Katie Ong-Landini is Project Director for the new Retreat Center in Wakeman, Ohio, a property acquired and being developed by and for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Ms. Ong-Landini is also a member of Christ Episcopal Church.
Do not be far from me,
We have come to a hard place, a place of death, desolation and defeat in this story. We read John’s account of Christ’s passion every Good Friday, so we know it well. Like many stories, we often view it from a distance so we can easily step outside and observe. Sitting here this evening, we are at a distance looking at what is happening, but taking no part. We might empathize with the pain and suffering, but, ultimately, it is difficult for us to understand how the characters in this story are feeling.
One part of this tale has caught my attention as never before, and to me, it has challenged my own sense of connection to the drama and my own vocation as a Christian. I am referring to the story of the Denial of Peter, and I think it lies at the heart of the passion story to those of us who follow Jesus.
This message is as relevant today as it was when the gospels were written.
Peter and another disciple followed Jesus from his arrest in the garden, to the Kidron Valley, back to the City of Jerusalem and the court of the high priest, Caiaphas. If we really think about it, this act is considerably brave. The rest of the disciples scattered since they were fearful of getting arrested themselves. Although Peter and the other unnamed disciple were probably also afraid of getting arrested, they stayed close by to determine what was happening to their friend and teacher.
Despite Peter’s attempts to blend into the crowd, other people recognized and challenged him about his identity, where he is put on the spot. In fear for his own safety, Peter’s gut reaction meant denying to whom he belonged. Peter denied Jesus three times. In the Bible, the number three denotes a perfect completion; so Peter’s denial of his relationship to Jesus was absolute. It is as if Peter was washing his hands of Jesus and all that he had done and taught. This is what Jesus predicted would happen: When the going got tough, Peter would abandon Jesus, too.
As I have been contemplating this passage from John, I feel a greater kinship to Peter than I ever had before. I empathize with Peter in his denial of Jesus, because it is something that I also do. I am acutely aware of this, due to my participation in a series of activities throughout Lent:
First, I have been participating in the diocesan-wide Lenten discipline, “Growing a Rule of Life;” so, like many of you, I have been thinking about the various ways I need to cultivate a daily and seasonal rhythm that connects me more consciously to God’s presence in my life. For the past six weeks, I have been intensely contemplating how my life does not truly reflect a strong relationship with God, and I fail in many ways to live a life that shows I am a follower of Jesus. I am good at managing the easy stuff, but, too often, I do not focus on some of the harder internal work that is necessary to live out my Christian vocation. Like Peter, I also deny to whom I belong.
Second, I have been participating in the book study group, led by our own George Richards, and we have recently read two books that deal with our country’s criminal justice system. Both books, “The New Jim Crow” and “Just Mercy,” have profoundly affected my understanding of race relations in the United States, and I realize how ignorant I have been about policing, the court system, and mass incarceration over the past 20 to 30 years. I have been too focused on issues that directly affect my life; so I have not paid attention to the profound injustices that are now the law of the land. I might have taken the opportunity to do something about these changes before they became entrenched. In my willful ignorance, I have denied to whom I belong.
Third, like the rest of you, I have been acutely aware of an especially contentious political climate, and the news media has focused largely on the negative and divisive rhetoric of people who are attempting to appeal to our basest fears and anger – and mostly for their own political gain. For the most part, I have tuned out what is happening and what people are saying. And yet, by tuning it out and not engaging in a constructive way, I have denied to whom I belong.
It is in these experiences that I have come to Good Friday, with a new understanding of “Peter’s Denial.” I have said before that the character of Peter is a literacy archetype: He is the Everyman. He represents us, the average people who try to live honorably, do good works and help others. Those of us who are faithful followers should really relate to Peter. Look around! Here we are attending church on Good Friday! Some of us have been here every day this week! We are just like Peter. Trying to figure out what is going on, trying to find some meaning to what is happening. We are brave enough to show up and say that we are Christians.
But like Peter, when really pressed, we often deny what Jesus is calling us to do:
Bryan Stevenson, a public affairs attorney and author of "Just Mercy," notes these sobering statistics at end of the book [page 317]:
For the most part, the people connected to the criminal justice system are unable to vote, get access to public housing and other government assistance, and secure many types of employment. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Third, we deny our common humanity through our own prejudice – by treating people who do not look like us, live like us or share our views or life experiences as “other,” as something to fear or to look down upon. This week, the attack in Brussels exacerbated negative opinions about Muslims and immigrants. We continue to demonize people who hold different views, and we often feed our own fears and prejudices, rather than attempt reconciliation. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Yet, this is the point where we need to turn back to the story of the Gospel, because it guides us how to move forward. At the end of today’s reading, Peter didn’t not know what would happen – but we do.
In "Just Mercy," Bryan Stevenson writes:
"We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…But our shared brokenness connected us.
'But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion." (pg. 289)
So, here is the message of Peter’s Denial. We are the faithful, and all of us stumble. We also know that even when we are fearful or angry and deny our role as Christians, we have God with us to fix the brokenness of the world. That is why we put the “Good” in “Good Friday.” This day reminds us that we, as people of the Jesus Movement, are never alone in promoting God’s distributive justice.
The Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes this point:
"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (*Hebrews 4:16)
*Psalm 22 states:
3 Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
And the prophet Isaiah proclaims:
See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high. (*Isaiah 52:13)
Before I end, I invite you to join me at Wednesday morning Bible Study, or at our monthly book study group on the third Thursday of each month, or at coffee hour after Sunday services – or any time to figure out how we become advocates for change that impacts those people we most marginalize. I am serious about wanting to address these issues, and I wonder how we can work on this together. So, please let me know if you are interested in doing something. I hope that you feel as ready as I am to own up to our relationship with Jesus Christ and get out there and make a difference.
As we live into Good Friday, go ahead and embrace your own pain and brokenness, your own fear and anger, your own denial of Jesus. But do so in light of knowing how the story ends, knowing that the resurrection is almost upon us, knowing that God’s Kingdom of love and distributive justice will prevail. Knowing that our God is with us, we can proclaim boldly that we belong to Jesus. Amen!
*Note: All Bible references refer to the New Revised Standard Version, also known as NRSV.