Saturday, April 19, 2014

We Do Not Know--a sermon for Easter 2014 (John 20)

Rev. Teri Peterson
We Do Not Know…
John 20.1-18
20 April 2014, Easter (NL4-33)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It was still dark.

Early in the morning.

The first day of the week.

Not just before sunrise dark, but end-of-the-world grief dark.

The kind of dark that takes your eyes time to adjust to, and seeing with your heart is impossible.

In the dark, everything sounds louder, and the shadows shift and play tricks.

In the dark, you have to get right up to the tomb to be sure that hope is really gone, and you have to be practically at the door to notice that it’s open.

In the dark, nothing makes sense.

So Mary ran. She did not know what was happening, but she knew how to run, even blinded by tears and shadows.

“I do not know…but…”

After three years of walking all over the country, Peter and the other disciple had strong legs too. Even weakened by grief and fear and uncertainty and anger, they could run, and run they did.

In the dawn light, they looked…but they could not see. They could not understand. They looked, they even went in to look closer, but still, it was dark.

It was early in the morning, but it did not seem that day would ever come again.

It was the first day of the week, but it felt like the end of the world.

And so they ran away again, back into the valley of the shadow of death, where they knew how things worked.

We are so familiar with the story that it’s easy to forget that in the moment, even Jesus’ closest friends had no idea what was coming. They knew what they had expected, and that it had all gone horribly wrong, and that was it. They did not know what on earth God was up to.

Mary stayed to watch the sun rise. She didn’t understand either, and kept saying over and over “I do not know.” To the angels, to the gardener, to herself: “I do not know.”

These are not popular words. We live in a culture where we’re supposed to have things figured out, and if we don’t then we just say that “everything happens for a reason.” Even if that’s true, the reality is that we have no idea what that reason might be. But to admit that we do not know…somehow that feels like weakness, like failure. We’re supposed to know—especially Christians, since we are often portrayed as full of certainty and answers. But we don’t know where the plane is, we don’t know how disaster happens, or why we can’t cure cancer. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, no matter how much we plan for it or how many glossy brochures we read. We do not know what, exactly, God is calling us to do, and we have no clue how to talk about what God is doing without resorting to platitudes. We just don’t know. The world doesn’t make much sense, and we’re often afraid to admit that we’re in the dark.

We stand, with Mary, at the threshold of life and death, and we can’t figure out which side is which or what is happening or where to go.

And then there was one word: Mary.

“I will call my sheep by name, and they will know my voice.”

And suddenly, what had begun in darkness splashed over the horizon and a new day dawned—not just any other day, but a brand new day like none other.

Mary turned toward the voice and could hardly believe it. Just as the other disciples had gone into the tomb and looked but not seen, she too looks and tries to understand, but her mind doesn’t quite stretch around this new reality. But she tries—she works and works to figure it out, just like we all do. The Greek word for “turn” is the same as “to change your mind” …and Mary’s mind is in overdrive. How does resurrection work? What words can we use to describe it? Where was it predicted, and how can we make it fit into our already-configured lives?

But Jesus—who was there when the world was created in darkness, and who rose to re-make the world long before the sun came up—refuses to allow this. “Do not hold on to me” he says. Even as Mary’s eyes are still adjusting to this new reality, Jesus can see that we are prone to turning it into an idea to think about, a concept to believe—something we can hold on to. But this is not an intellectual exercise, nor is it a return to the way things were. Lists of beliefs do not bring more light into the world, and the sun is coming up on the first day of God’s new thing, whether we understand it or not.

So Mary turns again, making the same turn we too are called to make: she runs yet again, this time in the bright light of day, and tells the others: “I have seen the Lord!”

Notice she doesn’t say “I figured it out!” or “let me explain it to you.” She simply runs to tell of her experience of sunrise at the tomb. In the darkness, God was still at work, growing love so big and so incomprehensible that it couldn’t stay behind closed doors. It still makes no sense, like most things about Jesus, but isn’t that the point? That we don't get to make the sense, God does. Back at the beginning of John’s gospel we heard that the Word, the Logos, God’s Logic, is coming into the world, and will not leave it, for he is the Good Shepherd who calls us out of darkness and into light. And in God’s Logic, death does not have the power. In God’s Logic, love is stronger than evil and light is stronger than darkness. In God’s Logic, we tell where we have seen Jesus, rather than insisting everyone must see what we see. The new creation built on resurrection doesn’t require our intellectual adherence—it asks instead for something much more: our lives, our love, our hope, our serving, our telling.

How often are we caught in the darkness, unable to look past ourselves? How often do we look without seeing? How often do we try to hold on to the way things were? How often do we trap God in our minds, demanding that human logic and certainty must be the foundations of faith? And how often do we run to tell others that we have seen the Lord?

