COURAGE AND COWARDICE
Mk. 14:54, Mk. 14:66-72
And Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, and he was sitting there with the servants, warming himself at the fire…. When Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maidservants of the High Priest came up, and when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You, too,” she said, “were with the Nazarene, with Jesus.” He denied it. “I do not know,” he said, “or understand what you are saying.” He went out into the porch, and the cock crew. The maidservant saw him and again began to say to the bystanders, “This man was one of them.” But he again denied it. Soon afterwards the bystanders said to Peter, “In truth you are one of them, for you are a Galilaean.” He began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man you are talking about.” And immediately cockcrow sounded. And Peter remembered the word, how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crow twice you will deny me three times.” And he flung his cloak about his head and wept.
Sometimes we tell this story in such a way as to do Peter far less than justice. The thing we so often fail to recognize is that up to the very last Peter’s career this night had been one of fantastically reckless courage. He had begun by drawing his sword in the garden with the reckless courage of a man prepared to take on a whole mob by himself. In that scuffle he had wounded the servant of the High Priest. Common prudence would have urged that Peter should lie very low. The last place anyone would have dreamed that he would go to would be the courtyard of the High Priest’s house–yet that is precisely where he did go. That in itself was sheer audacity. It may be that the others had fled, but Peter was keeping his word. Even if the others had gone he would stick to Jesus.
Then the queer mixture of human nature emerged. he was sitting by the fire, for the night was cold. No doubt he was huddled in his cloak. Maybe someone poked the fire or flung a fresh log upon it, and it flared up with a fitful flame and Peter was recognized. Straightway he denied all connection with Jesus. But–and here is the forgotten point–any prudent man would then have left that courtyard as fast as his legs could carry him–but not Peter. The same thing happened again. Again Peter denied Jesus and again he would not go. It happened once more. Again Peter denied Jesus, Peter did not curse Jesus’ name. What he did was to swear he did not know Jesus and to call down curses on himself if he was not telling the truth. Still it seems he did not mean to move. But something else happened.
Very probably it was this. The Roman night was divided into four watches from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. At the end of the third watch, at three o’clock in the morning, the guard was changed. When the guard was changed there was a bugle call which was called the gallicinium, which is the Latin for the cockcrow. Most likely what happened was that as Peter spoke his third denial, the clear note of the bugle call rang out over the silent city and smote on Peter’s ear. He remembered and his heart broke.
Make no mistake–Peter fell to a temptation which would have come only to a man of fantastic courage. It ill becomes prudent and safety-seeking men to criticize Peter for falling to a temptation which would never, in the same circumstances, have come to them at all. Every man has his breaking-point. Peter reached his here, but nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of every thousand would have reached theirs long before. We would do well to be amazed at Peter’s courage rather than to be shocked at his fall.
But there is another thing. There is only one source from which this story could have come–and that is Peter himself. We saw in the introduction that Mark’s gospel is the preaching material of Peter. That is to say, over and over again Peter must have told the story of his own denial. “That is what I did,” he must have said, “and this amazing Jesus never stopped loving me.”
There was an evangelist called Brownlow North. He was a man of God, but in his youth he had lived a wild life. One Sunday he was to preach in Aberdeen. Before he entered the pulpit a letter was handed to him. The writer recounted a shameful incident in Brownlow North’s life before he became a Christian and stated that if he dared to preach he would rise in the church and publicly proclaim what once he had done. Brownlow North took the letter into the pulpit with him. He read it to the congregation. He told them that it was perfectly true. Then he told them how through Christ he had been forgiven, how he had been enabled to overcome himself and put the past behind him, how through Christ he was a new creature. He used his own shame as a magnet to draw men to Christ. That is what Peter did. He told men, “I hurt him and I let him down like that, and still he loved and forgave me–and he can do the same for you.”
When we read this passage with understanding, the story of Peter’s cowardice becomes an epic of courage and the story of his shame becomes a tale of glory,
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