Have you ever been let down by a friend? A parent? Betrayed by a partner? Or perhaps you betrayed someone and have lived feeling guilt-ridden?
As if being tortured and crucified for the sins of the entire human race wasn’t pain enough, Jesus experienced betrayals too.
Jesus did life with a close group of 12 friends, but even among those he had his closest confidantes.
During the Passover day, the friends shared food together. (I like to model my friendships on this – it’s biblical.)
Not only does Jesus announce that one of them will betray him, he also says that Peter (one of his inner circle) is going to let him down. Peter is aghast. He would never let Jesus down! How could Jesus even think such a thing? Peter is adamant he’ll stay true, even to the point of death. Let his best friend down? Never!
After dinner, as the time drew nearer for Jesus’ final mission, he couldn’t bear the thought of it. Taking only three friends he went to Gethsemane to pray. He is so anxious he is sweating tears of blood.
It’s understandable that being in the garden late at night, waiting for Jesus, these guys might have trouble staying awake. Well, they don’t. His friends can’t even stay awake as Jesus wrestles with subjecting himself to an undeserved death; the first let down.
But as Jesus is seized from the garden and hauled away, Peter keeps his promise and doesn’t desert him. He follows. Jesus is punched and slapped; soldiers spit in his face. What’s happening to Jesus is brutal and graphic. Peter is so busy being physically present that perhaps his guard slips. Others turn to asking if he knew Jesus, hung out with Jesus, was friends with Jesus. Emphatically he denies having anything to do with Jesus all three times. Peter may have been physically present, but he denied him with fervent words.
As the cock crows, just as Jesus said it would, the penny drops with Peter.
At this moment “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke22:61). As their eyes meet, it must seem like Jesus can see into his very soul. The enormity, the sorrow and the betrayal sink in. Peter flees and weeps – regret, guilt and anguish all flood out. How Peter must have hated himself at that moment. All four gospels describe how bitterly he weeps. Heartbroken, Peter just cries.
Then all too quickly, Jesus is crucified. His friend is dead, with no chance to apologise for letting him down so completely.
Now at this point, I’m not sure I’d want to see Jesus again. Can you imagine trying to look him in the eyes again after that moment?
Three days later, there’s elation! The flickering hope that maybe, just maybe, it had happened as Jesus had said, that he had risen from the dead. The cold feeling of dread stealing into the stomach, the doubts – I let him down. I denied him. Maybe Peter hoped and wanted to believe. But there’s that niggle that we all know so well, that seed of doubt that gets fed – he’ll forgive everything. Everything except that.
But when Jesus and Peter meet again, we get a glimpse of just how gracious Jesus is. He doesn’t announce Peter’s previous defection. He isn’t into shame and recriminations.
Instead Jesus waits and walks, just with him, and asks: “Peter do you love me?”
“Yes Lord, of course I love you,” Peter answers, pretty fervently I imagine.
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus replies. Peter, not always quickest on the metaphors, is pretty baffled. Er, Lord? You don’t have any sheep? We’re fishermen…right okay, I’ll just go with it…
Jesus asks again. Same answer.
Jesus asks a third time. If he’s asking a third time, maybe Jesus just doesn’t believe him.
But this time, he explains.
This time, the penny drops again. Peter, open-mouthed, Jesus with a smile, twinkle in his eye, raise of the eyebrows and a ‘see what I did there’ look – (we’re made in God’s image so I believe Jesus has a sense of humour.)
Three times a denial: three times the chance to put it right.
But Jesus goes even further. He sees Peter’s repentance, his pain at wrongdoing. He commissions Peter to spread the gospel. He gives him responsibility, trust, even leadership despite Peter’s failures.
I’ve known moments where I’ve not been able to look God in the eye. But forgiveness is for everyone. No exceptions, no caveats – you want it, it’s yours. Peter is part of that hope at Easter. He betrays Jesus and messes up big time – and he’s exactly the person Jesus chooses to build his Church. And that is very good news indeed.