As a parent I would always try to give a word of encouragement to my children before a big event. Whether it was a sporting event or before an exam at school – I would give a word of encouragement. “You’re going to do well” – “I have complete trust in you” – Just do your best. Can you imagine a coach before a big game trying to encourage his players with negative comments? “Look, this side is much better than you are, so be prepared to lose”. I’m not sure if players would respond well to that sort of motivation. But that seems to be what Jesus is doing in our bible reading to his disciples. He’s not trying to build them up and encourage them to defend him when the time comes for him to be arrested and put to death.
No, he’s telling them the stark reality about what he knows is going to happen. You will all desert me! Jesus is preparing them for what is coming ahead so they know that when it happens that they can trust ALL that he says.
If Jesus had said that everything is going to be okay – I’m going to be arrested but don’t worry nothing will happen to me – then when it doesn’t turn out that way then what hope would they have about the future promises that Jesus made. Instead Jesus is telling them exactly what is going to happen. He is not going to sugar-coat it but reveal what is going to happen with all its stark reality. You, my disciples, are all going to abandon me – and you, Peter, despite your brave statement of fighting to the death, you will deny even knowing me, not once but three times. That’s a pretty hard thing for the disciples, and especially Peter, to take in. But what they need to see is the full account of what Jesus said: Because as well as saying the disciples will fall away, and Peter will disown him, Jesus says “after I have risen I will go ahead of you into Galilee”. That’s the part they missed because they were so focused on the negative. And that’s why, on that resurrection morning, Mary and the disciples are confused when they find that the grave where Jesus’ body had been laid is empty.
It’s very similar to Jesus’ earlier prediction of his death and resurrection: Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” What is Peter saying shall never happen to Jesus? That he will not die and rise again? No, Peter has missed Jesus’ true mission to defeat sin, death and the devil. And the only way he can do that is to die but not let death keep him in the grave. But Peter missed that and was only focusing on what he perceived to be negative – Jesus’ death.
As we journey through our life we too can be like Peter and focus only on the negative. And there is plenty of negative around us to do so. Whether it’s the shooting in the United States,
the drought in Cape Town, or even your own personal situation, it is easy to focus only on these and forget the promise that Jesus made – on the 3rd day I will rise.
It’s easy to question and doubt God when things don’t go our way. The negatives can obscure the promise by God that heaven is awaiting us. St Paul underwent great suffering because of his faith but didn’t let that distract him; Instead he said: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. And again he says:
Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. As Christians that is what we keep focused on. This life is going to see things that will rock our faith. Peter tried to avoid them – even if all fall away – I never will. Never Lord, this will never happen to you. Jesus didn’t pat him on the back for his noble gesture but rebuked him – Get behind me Satan. He did that because Peter had focused on the negatives and as a result he missed God’s purpose: You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. In fact, Peter really was most likely thinking about himself. Previously Jesus took Peter, James and John on a mountain top and revealed his glory as he was Transfigured before their sight. They wanted to live in that glory but Jesus took them back down into the valley – which would become the valley of the shadow of death. And he said, don’t tell anyone about this until I have risen from the dead. But they didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “rising from the dead”.
As we continue our Lenten journey and our life journey we too are going to go through times when we will question God. In the good times we can be like Peter believing that we would never question God. Even if all others fall away I never will. It’s easy to give advice to others – just trust God. But when we are suffering or when someone we love is suffering it’s easy to feel like Peter who insisted “I do not know him”. Maybe there has been a time when you could have spoken up in defence of God but you chose not to because you were afraid or you didn’t know what to say. Like Peter, Jesus is ready and willing to forgive you. Peter repented of his denial unlike Judas who tried to undo his betrayal himself and not by repenting by giving back the money he received and then took his life.
We all make mistakes but that is what Lent and Easter are about – as St Paul says: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So may you know and experience the same comfort that Peter felt as you come to Jesus in repentance to receive his mercy.