s church and for others, and then some horrible thing happens to us and we initially feel that God has let us down. “After all I’ve done, this is what I get?” we may be tempted to feel. If we can identify with those feelings, surely Peter could as well.
Whatever Peter’s motive was, the important lesson rests not in Peter but in the response of Jesus, who “turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ Jesus did not turn his back on his denying disciple. He turned toward him. He didn’t look away. He looked at him. I believe that “look” must have been filled with a love that brought back more than just the warning of the denial. Peter, realizing what a fool he had been, whether it was for his fear or his disgust with Jesus, went out and wept bitterly.
We won’t know for certain whether Peter denied his Lord out of fear or anger or a little of both until the day after Judgment Day when we can interview Peter himself. In the meantime, we can draw some powerful reminders of the gracious mercy with which our Lord treats us imperfect disciples, even when we disappoint him with our cowardly fear or our self-pitying hurt pride. That is the forgiving, gracious Lord at the center of the Lenten season and our lives.
Richard H. Stadler is pastor of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church (independent), West St. Paul, Minnesota. He is vice president of Metro Lutheran’s board.