Sin, repentance, humility, and grace

When was the last time we truly repented of anything?

Jesus had been charged with blasphemy in a travesty of a trial.  Having declared him deserving of death, his opponents spit in his face and beat him.  Mockingly, they slapped him and sneered, “Prophesy, Messiah!  Who hit you?”

And ironically, outside in the high priest’s courtyard, one of Jesus’ prophecies was in the process of coming true.

In an earlier post we saw how, just hours before, Jesus had told the disciples that one of them would betray him–and that the rest would scatter like sheep.  Peter refused to believe it, insisting that he would remain loyal, to death if necessary.  No, Peter, Jesus replied; tonight, before the rooster crows, you will completely disown me three times.  Jesus foresaw what Peter could not.

It started innocently enough, as so many lies do.  He had followed the arresting party by stealth, all the way to the palace of the high priest.  He had no sooner entered the high priest’s courtyard than he became the object of a young servant girl’s curiosity: hadn’t he been one of Jesus’ disciples?  No doubt wanting to be cautious, Peter denied it, probably casually at first, then tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

But as time wore on, more people became curious.  Listen to his accent; he’s not from around here.  And then the clincher.  A relative of Malchus, the servant whose ear Peter had wildly lopped off in Gethsemane, spotted Peter in the courtyard: “You!  Didn’t I see you with Jesus in the garden?”  It’s hard to forget the face of a man who’s attacked your family.

Peter lost it.  He began to curse and swear, denying his association with Jesus in the strongest possible terms.

And just then, somewhere nearby, a rooster crowed.  Luke says that at that moment, Jesus locked eyes with Peter.  Piecing the different gospel narratives together, it may have been that Annas was finished questioning Jesus, and was sending him under guard to Caiaphas, putting Jesus in the courtyard just as his prophecy about Peter was becoming reality.

When Jesus looked at him, Peter remembered his master’s words: Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.  A tidal wave of grief and remorse engulfed him, and in full view of everyone, he ran out of the courtyard, sobbing like a child.

It’s not easy to reconcile the different details of the story as given to us by the four gospels.  What’s amazing, however, is that we have the story at all.  One wonders how some of the eyewitness details even found their way into the early church’s tradition.  The most plausible explanation?  They came from Peter himself, the Rock of the Jerusalem church, speaking openly of his own failure.

Who knows what rationalizations went through Peter’s mind as he denied knowing Jesus?  I doubt that he had any illusions of staging a rescue attempt.  But I can easily imagine a fixated frame of mind in which only one thing mattered: staying close to Jesus to find out what would happen.  How much could one little white lie matter?

The first deception is the easiest: compared to the importance of our mission, we brush it off like a fly.  But it seldom stops there.  Peter, at first, thought to blend in and be invisible, but ended up making a spectacle of himself, caught in a trap of his own making.

Yet the wonderful thing is that we have the rest of the story.  Out of his conspicuous failure and sin, Peter threw himself headlong into deep remorse and repentance.  Later, a chastened Peter, even as a leader of the church, was humble enough to let others know the details of his self-protective breach of loyalty.

And why?  Because he had experienced the grace of forgiveness, of being reinstated to fellowship as he walked along the beach with his resurrected Lord (John 21:15-23), of receiving the gift of his Spirit at Pentecost.

Our own stories should never remain mired in obsessive rumination on our failures.  True repentance means accepting the gracious forgiveness of God and leads to the cultivation of true humility.

And there is no knowing what God will do through those who serve him humbly.