There are revelatory episodes in all our lives when, for a few fleeting moments, our naked selves are hanging out there for all the world to see. A wardrobe malfunction of the soul, if you will. Something rips in our personal universe. There’s a tear in the fabric of our external persona. And what lurks beneath, that interior world our raw and unfiltered selfhood, is unmasked.
For Peter, this happened on the night when he denied knowing Jesus. Or, as I prefer to think of it, when he finally told the truth.
Are You One of His Talmidim?
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” a young girl asked Peter. That is The Question, isn’t it? To be a rabbi’s disciple in the 1st century did not mean merely to sit in his Torah Class in the synagogue, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. You were now one of his talmidim, the Hebrew word for followers or students. This meant you sat in the dust of his feet, soaked in and simulated his entire life. You taught as he taught. You ate as he ate. Where he went, you went. Your life was no longer your own.
So, this young girl wasn’t asking Peter if he’d hung out with Jesus. She was asking if he was prepared to hang with him—in the brutally fatal style of the Romans.
“I am not,” he answered. I am not one of this man’s talmidim. Once, twice, thrice he was asked. No, no, hell to the NO, he answered. I may have heard his name thrown about. I may have witnessed him work wonders. I may even have eaten with him, heard him teach, and traveled with him many a mile. But his disciple? I am not.
Of course, Peter meant it as a denial to save his skin. It was, and it did. But it was also a moment of truth-telling that unmasked his naked soul.
Following a Master or Being Pursued by a Lover?
Peter was right. He did not know Jesus. Nor did Peter know himself. But this moment was a huge step forward in his self-knowledge. After his third denial, when he heard a cock crow, he remembered Jesus’s prediction of his denial. And he went out and wept bitterly.
I don’t know of anything worse, in the short term, than such an unmasking of the human soul. And I know of few things, in the long run, that are better.
To weep bitterly over our weakness, our fear, our shallowness, our misplaced confidence in our heroic ability to stand strong—that is a gift of the Spirit given to us when our souls are exposed in episodes of failure. All our pretense of fidelity is shattered. All our Peter-like chutzpah is crushed. And we realize that, not only did we not know Jesus; we didn’t even know ourselves.
This demolishing revelation is the opportunity used by the Spirit to show us that being a disciple of Jesus is not so much following a Master as it is being pursued by a Lover.
Meeting Jesus in the Absolution
Peter actually did die that night, but not in the way he feared. In that baptism of tears, his old self drowned. He wasn’t the man he thought he was. He was somebody entirely different. He was just one more ragtag mortal staggering in the dark through a minefield of temptation and blowing himself into a death that begins repentance.
After the resurrection of Jesus, our Lord showed Peter (and us) that being a disciple has nothing to do with how strong we are, how committed we are, or how holy our lives are. Being a disciple is about losing everything and gaining infinitely more in the God who gives life to the dead.
Peter didn’t know Jesus until the Jesus he knew forgave him. They met for the first time in the absolution.
We don’t become a disciple by deciding to follow Jesus but are made to be one by his choice to kill us and Easter us so that our lives are no longer our own but his. He unmasks our souls precisely in order to show us there is nothing there of which to boast but much to lament. Our whole lives become lives of repentance, dying to ego and rising in the great I Am. Seeing who we truly are, weeping bitterly over that mortal blow to self, and rejoicing with the angels over the kiss of peace from the mouth of a loving Father.
And so we see, once more, that God will waste no sin, for each one is a golden opportunity to teach us who we are, what repentance is, and how sweet the taste of absolution is. Even the gross and horrid denial of the Messiah becomes the blessed gateway for an apostle to enter into the joy of the Lord who brings us home, wipes away our tears of repentance, and shows us that to walk with God is lose ourselves and gain everything.
*I am grateful to M. Craig Barnes, in his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life, for this insight about the denial of Peter.