“His robe was spotted with blood. A head wound of any kind is messy, and Peter had cut off a man’s ear. He probably had never used a sword before, “
That’s how I was going to start telling the story of Peter denying that he knew Jesus. I was pretty sure about the blood. I’ve watched enough CSI to know about spatter. But when I started thinking about the sword, I stopped. Was it a broadsword as we think of swords from the movies of the knights? Or was it a long knife, the kind that a fisherman might use early in the morning to prepare fish for market?
Why does it matter?
Because I’ve heard people suggest that Peter was using an unfamiliar weapon, that he was so inept that he hit the ear while aiming for the man’s head. Peter, the blundering rube. We get that picture because he came from an area that snooty people considered backward. He was described by religious snobs as untaught.
But maybe Peter was a successful small business owner. He had a couple of boats available. He was able to leave his nets and follow Jesus and still have his family provided for. When Jesus predicted denial, Peter was shocked. He trusted Jesus, in the same way that he knew he trusted himself. He worked hard to understand when Jesus was confusing. When challenged, he stepped up. When someone he cared about was in danger, he used a weapon he knew well and issued a warning – which Jesus didn’t endorse. Instead, Jesus healed the ear and scolded Peter.
Which brings us to where we started: Peter, by the fire outside the interrogation of Jesus, in a blood-spotted robe.
His robe was spotted with blood. A head wound of any kind is messy, and Peter had cut off a man’s ear. It was a precise cut, directed at the slave of the high priest. A non-life-threatening wound to a person of no account. It was a statement.
So was the response of Jesus. “Put away your sword. I will do what I need to do. I need to do what the Father wills.” And then Jesus healed the servant.
Ready to defend Jesus, Peter didn’t expect the resistance to come from his own side. He steps away. He moves to the back of the crowd. And as Jesus talks with the soldiers, and is arrested, and is led away, Peter follows. Behind the torches. Behind the rear guard.
At the large house of the high priest, Peter waits outside the gate. Like Samwise, unable to follow the captured Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Until another disciple with inside connections speaks to the bouncer and gets him into the party.
As he slips by, the doorkeeper says, “You aren’t with the arrested one, are you?” Calculating quickly with the sudden shrewness of a spontaneous spy, Peter says, “No”. Through the gate, he finds a crowd. He mingles, in the shadows cast by the front row of slaves and soldiers by the charcoal fire.
As he warms up, Peter relaxes. He leans forward. A couple soldiers, noticing the blood spatter, noticing something, say “You aren’t with him, are you?” Peter says, “No.”
The light flares. Peter sees a man who looks just like the servant he sliced. Perhaps it was the shape of the earlobe. Perhaps it is the intensity of the stare, something about the eyes. Peter only has time to sense a connection when the man says, “Didn’t I see you out there?” With vehemence of one terrified of revenge in the middle of a hostile crowd, Peter says, “no.”
Said this way, denial makes sense. It’s almost acceptable. Until it’s not.
And then, a rooster. It happened every night. It was so familiar that some slept through it, in the way that you learn to ignore the train whistle and the fire siren and the silence of the countryside.
Peter may have heard the rooster a thousand times in the middle of the night. He fished at night. The sound of the rooster across the quiet water of Galilee reminded him of home, of shore, of the promise of shift-end.
On this night in Jerusalem, 60 miles and a culture away from the lake, the sound of the rooster was not comforting at all. Peter startled at the sound, and looked up. At that moment, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Peter rushed away from the fire, through clusters of people, out of the courtyard, into the street. When he could take a breath, it was a sob.
The rooster and the look from Jesus were a reminder of a conversation a few hours before. Jesus had said, “You will deny knowing me.” Peter argued, with all the confidence of a person who doesn’t believe the worst will happen. “I would die with you” is a true statement, and may be much easier than “I will risk shame for you.”
And Jesus had said, “On the other side of your testing and failing, when you have discovered your limited willpower and my unlimited willingness to obey my Father, you will be able to encourage others. You’ll be able to explain all this. Then.”
Even as Peter fled the courtyard, more fully ashamed than he could imagine, Jesus went ahead with the plan. He would die for Peter anyway.
Decades later Peter would write,
…for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Peter spoke from personal experience. He had found the proven genuineness.
Based on John 18:1-27. First published October 9-11, 2013.