We covered a lot of ground already this evening: From Jesus’ anguish and prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the venomous hatred for the Christ shown by the Church—the Jewish Council, to the failure of secular government to fulfill its God-given duty to administer justice by protecting innocent citizens from false accusations. There’s so much to say after every reading, after every part of the Passion History. But, then again, the story of Christ’s suffering speaks for itself. The sermons this week will all be pretty short. This evening I would highlight just one thing.
Consider Peter’s denial.
As we discussed in Bible class on Sunday, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. I think we all know people who can come across as prideful or haughty or arrogant. Simon Peter doesn’t belong in that category. He was passionate about many things, sincere, forceful, often the first to speak up about something. But in one of Jesus’ early encounters with Peter—after the miraculous catch of fish he made with Jesus in his boat—we see Peter’s heart clearly enough as he falls to his knees before Jesus and pleads with Him, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” That’s not pride. That’s humility.
Where we first start to see a bit of pride creeping into this firm believer in Jesus is when he hears Jesus say, months before Holy Week, that Jesus is going to suffer and die at the hands of men. Peter’s response? “No, Lord, this will never happen to you!” He hears Jesus’ words and thinks he knows better than Jesus. That’s a form of pride. You remember Jesus’ response at that time? Get behind Me, Satan!
Then again, as you heard yesterday in the Passion history, on that Maundy Thursday evening when Jesus went to wash His disciples’ feet. He got to Peter, and Peter objected: “Lord, You shall never wash my feet!” It sounds like humility, doesn’t it? Peter knew that Jesus was his Lord and that he didn’t deserve to have his Lord washing his dirty feet. But that, too, was a form of pride. There was Jesus, desiring to serve His disciples, who needed His service in more ways than one, but Peter thought that holding onto his own humility was more important than receiving Jesus’ service to Him.
Then, later in that same upper room, Jesus told His disciples that they would all abandon Him that night, and that Peter would deny knowing Him three times. And no matter what Jesus said, Peter kept insisting that Jesus was wrong, that the words of Jesus would not come true, that he, Peter, would prove stronger than Jesus imagined him to be, as if Jesus’ words were false, as if Jesus Himself were a liar. And to put the nail in his own coffin—how many times in the reading you heard tonight did Jesus urge His disciples to watch and to pray, lest they fall into temptation? But Peter chose to rely on his own spiritual strength rather than use the tools Jesus provided to resist temptation.
It is a form of pride to think of yourself as stronger than the Word of God declares you to be, and thus fail to make use of the tools God provides—the Word, the Sacrament, and prayer—to fight earnestly against temptation when it comes.
Peter loved Jesus. He cared about Him. But when it came right down to it, there in the high priest’s courtyard, he loved his own life more. He said the things that he thought would keep him safe, would keep him from becoming a target of persecution. That meant denying to the servant girl and to everyone out there on that chilly Maundy Thursday night that he knew Jesus. And if he had died in that denial, he would have perished eternally.
A movie came out not long ago called Silence. It’s about an early missionary to Japan who supposedly denied Christ in order to save the Christians there from being put to death. What about that? If you’re trying to save the people of Christ, then is it the right thing to do to deny Christ before men? What does Jesus say about it? Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven…unless you think you have a good reason to deny Me, in which case, it’s all right? No.
You see, it’s pride again, rearing its ugly head, if a man thinks he knows better than Jesus. If he thinks he can be a better savior for the people of Christ than Christ Himself, by denying Christ in order to serve Christ! No, that’s not service. That’s not faith. That’s sinful human pride. That’s unbelief.
In the same way, it’s pride at work if you don’t take Christ’s warnings seriously about all the ways the world will try to get you to deny Him. Christians are being tempted more and more to compromise the words of Christ, to keep their faith a secret, to go along with the unbelieving world in its various forms of pseudoscience, empty philosophy, and antichristian beliefs and behaviors.
What do we learn from Peter? That we’re not as strong as we think we are, and we’re never stronger than the Word of Christ declares us to be. That even Christians are susceptible to the pressures of the world, and pride can often disguise itself as humility. And that, in giving in to such pressures to deny Christ and His saving Word, we bring shame upon ourselves, upon the Lord Christ, and upon His Church.
But what do we learn from Jesus? That He knows exactly who we are—how fickle and weak we can be—better than we know ourselves. He knows the sins we have committed and the sins we will commit, and still chose to suffer for the real sins of real sinners, including the sin of denying Him. He still chose to call us to repentance and faith and to have us baptized in His name. We learn that He is gracious and merciful and desires, not our death, but our repentance, that we should weep bitterly over our sin, as Peter did, but that we should then return to Him, as Peter did, and know that He has suffered for those sins, too, and that He will surely receive us back, even as He received Peter and restored him to his position as forgiven saint and chosen apostle.
When you know the grace of Christ Jesus, then you learn to pray aright, not in pride, telling God how you will never sin again. But in true humility, seeking God’s strength to fight against temptation and to acknowledge Christ gladly before men, without flinching, without shrinking back. Because He has acknowledged you, a sinner, before His Father in heaven. The strength of His grace will lift you up when you fall, and by faith in God’s grace in Christ, you will be able, when the time comes, as Peter finally was, at the end of his life, to suffer all things, even death, rather than deny your Savior, Jesus Christ, before men. Amen.