We stand at the door that leads into the unknown of a new day at the beginning of a new week in a new world. We do not know what to expect, but we know the stone has been rolled away, the bindings of death left behind, love beyond understanding walks among us, living and breathing life and hope and peace. Will we look, and see, and tell the story?

May it be so.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

victory march--a sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday 2014

Rev. Teri Peterson
victory march
John 12.12-17, 19.16b-22
13 April 2014, NL4-32, Palm Sunday

 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!’ 
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 
‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
   sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ 
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’

Here we are at one of the most dramatic in-and-out stories of the whole Lenten season. First, there’s the victory march, complete with waving palm branches and chanting crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem. And then there’s the walk of shame, the march of defeat, as Jesus leaves the city carrying a cross.

At the beginning of the week, there must have been an almost electric excitement in the air—finally, Jesus is coming to take the place the people have wanted him to take. Midway through the procession he even hops onto a donkey, the traditional royal procession animal in the Old Testament. Palm branches were a symbol of victory and celebration, so they wave their branches high, ready to follow this king to his rightful place.

Of course, they expect that his rightful place will be the palace, and that he’ll kick off his reign by beating the Roman army to a pulp. They expect that he will break the yoke of oppressive taxes and a social system that let the rich get lots richer while the poor got lots poorer. They expect that he will be a king who is also one of them, just like in the old stories when a king was chosen from among the peasants. They expect that he’ll do miracles like the ones they’ve already seen—producing food for everyone so they would no longer be dependent on Rome, healing the sick, raising the dead, and generally making life awesome.

Sometimes I think we want the 21st century version of the same things. We want Jesus to make life awesome—to put an end to suffering, to heal us, to solve our problems. We want him to take charge and be obvious. We want him to congratulate us on what we’ve done well and miraculously fix what we haven’t. We want him to speak clearly to us as individuals while not saying too much to the society we benefit from. We want him to fit our mold of a good political leader, and not to do anything we don’t like. We want him to lift up the people we like and put aside those we don’t.

And what both we and the Jerusalem crowd get instead is a Jesus who picks up a cross and walks out of the city.

It looks like defeat and despair are the order of the day. Dying by the most painful, most shameful torture ever invented, at the hands of the Roman Empire, was not part of our plan. Just a few minutes ago, we were winning, and now our champion can never be spoken of again.

One minute, we’re proclaiming him king. The next minute, all that’s left of that kingship is a note at the top of a cross.

And that’s as it should be.

Because the nail holding up that note is also the nail that punctures our expectations. Jesus refuses to meet our desires, whether in political or religious matters. He won’t be the king the people want, and he won’t be the nice guy we want. He won’t be the one who uses the power of the world to try to bring about peace. He won’t be the one who caters to our every need and want in worship. He won’t be the one who fits into our neat little boxes. He won’t be the one who tries to make us happy all the time. Jesus’ calling and purpose is so much bigger than that—he is working on loving the whole world. He is busy obeying God the creator of the universe, extending love and justice all the way to kids who crawl under the pews and knock over someone’s coffee, and to people who speak the wrong language, and to people who never get a job, and to people who never set foot inside a church.

The disciples and the crowds thought that their triumphal entry was the high point, but it’s actually the exit that is the victory march. It may be cold and broken, but it is the height and the depth of love. In carrying the cross, Jesus carries away our expectations and puts them to death—and makes room for us to know real love, real justice, real relationship instead.

The truest words Pilate ever spoke were “this is the King of the Jews.” This is what a king looks like—not heralded with waving branches, not meeting our every demand, but slowly, painstakingly, carrying the heavy burden of our willfulness and replacing it with a desire only for God’s will. And God’s will is always for reconciliation, for wholeness, for peace, for justice, for love that is not just a feeling but an every-moment action, even at great personal cost.

As we enter this Holy Week together, I invite you to take your palm cross with you—in the car, in your bag, on the train, in your office, in the kitchen, wherever you are—and let it be a symbol to you of Jesus taking the weight of your will and replacing it with his. Remember that Jesus said his burden was light—much lighter than waiting for him to dot all our I’s and cross all our T’s. And remember too that he said that whoever wishes to follow him must lay aside our own lives, our own wills, and take up the cross and walk in his path—that is the true victory march, and it goes ever onward toward a love so great that even a tomb cannot contain it.

May it be so.


