The Denial (Mark 14:27-31, 66-72)
The theme of abandonment overshadows many of the Stories Around the Cross. Jesus was abandoned by betrayal (Judas), by indifference (the disciples sleeping three times in Gethsemane), and by denial and desertion (Peter and the Twelve). When Jesus needed them the most, his friends left him alone. They all participated in the supper (Mark 14:23), they all confessed their allegiance (Mark 14:31), and yet they all deserted Jesus (Mark 14:50).
Peter is as impetuous as ever – opening his mouth first and thinking afterwards. But he is hard to condemn and impossible to dislike. He has demonstrated nothing but reckless courage to this point - drawing his sword in the garden prepared to take on the whole mob and staying near the courtyard in a quiet boldness. We should be amazed at his courage not just shocked at his fall. Every person has their breaking point.
Peter is not surprised by the thought of the defection of the other disciples. Perhaps he even expects it of them. He does not defend their cause but strongly defends his own cause, “I will not! (vs.29)” He sees himself as the exception to the rule; where others fall, he will stand. There’s more than a little self-confidence and pride here. Jesus interrupts his bravado and says, “Today … yes tonight … before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times (vs.30).” Peter does not back down. He insists emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you (vs.31).” Notice that “all the others said the same.”
Peter follows Jesus “at a distance” (vs.54) and eventually there is an escalation of three charges and three denials (vs.66-72). After the rooster crowed the second time, suddenly Jesus’ words flooded through Peter’s mind … and “He broke down and wept.” Humiliated, Peter is overwhelmed with guilt and shame, most likely morphing into sorrow and repentance (unlike Judas who was remorseful but not repentant).
Have you ever fallen flat on your face? Have you ever disappointed yourself, others or God? Maybe it was a sin, a mistake or a personal failure. Like Peter, you didn't live up to your own expectations or promises. We have all experienced this, at one time or another. Sometimes, over-confidence, arrogance and pride are catalysts. At others times, they are not.
When personal failure occurs, we experience guilt, embarrassment and at times shame. Guilt is the result of a convicted conscience. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us and it is always specific and aimed at response – remorse (genuine sorrow) and repentance (change – turning away from sin). Shame is from the enemy and moves us from “I did something wrong” to “I am a bad person”. It involves an ongoing feeling of condemnation and self-loathing, with a general sense of not being good enough. Shame is very harmful and engenders a feeling of unworthiness. This often leads to destructive and negative behaviours.
The Restoration of Peter
In John’s Gospel, we learn some more details about how Jesus took time to restore Peter (John 21:1-19). By a charcoal fire on the beach, bringing back memories of Peter’s denial by a charcoal fire in the courtyard (John 18:18), like a good shepherd, Jesus’ heals the wound of Peter’s denial and failure. Gently, Jesus brings this memory to the surface and heals it with love and forgiveness. Jesus gives Peter a chance to profess his love for Jesus, to affirm everything he has denied – three times. Old failings, old sores, old wounds are healed. Jesus not only forgives Peter but commissions him. It's time for him to be a shepherd, to feed lambs and sheep, to look after them. Jesus is trusting Peter to get back to fruitful work. Jesus is sharing his own ministry with Peter. Jesus is after all the “good shepherd” (John 10).
This is the foundation of all ministry – despite our faults and failures, Jesus forgives us and gives us an opportunity to join him in his work on earth. These are not things we do to earn our forgiveness. It’s all grace from start to finish. They are things we do out of the joy of being forgiven.
The Power of Vulnerability
It speaks volumes both for the accuracy of the Gospels and the humility of the leaders of the early church that Peter’s story of denying Jesus three times, in all its graphic detail, remains there starkly in all four gospels - the same man who confessed Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:29). Peter himself is most likely the source of this story. It served as a warning to other Christians who themselves would face persecution that even if the prince of the apostles denied Jesus they might do so also if they were not prepared. Even the best of us can slip and fall, as our human weakness falls prey to strong temptations. Not even the best leader is immune to failure. Nor beyond the promise of grace! We can be honest about our sin … because God’s grace is even greater.
Jesus did not give up on Peter … and he does not give up on us. Who would have thought that Peter’s negative example would have given courage to young and innocent Christians for years afterwards to stand up to questioning, persecution, torture and death rather than deny Jesus. Some even faced lions in the amphitheatre and did not deny their Lord.
Authenticity takes courage and compassion. Everyone around you has the same issues and struggles you do. Perfectionism is often driven by a fear of shame. All this is emotionally unhealthy. It makes your self-worth dependent on the approval or acceptance of others. Vulnerability is the cure for shame. It is the willingness to openly admit failures and weaknesses. It helps you build up resilience to shame and to feel happier about who you are in Christ and what you do have. In fact, the moments we feel most connected to others are usually those in which we have opened up to someone and experienced their empathy. We've all experienced the relief of opening up to others, our problems melting away as we begin to feel understood. This is a truly powerful weapon against shame.
Like Peter, may you know the joy of forgiveness from all sin and failure, of standing unashamed, and of being commissioned to join Jesus in his work on earth.
- Think of a a time when you failed or did something that humiliated or embarrassed you. What did it feel like and what have been the affects since that incident?
- Compare the difference between guilt and shame. How do we know the difference?
- Why are qualities such as openness and authenticity so difficult for us as humans?
- What’s the impact of vulnerability? Why is it so powerful? Why do some see it as weakness?
- How does being vulnerable help us overcome feelings of shame?
- Listen to Brene Brown's TED talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame. What did you learn?
- What can leaders (whether parents, teachers, pastors or managers) learn from Jesus in how to create an environment where people can be open and honest about themselves, rather than building a toxic, shame-based culture?
- What are some indicators that we have made God's grace the foundation of our life and ministry?
- Pray and ask God for complete freedom … from guilt and shame.
[Picture - Rembrandt's Peter Denying Christ]