Perhaps you have done something like this.
The United Church of Christ pastor Jeremy Marshall was at Vacation Bible School when a he and a kid in his class got into an argument. The classmate figured out a way to embarrass Jeremy in front of their friends. He pointed at Jeremey and told everyone “Jeremy is Walter’s best friend.”
Things got awkwardly quiet. Everybody was staring at Jeremy.
Walter – that’s not his real name – was, unfortunately, the class outcast. He had a mild speech impediment. He was way too interested in taxidermy. His personal hygiene was questionable. And – in fact – Jeremy was Walter’s best friend. He was probably Walter’s only friend.
It wasn’t cool to be friends with Walter, so Jeremy tried to keep things quiet. Somehow though, this other kid found out, and he picked this moment to put Jeremy on the spot in front.
Jeremy says he was worried that if he claimed Walter all his other friends would ditch him. So, he denied being friends with Walter. Announced loudly he had never been friends with him. He even called Walter the mean name the kids at school call him.
Jeremy says, later, as he ate his sugar cookies and drank grape Kool-aide, he was sure he could hear a rooster crowing. Even if Walter never found out, Jeremy knew Jesus knew what he had done. He had bailed on his friend Walter the same way Peter bailed on Jesus.
Jeremy Marshall still feels bad about what his 10-year-old self did. He also assumes all of us have done something like it.
We’ve betrayed our own values. We’ve let someone down when they didn’t deserve it. We’ve taken the side of the bully over of the side of the person they are hurting. We’ve pretended we couldn’t help when we absolutely could have. We’ve all done the safe thing when we could have done the courageous thing. Or the convenient thing when we should have done the right thing.
To this day, Jeremy Marshal believes that when he denied his friendship with Walter, he was denying Jesus. He believes that someone who was following Jesus wouldn’t have sacrificed Walter to save himself. Because we don’t just deny Jesus with our words, we deny Jesus when we do not follow him.
All four of the gospels tell of a version of this betrayal by Peter. They don’t, however, tell it the same way. In Mathew, Mark, and Luke, Peter denies knowing Jesus. For example, in Mark, it tells us Peter cursed and swore: “I don’t know this man you are talking about.” As though he doesn’t even know who Jesus is.
In John, however, Peter doesn’t deny knowing who Jesus is. He denies his relationship with Jesus. A woman asks Peter, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”, questioning him about his relationship with Jesus. Peter denies it, and when he does, he denies his own identity.
For three years, Peter’s identity has been tied to his relationship with Jesus. He was Jesus’ disciple. When Peter denied being Jesus’ disciple, it was like he was trying to erase the last three years of his life. All the signs he’d witnessed. All the good he had seen Jesus bring about into the community. All the ways Jesus had transformed him. Peter denied all that. Three times in. And then the rooster crowed.
Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t something you say.
Being a disciple of Jesus is who you are. Following Jesus is your life.
What happened to Peter happens to every follower of Jesus sometime. We deny our relationship with Jesus.
We usually don’t notice it while it’s happening because it doesn’t happen when someone has straight up asked us “Are you a follower of Jesus.” Instead, we are faced with situations where we have to make decisions that put our relationship with Jesus to the test. The circumstances we are faced with, the decision we have to make, demand an answer from us. “Are we his disciple or not?”
Our answer doesn’t usually come with our words. It comes with our actions. Or lack of action. Our answer about our relationship to Jesus is shown in the choices we make. We answer whether or not we are disciples of Jesus by the way we live our lives.
We deny Jesus when we sacrifice our integrity by not speaking up when a wrong is being perpetrated. We deny our relationship with Jesus when we speak – not in righteous anger – but self-protective or indulgent anger. We deny Jesus when we aggravate divisions instead of seeking to heal them. We deny Jesus when we make snap judgments about people and when we broadcast those judgments we’ve made or learned out for other people to hear.
We deny Jesus when we don’t trust that God will take care of us. When we make our own plan of how to get ahead or what ought to happen in the church or in our lives.
We deny our relationship with Jesus when we don’t use the light we have been given – our God-given gifts – because we are afraid of being used up or made fun of or making ourselves vulnerable.
If we have a relationship with Jesus, we follow him. Whenever we don’t act like Jesus, we have denied our relationship with him.
The good news is that the crowing of the rooster isn’t the end of Peter’s story. Our denial of Jesus isn’t the end of our story.
Peter’s story continues in John, in chapter 21, after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had appeared to his disciples, but Jesus and Peter hadn’t been reconciled. Peter was still carrying shame about his denial and he goes back to his pre-Jesus job of catching fish. Peter and some of the other disciples are out in the boat fishing when they see Jesus on the shore calling to them. When Peter and the rest of the disciples get to where Jesus is, they see there is a fire with fish on it and some bread.
Now the last time that John told us about Peter hanging out beside a fire was the night he denied Jesus. Denied Jesus three times.
Now, standing by this new fire, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter tells him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Peter had denied his relationship with Jesus. But the resurrected Jesus offers Peter just as much opportunity to reclaim that relationship. To set it right. To return to following. And every time Peter reaffirms his relationship to Jesus Yes, Lord you know that I love you. Jesus tells Peter how to follow him. “Feed my lambs,” Jesus tells Peter. “Take care of my sheep.” And again, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus is reminding Peter how to be a disciple. How to follow. How to be in relationship with him. The way to be in relationship with Jesus is to take care of the sheep, the flock, the lambs, the people for whom Jesus cared.
Jesus will always show us the places in our life where we have not followed, and he will always show us how to follow him. Maybe he will tell us how to be more generous. Maybe he will remind us how to talk about other people. Maybe he will reveal where we need to be courageous. Maybe he will tell us what sheep we need to feed and what lambs we are to care for. Jesus will always give us the opportunity s to repair the damage we have done and even more than that to be restored.
Like Peter, all of us have denied our identity as disciples of Jesus. Sometime. Repeatedly.
As many times as we have denied him, Jesus offers us another chance. Another opportunity. A chance not just to begin again, to begin a new. To deepen our relationship. To follow more closely.
Warmed by the fire of his love, fed at his table of grace, we hear him ask “Disciple, do you love me?” And we know we are called to feed his sheep, just as he has fed us.