Our reading today jumps forward by a good bit from our stopping point last week. It is still late on Thursday evening, but a lot has happened.
I could catch us up, but I’d like to let someone else tell the story this morning. A few of the details come from Luke’s version, but much of what you’ll hear also appears in John’s gospel from end of chapter 13 to the start of 18, which is where we’ll pick up.
Check out the first 1:45 of this video from the Skit Guys now…This is a preview version you can purchase to download. We’ll watch more later
And so here we are. John 18:starting at verse 12 (NRSV)
12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.
17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
He said, “I am not.”
18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.
20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”
23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”
He denied it and said, “I am not.”
26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”
27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
This is not a great night for Peter. And it doesn’t look good for Jesus, either.
What started as an intimate dinner with friends, including Jesus remarkable show of love in washing their feet, has turned into a more public drama involving police and swords and arrests
I want to back up to some of the events in the garden that our Peter described for us… just to catch a couple of details.
He referred to Jesus praying alone… that would be the portion of John that scholars have called Jesus’ priestly prayer. It is among the most beautiful and intricate passages of John’s writing. In it, Jesus implores God to unite and empower the disciples, and not just the twelve, but the generations who would follow… all the way to us.
Jesus prayed for this unity and power, not so that his followers might fight against something… but so that we might love one another and the world, just as Jesus has done.
After he prays alone, Jesus and his disciples go to another garden, this one across the Kidron valley. They find themselves staring down Judas and the soldiers and police he has brought, along with the temple leaders.They have come armed and ready to arrest Jesus.
Jesus knew what what coming. And he walked right up to them.
And he asked, Who are you looking for?
John 18:5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus replied, “I am he.”
Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.
7 Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”
I am he…
While the NRSV does a good job here of bringing an ancient Greek text into proper English, grammatically speaking… we lose something important.
In truth, when Jesus answered, He said, “I AM.”
John has been using this construct throughout the gospel to help us hold onto the truth of Jesus’ identity. Both his identity as a fully human Jewish man and as fully divine.
When he answers with “I am” Jesus isn’t simply affirming that he is the one who answers to the name of Jesus and comes from Nazareth.
Jesus is once again claiming his identity as the One from Heaven, God with Us.
As I shared with some of you at our first Wednesday Evening Lent gathering, I am is in fact God’s name. If we go back to Exodus… back to the moment when Moses meets God, we see Moses encountering a bush that is burning but not being consumed.
During this interaction, God calls Moses to his work as the liberator of the Hebrew people. Moses is skeptical, but it even as it becomes clear that he will not be declining this call, who is doing the calling is unclear.
So he says to God…
Exodus 3:13 … “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
For all generations, this is my name.
Now, when he says “I am” Jesus knows that the Pharisees and Chief Priests will hear and know exactly what he is saying.
Jesus is claiming his identity.
His true name.
For all generations.
One of the signs we skipped in this winter’s reading of John is back in chapter 6, when the storm is raging and the disciples look out to see Jesus walking on the water.
He says to them, “don’t be afraid… Then our English translations give us, “It is I” or more colloquially “It is me”
But the Greek… you know what it says?
Yeah… I AM
There are moments in his teaching that Jesus adds a descriptor to the end…
I am the Light of the World
I am the Gate
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the Resurrection and the Life
Each of those teachings reveals an important aspect of God’s character, of God’s care for humankind and the world.
But some moments, Jesus isn’t teaching, he is showing.
He is being.
He is displaying the fullness of God
Look… listen… believe…
God is here.
And in this fullness, he invites us – humankind – to be in relationship with God
Jesus invites his followers to know the power of God
But also to experience all the love, grace and hope God offers
To hear the shepherd calling our names
And to respond whole-heartedly.
This is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples
Why he broke bread with them
Why he prayed for them with such passion and compassion
And now, here he was… being the good shepherd,
ready and willing to lay down his life for his sheep
All of them.
Including Judas. Who had gone very far astray
And Peter… Oh, Peter.
