PETER’S FRIDAY ~ “War with one’s own metaphysic is the great battle of a lifetime.”
Disaster strikes on Friday. For the Apostle Peter, the falling begins the night before, in Gethsemene.
The sleepy stillness of Peter’s Gethsemane is broken by the clank of swords and the heavy footfall of Roman soldiers, eager to arrest, with kissing cousin Judas as their guide. Cocky is Judas’ look, a glint of greedy evil in his eye that Peter had never noticed until now. Before Peter really realizes what is happening, Judas makes his way to Jesus and kisses him, the calm Christ receiving the kiss with resignation and understanding and astonishing grace for even this moment, the way it must be.
Even those we walk with for years can betray, scorn, and turn – for things as petty and pretty as shiny pieces of silver. Bandwagons are often just too powerful and we are often just too weak to not jump aboard. The majority is always right, right?
Take-charge Peter understands none of this nor does he care, drawing his ever-sharp sword with great practiced skill, verbally ready to die for the Christ but even more ready to shed some good old Roman blood; they have been breathing down Jesus’ neck long enough and tonight his sword will finally do the talking. This ear will do he thinks as he slices off the closest Roman appendage he can reach in joyful anticipation of killing as many naysayers as possible, as many as it takes. It’s about time.
But Peter’s battle this night is not to be a physical one. War with one’s own metaphysic is the great battle of a lifetime.
Christ is arrested and Peter finds himself alone.
For the rest of the night, Peter wanders, meandering from fire to fire, aimlessly Prufrockian as he walks down half-deserted streets, never quite managing to make it home, never settling. Someone says the Romans have called for midnight courts in which to try Christ – and try him they do – all night long, six trials in six hours, both Roman and religious, not one of them a proper, legal affair, all before six o’clock the next morning, finally condemned to crucifixion by noon this very day.
And all the while his friend Peter wanders around alone, not knowing what is happening, no emergency broadcasts to listen to, no Internet to check moment-by-moment to see how the proceedings are going, nothing to go on except rumors by late night fires.
Thrice in his midnight meandering someone stops Peter to ask him about his own participation with the accused, and his denials mount in fearful frustration each time. Six illegal trials and three cowardly denials – quite a night. A night of agony followed by a morning of the same, for how could this morning’s rooster know his crowing would become the icon, the archetype for betrayal.
Peter’s Gethsemane story is the real story of a real person at his worst – weak, fearful, scared, tired, and broken, like all of us are at times. The pressure mounts, the stakes are high, we find ourselves alone when we should be seeking out help and companionship, and things fall apart. If we can be honest with ourselves, if we can ever admit our own need, we might just realize that we are all capable of so very much, good and bad, right and wrong.
No one is exempt from the curse of human frailty. Stones are always heavy when rolled uphill. Let us not be too hard on Peter then, because he’ll be hard enough on himself.
If you are thinking, I would never do that, never betray my friend like that, then you are thinking just like Peter at the last supper table, like the snoozy Peter before the Roman guards arrived to arrest, like Peter with that official’s bloody ear in his hand, cocky and proud before his hero fell and things didn’t turn out the way he thought they would. Peter before all was lost.
When life’s pressure reaches its zenith, when we stand alone in the darkness of our own worst fear, we just don’t know what we ourselves might cock-a-doodle-do.
PETER’S SATURDAY ~ “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, It might have been.” John Greenleaf Whittier
I’ve always wondered how Peter spent that Sabbath, what he did all day Saturday, for the Gospels are Saturday-silent. One can only imagine.
All is lost. Who has the strength to endure such a day?
Perhaps Peter sits at his fishing boat on the shore of a silent sea and remembers. It is the Sabbath and he hunkers in silence at the shore, listening to the incessant chatter of his newfound companion Shame, who sits beside him large and looming and complete. Shame never travels alone – his omnipresent buddies, Remorse and Guilt, are to be Peter’s constant comrades for the rest of his days, of this he is quite sure. This tiresome threesome snuggles in close beside him on the heavy sands of the saddened shore, dark cronies they with their endless talk of cowardice and mistakes made and what might have been, never a truly quiet moment with this trio at his side.
They are here to stay.
It is finished. Yesterday the law killed Christ, crucified him like a common criminal, one week to the day after he rode into town as a hero, palm branches raised and shouts of hosanna sung. Is this the Messiah? people had asked and Peter had been sure that it was.
But now Christ is dead and closed up in a tomb and Peter sits now with new mates, unwelcome and unexpected.
This Sabbath day is long and hot. The smell of blood is in the air – there were three horrifying and bloody crucifixions yesterday, and Peter can taste blood in his mouth. So this is what shame tastes like, blood in the mouth. No amount of rinsing can remove.
