By my desk I keep a hilarious and inspiring book called The Book of Heroic Failures. Back when I was a school teacher whenever I had a bad day it used to cheer me up with stories of other people who had had even greater disasters than I did. You might have heard the very sad story of a group of soldiers who were standing in for the Fire Brigade during the firemen’s strike in 1978. You remember they drove the military fire engines, the Green Goddesses, rather than the usual red ones. This group of soldiers went to the rescue of an elderly lady in South London whose cat was stuck up a tree. They arrived promptly and with great skill rescued the cat. The lady was so grateful that she invited the heroes in for a cup of tea. Which was great until they were leaving. As they drove the Green Goddess away back to the fire station the soldiers accidentally ran over the cat and killed it. They could have been heroes but ended up being failures. Like Peter in our story today. In the history of heroic failures, few have been as tragic or as catastrophic as the apostle Peter when he denied that he was a follower of Jesus not just once, not twice but three times in the space of an hour.
Imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard the cock crowing. Have you ever let a friend down? Failed to keep your promise to them? Done something which has hurt them? Or perhaps worst of all, when they most needed your help and support, denied that you were their friend or even that you knew them at all? If so, you will have an idea of how Peter was feeling on that last evening of Jesus’s life, when he disowned Jesus and denied that he was a disciple. It was surely the lowest point in Peter’s life. When he realized just how badly he had let Jesus down.
There were at least three reasons why Peter would feel especially guilty and ashamed about what he did on that evening. Particular reasons why Peter would have felt even worse than we can imagine about denying that he knew Jesus. The first is that it was Jesus who he disowned. Not just any friend. But Jesus. His rabbi, his teacher. Jesus who Peter had recognized and declared to be the Holy One of God, the Messiah, the Son of God. But Peter lied and said that he was not a disciple and that he didn’t even know that Jesus. Jesus was on trial for his life inside the house. At the same time Peter was on trial outside in the courtyard. Jesus’s accusers were the Jewish authorities, the most powerful people in Jerusalem. Peter’s first accuser was only a servant-girl. And yet Peter failed.
Secondly, Jesus had warned him in advance that he was going to do that! Earlier that evening as they were eating what we call the Last Supper, just after Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples.
John 13 36 Simon Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’
Jesus replied, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.’
37 Peter asked, ‘Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’
38 Then Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will disown me three times!
So Jesus knew that Peter would let him down. Within just a few hours Peter would be regretting that rash promise. “I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus had warned him that he would deny his Lord and Peter should have been on his guard. Instead Peter failed him, just as Jesus had foretold. It had been so easy to boast, “I will lay down my life for you”, when that was just a possible event in an indefinite future. When that prospect became an imminent risk, we can understand why Peter changed his tune. All Peter’s self-confidence, arrogance even, should serve as a warning to us all too. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians,
10 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Then there was a third reason why Peter would have been desperately ashamed about denying that he knew Jesus. Because another of the twelve apostles had seen it all happen!
15 Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, 16 but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant-girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
We aren’t told for certain who this “other disciple” was, but we can make a very good guess. John’s Gospel only uses the phrase ‘the other disciple’, in one other place and that is in in John 20. There “the other disciple” refers to ‘the one Jesus loved’, in other words, to John himself. Peter and John along with James formed the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples and were often together. It is only John’s Gospel which mentions this other disciple who made it possible for Peter to enter the courtyard. Taking all these things together, we can be pretty sure that it was the apostle John himself who followed Jesus to the High Priest’s House along with Peter.
The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant-girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
17 ‘You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?’ she asked Peter.
He replied, ‘I am not.’
So John was right there, by Peter’s side when the servant girl let them together into the courtyard. He could not have failed to hear Peter deny that he was one of Jesus’s disciples. John could well have been there around the fire beside Peter warming himself when others asked the question a second time. And it is only John’s Gospel that identifies the third person to challenge Peter as a servant of the High Priest’s. So it seems highly likely John witnessed that conversation as well.
When the cock crowed it wasn’t just Peter who knew that he had let Jesus down. John had seen it all. Peter had disowned Jesus three times, just as Jesus had foretold, all in front of his old friend John. John knew Peter’s shameful secret and Peter would never be able to hide it or forget it or pretend it had never happened. No wonder that Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel tell us that when the cock crowed Peter went outside and wept bitterly. Truly a heroic failure.