Peter who among the 12 was most clearly all in. 100%
Even if he didn’t 100% understand what that 100% was supposed to look like
We see this when he cries out “Wash all of me… not just my feet”
When he falls asleep on prayer watch duty
And becomes overly zealous with the sword
In these situations and more, we can see that he’s trying awfully hard to live into this new calling. But not quite getting there. After all, he was a fisherman, not a Bible scholar.
But he stuck with it.
Stuck with Jesus, who kept trying to teach him.
And then, in the courtyard… it happens.
Not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter denies knowing Jesus.
He doesn’t deny Jesus identity as Lord and Messiah.
No. Peter is denying his own identity.
Like walking away from his place at the table, he denies being a follower.
On the very night that Jesus has prayed for his followers to bear witness to his teachings and to abide – to remain – in relationship with God…
Peter has the chance to bear witness, To say “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus…”
But he says “I am not.”
It would be easy to make light, to pretend that we would stand firm, unlike wishy-washy, all-in then all-out Peter. But truly… are we so different?
It’s hard for me to think so when we consider honestly the fully human way that Peter responds to the events of this awful awful night…
That’s why I like this video so much. Peter isn’t the punch line to a joke. He is a complicated human facing a difficult situation. Just like we do, so many days in our lives.
Let’s watch how our actor brings Peter’s denial to life (you can scroll back up to the video again. You can stop at about 3:34 when he describes the rooster crowing)
How did this happen? Possibly the most passionate follower of Jesus
Reduced to “I am not”
Well, it’s actually quite normal for a human to choose comfort and safety.
Jesus walked straight into a situation where being true to his identity would lead to death.
Peter followed him.
They each would face points of decision…. stay the course or preserve your life?
When I look at the choices Jesus made and compare them to Peter…
The words “God is God and I am not” come to mind.
I mean, if we look honestly into our hearts, do we have the courage to do any different? We are fully human, too. It’s hard for me to sit in judgment over Peter.
But I do I wonder what a faith-filled Peter might have encountered.
What if Peter had said “I am” to the woman at the gate?
Yes, she might have denied him entry. Or taken him directly to the authorities… But she might have had other questions. Questions about what it might be like to follow this Jesus who seemed to honor women.
Jesus did say… Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
What if Peter had said “I am” to the slaves and police warming themselves at around the fire?
Sure, they might have sent him away or hauled him inside to the men that owned or paid them…But they might have had questions about this Jesus who talked about setting captives free
Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
What if Peter had said “I am” to the man who had seen him while he was brandishing the sword in the garden? Sure, the man might have come at him with his own weapon. But he had seen Jesus heal the man’s ear… Don’t you think he would have questions?
Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
Peter had heard Jesus teaching. He had stories to tell, lessons to share.
What if he had chosen to bear witness to all of it?
It is absolutely true that God is God, and I am not…
And I don’t know what it is like to face the trials Jesus did.
Or even the fear that Peter faced in this moment.
So I am not going to stand here and pretend for one moment that I know what I would do. But here’s what I do know.
I know God.
And I know what God has done for me.
I know how my relationship with Jesus the Christ has shaped my life
I know how much the words of Jesus challenge me
To be a more generous, kind and honest human
To seek justice for people I don’t even know
To be an advocate for those whose voices are silenced.
To love all people -in word and action.
And I know all of this because of Sunday School teachers and ministers
Because of seminary professors
Because of people who don’t believe or trust what the church and churchy people have to say these days
And because of members of this congregation,
all of whom asked and continue to ask me questions that helped form my faith…
and help me to remember what I have heard and read
and challenge me to bear witness to my identity as a follower of Jesus.
Even if it means going back to read what Jesus said, again and again
I suspect you could make a similar list of people who have loved you, taught you, challenged you.
Here’s a question to consider in the coming days…
If someone were to ask if you were a follower of Jesus what would you say?
Now I’m not talking about someone asking if you know who Jesus is… whether or not you think you’re going to heaven or if you’ve been “born again”
I’m talking about someone watching you, listening to you…
watching and listening to us as a church, the Body of Christ in this age.
I’m talking about the person who knows that Jesus said…They will know you are my followers by your love.
Maybe they wouldn’t realize that it came from John’s gospel. From his teaching after he washed the disciples’ feet when he said… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What would you say?
And if they ask us just by watching…
Are we followers of Jesus?