But as soon as we get settled into Church, things turn. The fun is behind us. The mood darkens. We pray again, this time acknowledging Christ’s crucifixion and asking God to help us, too, to “walk in the way of his suffering.” With that prayer, Holy Week truly begins.
Pretty quickly, we arrive at the long Passion Gospel, the story of Holy Week from the Last Supper through the crucifixion. Next Sunday, we will get the good news of great joy that Christ is alive. But from the time we got into Church this morning until our celebration on Easter morning, our task is to open our minds and our hearts to the pain and tragedy of the cross.
As we hear the Passion Gospel, as we participate in reading it, we find ourselves in the story. It is like we are there with the disciples, with the first Christians to witness the horror of Christ’s crucifixion. We are Peter: so confident as the story begins, so broken by its end. In his journey to brokenness, Peter represents us.
Peter’s walk in the way of Jesus’ suffering takes place in three scenes.
In the first scene, Jesus tries to warn Peter that a period of fierce testing is coming. Jesus tells Peter that Satan will sift all of the disciples like wheat. Jesus himself has prayed for Peter that his faith may not fail.
Think how one ought to respond to that warning. It’s scary. Despair is not a great reaction. But a little humility and a healthy fear seem called for. A wise person, given such a warning from such a source, would surely ask Jesus to strengthen him for the coming ordeal.
But Peter is not wise. Peter blusters. Peter relies on his own strength, his own commitment. “Lord,” Peter says, not me. “I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”
It’s the wrong response. Peter is not up to the challenge, and, despite Jesus’ clear warning, Peter fails to realize it. Peter’s overconfidence, Peter’s blindness to his own need, guarantees his failure when the test comes because he tries to go it alone.
Jesus foresees exactly what will happen. But it doesn’t take any special insight. It is totally predictable. Peter does not have the strength he will need. As I picture the scene, Jesus heaves a disappointed sigh before telling Peter that Peter will not, in fact, follow him to prison and to death, that instead Peter will deny that he even knows Jesus three times in the next few hours. Then Jesus moves on to a new topic. Clearly Peter is not yet ready to face the reality of the cross, not yet ready even to think about getting ready.
Scene two: Jesus has led the disciples to the Mount of Olives. Jesus himself—God incarnate!—prays in anguish about his coming ordeal. Jesus advises Peter and the rest of the disciples to do the same. “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” You are going to need help. Ask God for it now, while you still can.
Still Peter doesn’t get it. When Jesus comes back to the disciples, he finds them not at prayer, but asleep. Jesus wakes them and, in almost his last words to the disciples before his resurrection, he tells them one more time to “pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
But it is too late. Their trial is at hand, just as Jesus’ is. The difference is, Jesus is ready, and Peter is not.
Scene three: Three times Peter is asked if he knows Jesus. And all three times Peter denies his Lord.
In one sense, it is hard to fault him. After all, Peter has followed Christ to the high priest’s house. That took courage. And the stakes are enormously high. Peter knows that he could well end up crucified. I doubt many of us would have had the courage in that moment to boldly proclaim our allegiance to Jesus.
It is not Peter’s failure that is the problem so much as Peter’s refusal to acknowledge beforehand his need for help. Peter probably would have failed anyway. But if he had asked Christ for help, if he had prayed to God while Jesus was praying, maybe things would have been different. At the very least, Peter would not have sinned by presumptuously relying on his own strength.
All we know for sure is that Peter, who had been so confident in his own strength, denies Jesus. If Peter’s story ended here, this would be a failure pure and simple.
Thankfully, there is one last exchange between Jesus and Peter. Not words, but a look. Just as Peter makes his third denial, the cock crows, and Jesus turns to look at Peter.
In this climatic moment, Peter goes out and weeps bitter tears of repentance. Gone is his presumption and pride. Gone is his cowardly denial. All that is left to Peter is the recognition that he has sinned, that he doesn’t have the strength he thought he had, that he has failed. In this poignant moment, Peter stands naked before Christ’s gaze, exposed as a helpless sinner.
That moment is Peter’s salvation. As long as Peter relied on his own strength, he was closed off to God’s grace. Now, in this moment of failure and misery, and only now, is Peter finally ready truly to receive Christ. Peter’s weakness and failure have opened him to Christ’s forgiveness, to Christ’s redeeming love, to the possibility of true renewal in Christ.
Peter’s story began with Jesus asking him to pray, and then to turn back to strengthen his brothers and sisters. Now, at last, Peter can do that. Now Peter can pray. And having prayed for the strength that he needs from God, Peter can share that strength with those who need it. But it can’t be Peter’s strength. It has to be God’s strength.
That is the great lesson of this day and this week. In the end, our strength fails. We cannot walk the way of the cross by ourselves. Thankfully, we don’t have to. Amen.