But let’s not leap to judging Peter too harshly. Because this story makes us ask a very uncomfortable question. Have there ever been times when we have denied Jesus? Or disowned Jesus? Even lied about whether we are Christians because we were afraid of what the consequences might be if we told other people that we are followers of Jesus?
The trial may come in subtle ways. It doesn’t often happen that people ask us directly, “Are you a Christian?” So we may not often have lied and answered “no” to that question. We may never have actually denied Jesus by saying, “I am not a Christian” or “I don’t believe in Jesus”. But there may well have been times when people are talking about Christian things and they have asked our opinion and we have ducked the question. Or times when we have deliberately avoided talking about Jesus. And there may well have been times when we have disowned and dishonoured Jesus by saying things Christians should not say or doing things Christians should not do. Heroic failures.
I heard a story about a policeman who was being interviewed for a promotion. The interviewer described a challenging scenario. “You are in uniform out on the beat by yourself. An ugly crowd is coming along the road shop smashing shop windows. One of the shops catches fire. At that moment a heavily pregnant woman collapses on the pavement in front of you and goes into labour. You try to call for backup but your radio isn’t working. What do you do?” The policeman thought for a moment and then gave an honest answer. “I would take off my helmet and jacket and merge into the crowd.”
With Jesus inside the house on trial for his life, there in the courtyard Peter was only doing what most of us would have done. He was trying to merge into the crowd, trying not to get noticed. Like the chameleon, that remarkable lizard which can change the colour of its skin to resemble their surroundings. Chameleons put on camouflage so they can merge into the background and not stand out. Sometimes Christians deny Jesus by being chameleons, merging into the crowd so nobody notices them. It is easy to be full of joy and praise and to say all the right things when we are surrounded by other Christians. The challenge is to stand up for Jesus and speak out for him in the crowd, in our place of work, with our neighbours and our friends who aren’t Christians. Have we ever been Chameleon Christians?
No wonder that when the cock crowed, Peter went out and wept bitterly. Perhaps we have also let Jesus down. Perhaps we have denied or disowned Jesus and now bitterly regret those failures. There is some good news for us, as there was for Peter, but to hear it we need to look past the next part of the story. In the next twentyfour hours Jesus will be found guilty in rigged trials. He will be mocked and scourged. Jesus will be cruelly nailed to a cross where he will die. He will spend two nights dead in the tomb. And all through that time Peter will be consumed with the guilt and the shame of having denied and disowned his Master and his Friend.
For the good news we need to look beyond those two days. Spoiler alert. Because that wasn’t the end of the story and on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. But could Jesus possibly forgive Peter for his failure? Two passages in the accounts of the resurrection tell us that Jesus did indeed forgive Peter.
Starting on that first Easter morning when the women found the tomb was empty and the stone rolled away and the angel said this to them.
Mark 16 6 ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” ’
Tell the disciples AND Peter. A special message just for Peter to give him hope and peace!
Then Luke tells us about Jesus appearing that evening to two disciples as they went from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus.
Luke 24 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’
The Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. During that first Easter Day Jesus had appeared to Peter before he appeared to any of the other apostles. We don’t know any more details about that encounter, except that Paul also mentions it in his list of resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15, that Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (that is Peter) and then to the twelve.”
So after the resurrection Jesus had a special meeting with Peter, before he appeared to any of the other apostles. And I am certain that the purpose of that occasion was to reassure Peter that Jesus did indeed forgive him. Jesus had known that Peter would deny him three times. He had warned him. And afterwards Jesus met just with Peter to show him that he was forgiven.
Peter let Jesus down – three times. And we let Jesus down, and on more occasions than that I am sure. Jesus forgave Peter, and Jesus will forgive us too! After the resurrection, Peter became the boldest of the apostles. Perhaps that was because he more than most had discovered how amazing and wonderful it was that God forgives us. Or perhaps from his failure Peter had learned how important it is not to rely on our own strength or courage but to rely instead entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit, God living inside us as our Helper, helping us to be faithful witnesses for Jesus. When the times of trial come and we are tempted to deny Jesus or disown Jesus, God will give us the strength to stand firm in our faith if we ask Him. The example of Peter’s failure is a warning for us all. Don’t be a heroic failure. Don’t be a Chameleon Christian!