THE FAILURE OF COURAGE
Matt. 26:57-58, Matt. 26:69-75
Those who had laid hold of Jesus led him away to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where the Scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, and he went inside and sat down with the servants to see the end.
Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A maid-servant came up to him and said, “You, too, were with Jesus the Galilaean.” He denied it in the presence of them all. “I do not know,” he said, “what you are saying.” When he went out to the porch, another maid-servant saw him, and said to those who were there, “This man too was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” A little later those who were standing there said to Peter, “Truly you too were one of them; for your accent gives you away.” Then he began to curse and to swear: “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crew. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, when he said, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
No one can read this passage without being struck with the staggering honesty of the New Testament. If ever there was an incident which one might have expected to be hushed up, this was it–and yet here it is told in all its stark shame. We know that Matthew very closely followed the narrative of Mark; and in Mark’s gospel this story is told in even more vivid detail (Mk.14:66-72). We also know, as Papias tells us, that Mark’s gospel is nothing other than the preaching material of Peter written down. And so we arrive at the amazing fact that we possess the story of Peter’s denial because Peter himself told it to others.
So far from suppressing this story, Peter made it an essential part of his gospel; and did so for the very best of reasons. Every time he told the story, he could say, “That is the way that this Jesus can forgive. He forgave me when I failed him in his bitterest hour of need. That is what Jesus can do. He took me, Peter the coward, and used even me.” We must never read this story without remembering that it is Peter himself who is telling of the shame of his own sin that all men may know the glory of the forgiving love and cleansing power of Jesus Christ.
And yet it is quite wrong to regard Peter with nothing but unsympathetic condemnation. The blazing fact is that the disaster which happened to Peter is one which could have happened only to a man of the most heroic courage. All the other disciples ran away: Peter alone did not. In Palestine the houses of the well-to-do were built in a hollow square around an open courtyard, off which the various rooms opened. For Peter to enter that courtyard in the centre of the High Priest’s house was to walk into the lion’s den–and yet he did it. However this story ends, it begins with Peter the one brave man.
The first denial happened in the courtyard; no doubt the maid-servant had marked Peter as one of the most prominent followers of Jesus and had recognized him. After that recognition anyone would have thought that Peter would have fled for his life; a coward would certainly have been gone into the night as quickly as he could. But not Peter; although he did retire as far as the porch.
He was torn between two feelings. In his heart there was a fear that made him want to run away; but in his heart, too, there was a love which kept him there. Again, in the porch he was recognized; and this time he swore he did not know Jesus. And still he did not go. Here is the most dogged courage.
But Peter’s second denial had given him away. From his speech it was clear that he was a Galilaean. The Galilaeans spoke with a burr; so ugly was their accent that no Galilaean was allowed to pronounce the benediction at a synagogue service. Once again Peter was accused of being a follower of Jesus. Peter went further this time; not only did he swear that he did not know Jesus; he actually cursed his Master’s name. But still it is clear that Peter had no intention of leaving that courtyard. And then the cock crew.
There is a distinct possibility here which would provide us with a vivid picture. It may well be that the cock-crow was not the voice of a bird; and that from the beginning it was not meant to mean that. After all, the house of the High Priest was right in the centre of Jerusalem, and there was not likely to be poultry in the centre of the city. There was, in fact, a regulation in the Jewish law that it was illegal to keep cocks and hens in the Holy City, because they defiled the holy things. But the hour of 3 a.m. was called cock-crow, and for this reason. At that hour the Roman guard was changed in the Castle of Antonia; and the sign of the changing of the guard was a trumpet call. The Latin for that trumpet call was gallicinium, which means cock-crow. It is at least possible that just as Peter made his third denial the trumpet from the castle battlements rang out over the sleeping city–the gallicinium, the cock-crow–and Peter remembered; and thereupon he went and wept his heart out.
What happened to Peter after that we do not know, for the gospel story draws a kindly veil over the agony of his shame. But before we condemn him, we must remember very clearly that few of us would ever have had the courage to be in that courtyard at all. And there is one last thing to be said–it was love which gave Peter that courage; it was love which riveted him there in spite of the fact that he had been recognized three times; it was love which made him remember the words of Jesus; it was love which sent him out into the night to weep–and it is love which covers a multitude of sins. The lasting impression of this whole story is not of Peter’s cowardice, but of Peter’s love.
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