On Sunday my pastor preached on the passage of Peter’s denial of Jesus from John 18. And he said something that I’ve never once considered when I’ve looked at this particular part of the crucifixion story.
It makes no logical sense to include this story of Peter’s failure.
After all, the book of John was written in the days of the early church. Peter was the leader. He was big time, the superstar head pastor of the movement of Jesus followers. Surely the church would have wanted people to think Peter was the best possible candidate for the running of Jesus Things.
John really didn’t think this through.
Unless he did. This passage actually includes mention of Malchus, the soldier who lost his ear to Peter’s wild sword swinging earlier in the chapter. (And who had that same ear restored to his head through some miraculous Spirit super glue.) John is specific about naming him and making certain we know that it is one of Malchus’s relatives who asks Peter (before that third denial) if Peter was one of Jesus’ followers. Someone reading this account of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal when it was written in the days of the early church would have been able to seek out Malchus, a (much older, probably) living, breathing human. His name is in there to verify the story. His name is there to say: This actually happened, people.
So the question is why? Why of all the stories are we given this one? One that so dramatizes Peter’s human frailties: how he buckles under pressure, how during a moment of stress he turns away from his newfound security in Christ and falls instead into patterns of self-preservation and (earlier, when he cut of Malchus’s ear) violence. In Matthew 26, before Jesus’ arrest, we see Peter promising that rejecting Jesus, denying his connection with the man, was the one thing he’d never do.
And we watch it unfold: Peter becoming exactly the thing he hates.
We don’t know what that’s like at all, do we?
We have all watched ourselves become a person we don’t even recognize in our moments of weakness. We react to stress and lose control emotionally. We hear ourselves screaming at our kids and we hate the person we’re presenting to the people we love most. We’re mean, like nasty mean, to our spouses simply because they are the ones in the crossfire of our stress and fear.
The world pushes us and we fall, over and over again into our patterns of panic or anxiety, anger or vanity. We say things we don’t mean. We hurt people.
And John, the very same writer who describes Jesus as God’s Word made Flesh, wants us to recognize the fleshiness of that God. Christ’s humanity is our invitation to receive restoration. Only the weakest, those who recognize their need, can be recipients of healing.
We will be failures. And those of us who think we’re hiding it aren’t really hiding it. No matter how shined up we make our lives, our spouses see it. Our roommates see it. Our kids see it. We see it, if we’re brave enough to go looking.
What if John put this story in there for us? Perhaps God breathed these words into scripture so that we might be reminded that the broken relational patterns and the failures are real, but those responses of weakness are not the realest thing about us. More real is the mystery of the resurrected Jesus in John 21, the Jesus grilling up fish on the beach, the one who restores Peter, who reminds him that there is grace and forgiveness enough for him and his failure.
Enough grace to put Peter in charge of the whole church, the whole movement. Peter was invited into restoration. First he had to go through the failure and find out that he wasn’t as strong as he thought he was. That’s when he was able to receive the healing Christ was offering him.
Our invitation is not simply to see ourselves in Peter’s failure. It’s to see ourselves in Peter’s restoration. It’s always full circle in the story of Jesus. We are invited to live in the struggle of this life. We are invited to see even our darkest failures as redeemable. Nothing is beyond God’s restoration.
We may fall into the same patterns again and again, but the gift of God is the invitation to begin a new pattern: We fail, we confess our need for healing, and we believe that God is making us more and more into the person we were always intended to be.