This is one of two Good Friday reflections in the Missio Holy Week and Lent series. Read the rest here.
When our family was living in Jordan, I would often awaken in the early hours of the morning to hear the call to prayer being broadcast from the mosque across from our neighborhood. Only half-awake, hearing the monotone voice was disorienting and oftentimes disturbing. Though only a muffled sound through our windows, the tones accentuated the reality that we were living in a culture where Christians were not the majority. At times, I found that sound spiritually disorienting, especially before we really connected with other Christians early in our time there. New situations can cause us to lose our bearings and sudden paradigm shifts can make us feel turned upside down. The question for us as believers whose vocation calls us to engage with cultures different from our own is, will we let Christ put to death all of our selves for his purposes and allow him to rise in us for his glory? Or will we retreat deeper into ourselves and shrink back?
During this past season of Lent, my heart was continually drawn to Peter. One of Christ’s inner circle, Peter was one of the first whom Christ chose – handpicked. Peter was the one who immediately left his boat to follow a man he didn’t yet know because he saw the miracle of the catch of fish. Peter was the one who later recognized, by the revelation of God, who Jesus truly was: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16) Christ later declared him to be Cephas, Aramaic for “Rock.” Christ declared that he would build his church upon him and give him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
That was all before Peter denied Christ—not once, nor twice, but three times, with absolute certainty, that he did not know Christ. On the walk to the Mount of Olives, Christ begins to tell his disciples how they will all desert him that night. Peter steps forward and makes a characteristically impulsive declaration, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” (Matthew 26:35) We know the rest of the story: how Peter fulfills Christ’s foretelling that he would deny him three times that night. The gospel narrative gives us a picture of Christ’s ability to see beyond the natural man and his sovereign grace and power to redeem us for His glory.
A part of me shies away from Peter, or rather the kind of person Peter represents. I more relate to John, whose word pictures and reflective rendering of Christ’s life speak better to my personality. Brash, impulsive, passionate Peter has rarely received my empathy or affection. He speaks before he thinks. He looks before he leaps.
Yet when I began reading the gospel narratives that describe Christ’s last moments leading up to his death this Lent, my attention was continually, almost inexplicably drawn to Peter. Perhaps it is because he, more than any other disciple, comes into focus several times during these chapters. Or perhaps it was because I began to see myself, rather uncomfortably, in Peter. More so, after reading through parts of Peter’s letters, I see such great transformation and spiritual maturity that I want to know what happened to Peter during the time period between Good Friday and Christ’s reinstatement of Peter after his resurrection.
Not many of us can personally relate to what the disciples endured that weekend. Christ’s last words to his friends began with a profound demonstration of servant leadership. His washing of their feet was a complete role reversal, a true paradigm change, for the disciples. Even in that quiet moment, Peter loudly protests, “No! You will never ever wash my feet!” (John 13:8) It is not just what Peter says here or later which stands out. It is how Christ responds to him: “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Here, we see clearly God’s heart towards Peter and, ultimately, towards each of us.
When Christ makes known that all of his disciples will desert him during his last hours, all of them begin to protest, and most of all Peter. He declares, “Even if they all fall away and are caused to stumble and distrust and desert You, yet I will not!” (Mark 14:29, AMP) To that, the Lord quietly reveals Peter’s impending denial, not once, nor twice, but three times before the rooster crows. Christ is painfully specific. He goes on to say, “You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault. I will strike the shepherd; the sheep will go helter-skelter” (Mark 14:27-28, MSG).
Interestingly, the Scriptures record that all of the disciples deny that they would ever desert Christ, but Peter appears to have protested the loudest. And who among us has not done so as well—experienced the moment of commitment, either in church, at a retreat, or in a bible study group where we make a vow to follow Christ at all costs? How many of us have made that commitment with complete earnestness, then in retrospect, years later, realize that we’ve all but deserted that promise towards our First Love? We experience a tragic loss or a change of life so disorienting that our hearts are turned upside down. Our first response is flight. We retreat and nurse our wounds.
What I find so amazing is not just that Christ knew the extent to which his closest friends and confidents would desert him, but that he knew what they were capable of doing and still chose them, invested time and energy in teaching them, and saw beyond what they saw in themselves. He saw Cephas, the Rock, when he was still Peter, the one who would follow Christ only from a distance once he was arrested and then would deny that he even knew Him. And yet he still says, “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you, leading the way to Galilee (Mark 14:28, MSG). This is the promise of Good Friday and our hope when our hearts betray us. Christ knows our weakness and our betrayal, which is why he needed to walk the road to Golgotha. Because he went ahead of us, we have hope that he takes our hearts and can resurrect us out of the graves we have dug for ourselves. But are we willing to die?
The rooster crowed, and Christ’s steady gaze turned to Peter, who was speaking his third and final renouncement of knowing Christ. Luke records that “Peter left the courtyard, weeping bitterly” (Luke 22:62, NLT). The pain Christ suffered that day was not just from the nails in his hands and feet or the scourges that tore flesh from his back. We can pass the responsibility of this physical and inhumane torture to the Roman soldiers who failed to see Christ, the true King of the world. But it was his own circle—those with whom shared meals and lodging, and whom he deeply loved, taught, and led—who would turn away from him at his darkest hour. He knew what they would do when their worlds were turned upside down, and he still said, “I will go ahead of you, leading the way to Galilee.” This is Good Friday love: the Savior knew that even his own would desert him, reject him, and even crucify him.
Many of us, as we learn to know Christ in his sufferings, can only begin to have the moral imagination, the faith, to truly recognize that it was our sins that caused his death and necessitated the utter and absolute separation from his Father. This realization has helped me to empathize with Peter rather than judge him.
But unlike Peter, I can see what comes after the crucifixion in the narrative. Peter, in his Good Friday moment, had not yet experienced the resurrection. Even in this, Christ’s sacrificial love was at work: “Simon…I have pleaded in prayer for you…that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). The Savior knew of Peter’s denial, and he had already forgiven him. He had, in fact, already spoken into what Peter was to do once he repented. Jesus understood Peter’s true heart and affirmed that he had chosen his disciples with perfect knowledge of their eternal destiny and purpose in his kingdom. The same is true for us.
Our hearts betray us. More so, we do not know the full extent to which our hearts may betray us. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) In the face of disaster, change, tragic loss, and desperation, I hope that my faith in Christ will ride above the wave of these forces. But if I fail to hold fast? The promise of Good Friday is that when our world is turned upside down, and even our own hearts flee for cover, we have hope. The reinstatement of Peter following Christ’s resurrection gives us a glimpse of this hope. The resurrected Savior asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Three times, Christ asked him, exhorting Peter each time to care for his flock. He then foretells Peter’s death, and we are reminded that in order to fellowship in his glory, we are called as believers to fellowship in his sufferings.
Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1:9). We are allowed, in these moments, to come face to face with the ugliness of our sin, in order that we might fully receive his gift of salvation. Otherwise, would we even imagine how deceitful our hearts could be? Those of us who have been brought to the end of ourselves through life’s difficulties, personal failure and providential discipline can appropriate, by faith and repentance, the full measure of Christ’s redeeming grace and step back into our calling to kingdom work.
Photo: Alfonso Romero; Silke Rabung.