On the way to Gethsemane Jesus preaches another hard truth to his disciples: “You will all fall away. And you, Peter, you, tonight, this very night, in a few hours, you will deny that you ever knew me. You will reject me.”
And just as before, the disciples, and especially Peter, repeat their words from earlier that night when Jesus said someone (Judas) would betray him: “Surely not I, Lord!” Surely not, for these men have, by Jesus’ own admission, given up everything to follow Jesus. They have abandoned house, home, wealth, careers, and the esteem of their communities for this vagabond religious fanatic. Among the disciples you find no fair-weather fans, no bandwagon jumpers, no hangers-on, no groupies. No one here seeks to fill his stomach as they did outside the synagogue in Capernaum. These guys are the real deal. They are the martyrs in training.
But, of course, Jesus knows. He doesn’t just have an inkling or a sensation of things. He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt because he has a perfect grasp of prophecy. Jesus quotes Zechariah to his closest friends, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” And not only because Jesus has these words memorized, but also because he knows their perfect meaning, he knows this refers to himself (the shepherd) and his apostles (the sheep). Tonight he will be struck down, first by a kiss, then by the fury and fists of his Jewish opponents, and then finally, by the next morning, the Roman justice of the cross.
But not only that. That Zechariah prophecy speaks in the first person singular, “I.” We wonder about that “I”, it intrigues us. Read Zechariah for yourself and you discover it’s the LORD Almighty speaking, you know, God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, he whom we confess in the Creed, he whom Jesus encourages us to address as our dear Father.
“I,” the Father says, “I will strike the shepherd, my Son.” This makes more personal the disturbing words of Isaiah 53, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” We think of the devil or the world or hell attacking Christ. But the Father? Yes. “My God, my God,” Jesus says from the cross.
Peter already rebelled against this word once. Hearing Jesus announce his mission to die, Peter said, “No, never, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Peter couldn’t grasp then the theology of the cross. That God’s glory is gory. That we find balm and healing in the wounds of Christ. That we trust in…his death. That he must die. That he must deny every instinct man has, to live, to survive, to go on one more step, to fight on to the last man, the last ounce, the last whatever.
Now Peter doesn’t so much rebel against that. Or at least he keeps his mouth shut. When Jesus talks about being struck Peter doesn’t contradict him for once. Though, perhaps, it’s because Jesus moved too quickly on to something else offensive. Not only does he say that the disciples will fall away – bad enough, and Peter objects – he points to Peter and says, “I tell you the truth, today – yes, tonight – before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”
Again, this is no hanger-on Jesus speaks to. Before him stands the most willing and dedicated of his followers. These men, Jesus said earlier, will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Paul will write in his epistles that everything we preach about Jesus is built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles – these men Jesus accuses of falling and denying. Revelation 21 tells us that heaven itself, the New Jerusalem has a wall with twelve foundations and written on them “were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
Just like that, “You will fall away. You will deny. I tell you the truth.” They all said it. All of them, “No, never! Surely not I! I will die with you before I fall away or deny you!”
Yet just hours later they all fled when the Jewish mob came and arrested Jesus. The Father struck his shepherd, the sheep scattered. John and Peter skulked behind the group to observe the trial. We know what happened there. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “No, not me, you’ve got the wrong guy.” “Stop saying that! I don’t know the man!”
And he broke down and wept.
Jesus knew his men. Just as he knows you. No wonder he says so often, “I’m dying. The Father’s killing me. For you, by the way. You will die with me. You will give up everything. You will bear the cross.” He says it because we can’t believe it. He says it because it seems so awful it can’t be true.
He says it to us, us who are, ostensibly, not mere hangers-on. We’re on the inside. Bathed in his holy water, he moved us from outside to inside, from slaves to sons, from enemies to friends. Fed upon his body and blood, we’re as close as close can be. We eat his food from his table and receive his life. We’ve got the Spirit blowing like a wind all around us all the time as he preaches God’s Words to us from pulpits and altars at church and at home, from fathers and pastors. He surrounds us with shepherds and promises we are his sheep, his beloved sheep, the sheep of his care that he carries in his arms even as those who do evil surround us, afflict us, assail us. Even as the evil within us wells up against us, attacking us, seeking to destroy us.
Still, he warns us about falling and disowning. Because he knows the world we live in and he knows us. He knows the simple fix for us is to pretend like we don’t know what people are talking about, to claim we’re not who they thought we were, to shout, “Stop it, I don’t know that man or what you’re talking about!” When the shoe drops, when the hammer falls, it’s easier to fall on the side of fleeing and denying than standing firm. When Moses stood firm against Pharaoh, Pharaoh said, “Fine. No Israelites can make bricks without straw and they have to make just as many.” And Israel hated Moses for it.
No doubt when the disciples took the words and commands of Jesus to the nations, it didn’t go entirely smoothly. We know it didn’t. Only John died a natural death. Paul gives us the laundry list: “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned.”
Easier to be quiet and survive. Live and fight another day. Fall away and disown, but keep your skin. Or your job. Or your friends. Or your spouse. Or your family. Or your stuff. Sure it’s true we want to build bridges and relationships, but you can use that as an excuse too to never do anything. Of course I want to build trust with someone before I rebuke them for their sins or tell them their theological system or religion is a straight ticket to hell. But at some point I have to tell them. Jesus doesn’t say, “Wobble and you will receive the crown of life.” He says, “Stand firm to the point of death and I will give you the crown of life.” He doesn’t say, “Make yourself comfortable beyond worry.” He says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
Deny yourself. The same word he used to Peter. “You will deny me.” Peter claimed no knowledge of or relationship with Jesus. A sin we know ourselves to be guilty of. A sin that makes sure not to keep God’s name holy among us. A sin that attempts to prevent God’s kingdom from coming. Though God’s name is holy and his kingdom comes even without us. But we pray, as Luther says, we pray that it may be so.
We pray because we know ourselves. We speak emphatically at church, but less so at home or work or school. It’s easy to get into the cycle of failure and guilt that leads to unattainable resolutions and finally more failure and guilt. The answer isn’t to quit. The answer is, as always, to look at Jesus.
In the midst of his words about falling and denying, he speaks about the resurrection. “After I have risen.” We work on a million plans to get better or stronger, to be more faithful and dedicated, and Jesus just says, “I’ll do it.” Of course, wrapped within the word risen is the word “died.” Jesus got struck, by the Father, on behalf of you, for you, because of you. You fall and deny. Jesus did not. He said, “Your will be done.” And then went and did God’s will. He laid down his life. He took it up again.
Then imagine what was among the first things on his list to accomplish. If it’s us, we might play the “I told you so,” card. To pop in on those who denied and laugh in their faces. Jesus instead comes to the disciples on that first day and says, “Peace be with you.” He rose to reconcile himself with those who fell away and denied. “Peace be with you. I forgive you.”
Later, after a nice meal together, Jesus and Peter have a talk. “Do you love me, Peter?” Jesus asks. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter says. Three times they go through this. Three times Peter says, “I know who you are. I know what you’re about. I know you. I love you. I’m yours.” The resurrected Lord speaks this same word to you as he makes you his own again, not after a meal, but in a meal, his meal, for you. Amen.