Then the cock crew and Peter knew – I am guilty, I am to blame. What’s done cannot be undone, and it is I who is now undone. Peter knows that for the rest of his days, his monstrous shame will walk along with him, follow just steps behind and taunt him from the wings of his life forever. For where else can it go?
If only he had one more moment with Christ, one moment to ask forgiveness, to admit his weakness, to beg for another chance. But this is impossible, for Christ is dead, and dead is dead.
So Peter sits all Sabbath long by his boat listening to blame-speak, the devilish song of his newly bedfellows that grows heavier and more hopeless with each stanza.
He cannot think past yesterday and cannot see past today. He only ponders what it might have been like if he had not denied Christ, where he would be now instead of where he is – but he did deny Christ and there is nothing left.
PETER’S SUNDAY ~ “Tell his disciples – especially Peter…”
Three women trudge tomb-ward, hands and arms full of embalming oils and hearts filled with grief and worry. There are no words for times like this, no easy songs or sweet poetry to lighten this load. Sometimes we are just called to trudge, so these women slog silently along their dusty path to anoint a man who died too soon. Their grief goes before them like a wave, rushing to the entrance of the tomb as water moves downstream after a flood, fast and hard, there is no stopping it. And they worry about the rock – the huge stone that encloses the cave where the dead are lain – it is far too heavy for them to move, and who will be about to help them?
Despair is a burden they did not expect to bear after such a triumphant Passover, and now there is nothing else. Sadness and spices for the dead are in their hands, these and the weighty silence of loss. It’s early and the birds are not even singing this morning.
The sun is rising as they slow-approach the tomb, shining its morning brightness on what should be a massive gravestone protecting the cave entrance, but alas, this particular cave is unprotected by such a stone; instead the mouth of the cave is open and dark, a gaping maw, the place of the dead. These women, quiet by both nature and culture, do not yet speak of the oddity of this, but instead approach with a clip in their step to see for themselves what has happened. They collectively pause at the mouth of the cave, the cool, dank air an unexpected respite from the morning’s growing heat.
Mary the Magdalene enters this cave first, seemingly unafraid. Forgiveness gives one enormous courage, and this courage is the mantle she now wears ever since her gracious encounters with the Christ, the one who removes and forgives the very sins at which men love to throw stones.
It takes their eyes a moment to adapt to the darkness inside this cave-tomb, the readjustment of rods and cones a relatively slow process.
Several blinks into the cave, though, Mary gasps and turns hard in fear, nearly dropping her burial balms at the sight of a young man dressed in white. He smiles a gentle smile and speaks in an easy tone, words he has been waiting to say since the dawn of time, words that alter the whole of history.
“Ladies, do not be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross, but He’s not here. He’s been raised up. Look around for yourselves. Now go on your way. Tell his disciples – especially Peter – that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
Poor Peter, who must have thought he had committed a sin beyond pardon – denial of the Christ. I wonder where he was. Maybe he was sitting by the seashore, head in his hands and tinny despair on his tongue. Maybe he had dragged his shame home with him and was trying to figure out how to wear it for the rest of his days, this heavy, unrelenting garment that grows weightier with each passing moment. Maybe he was denying Him still, pondering and wondering if he had been wrong these last years about Christ and his claims.
Maybe Peter was even contemplating the taking of his own life, for this is how despair thinks, and it is very easy to throw yourself overboard when you own a boat.
We will never know what Peter was thinking. We only know Christ’s message. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, Simon Peter. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, Mary Magdalene. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Yes, you, you, even you.
Peter begins to understand this idea as he listens to the breathless and joyous message of three faithful women and an angel – He is alive and I am forgiven. All is forgiven.
Especially Peter. Especially you. Especially me.
Insects and amphibians and crustaceans undergo the process of metamorphosis, which is a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure, usually accompanied by a change of habit or behavior.
This is what grace and forgiveness does for Peter – he changes entirely, conspicuous and abrupt. The stories written of him after the resurrection of Christ are miraculous and sublime – chains and handcuffs fall unexpectedly from his wrists, prison gates open wide on their own so he may walk free and unfettered – for grace and forgiveness always beget freedom. Peter heals many, some people even brought back to life – from death to life again, is this possible? There are stories of those who are healed when the very shadow of Peter falls upon them as he passes. His resurrected voice, his especial words, redeemed and redeeming, literally change the world, for he speaks the message of hope after destruction, for even the chiefest of sinners. Especially for the chiefest.
I too have tasted the bitter loneliness of deceit and grief, haven’t you? I have betrayed and been betrayed, been laid low and wondered – Does one recover from this, even this?
Peter tells me that with our God, there is plenty of grace to go around. Even in failure great, during lonely, long, and hopeless Saturdays when jumping overboard seems the best plan, Peter says, Don’t jump. There is life after rock bottom. Grace dwells there too, maybe especially there. Just wait, just watch, you’ll see.
Sunday comes. Look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.