Saturday, April 05, 2014

no king but Love--a sermon for April 6 (John 19)

Rev. Teri Peterson
no king but Love
John 19.1-16a
6 April 2014, NL4-31, Lent 5 (at the threshold)

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’
 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

This weekend, I finally watched the movie Frozen. The friends I was with got tired of me saying, over and over again, “hey, that would totally work in a sermon!” The only part they agreed with me was when the trolls are singing to Kristoff and Anna, and they say “people make bad choices when they’re mad or sad or stressed, but with a little love, you can bring out their best!” In addition to being true and difficult, it also reminded me of this story of Jesus and Pilate and the Jewish leaders.

Last week we watched as Pilate went in and out between Jesus and the crowd of religious leaders, trying to make up his mind as to which way to choose. This week we have the second half of that story—three trips through the door last week, and four this week. Still Pilate is caught between two ways forward: the way of popularity with the world, and the way of Truth. We heard him ask last week “what is truth?” and we remembered that Jesus said “I am the truth.” In the face of The Truth, what happens?

Well, if today’s reading is any indication, fear is what happens. While scripture, and Disney, tells us that perfect love casts out fear, it is still true that fear won’t go without a fight.

Sometimes fear looks like anxiety. Sometimes it looks like uncertainty or nervousness. Sometimes it looks like wild over-indulgence and flitting from thing to thing. Sometimes it looks like withdrawing and isolating. Sometimes it looks like making plans for every contingency, even the ones that will never happen. In today’s story, we see three really common manifestations of fear—and what happens when we let fear guide us.

At the beginning of the story, fear lashes out—in the form of whips and words, put-downs and sarcasm and mocking. It’s often our first line of defense, to bolster our own egos by denigrating others. They should have tried harder, they made bad choices, they deserve what they got. They just don’t understand us, don’t commit the way we used to, are only looking for easy answers and a handout. We do it on an individual level and a corporate one—we look for a scapegoat that can bear the burden of our anxiety, and we push it out into the wilderness and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re better than that.

Yet Jesus said that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him. Our mocking and put-downs weave together into a crown of thorns that can only be worn by the One who intentionally places himself with the outcast, even as I congratulate myself on my quick wit. And the leaders and police and guards and politicians who turned their abuse on Jesus, they end up declaring the very thing they are decrying—that Jesus is Lord. They think it’s a fun game, to hurt and abuse and put down, to turn Jesus’ words against him.

But it only lasts a little while. Pretty soon we need another scapegoat, because I don’t know about you but when I’m relying on myself and my ego, I need a boost pretty quickly. Not to mention that, more often than not, we find out along with those who pressed that crown into Jesus’ head that our words turn back on us. Jesus doesn’t respond with hateful words of his own, he just keeps on being the same Love, the same gateway to Abundant Life, the same King who came to serve, not to be served.

The religious and political leaders can see that this is not working—Pilate is still trying to navigate some middle path that will allow him to be both right and popular, but they want him to come fully to their side, so they bring out the biggest charge against Jesus: he claimed to be the Son of God.

Which, of course, Jesus has done, more than once. And Son of God is a title that the Romans reserve for just one person: the emperor. To claim to be the Son of God in the Roman world is treason. And to claim to be the Son of God in Jewish world is blasphemy.

For all we talk about how Jesus was sinless, there is also the reality that when it comes to breaking these two laws, he was guilty.

And Pilate, John tells us, is more afraid than ever.

In his fear, he starts doing the next thing many of us do when we are terrified: he asks a zillion questions, none of them the one that will bring him an answer. He wants to know where Jesus is from, why Jesus won’t answer, does Jesus understand anything at all about power. He cannot wait for an answer, of course, because in his fear his mind and his mouth are running a million miles a minute, in all the wrong directions.

How often have we confronted something scary with a bunch of questions? I know I do it, and I bet most of us do. I’ve gone round and round with questions like “how can I fix her? why is this happening to me? what on earth is he thinking? If I say this, what will they say?” We have questions for doctors, questions for church experts, questions for coaches, questions for teachers, questions for friends, questions for ourselves. But rarely are they the right questions. Pilate’s questions don’t lead him any closer to choosing which door to walk through—they lead him deeper into his fear instead, deeper into his own understanding of power rooted in violence, while Jesus is embodying power rooted in love.

Now Pilate and the other leaders are feeding on each others’ anxiety, the same way politicians and advertising executives count on us to feed each others’ anxiety, and we get to the final step in giving in to fear: the chief priests, the very ones whose job is to ensure that everyone carefully follows all the religious rules, are so desperate that they break the first commandment. They declare “we have no king but the emperor.” And, just as Peter’s denial of his identity as a disciple was accidentally the truth, so the chief priests have accidentally told the truth. In one place, they proclaim there is no God but God…but outside those walls, their words and actions tell a different story: security and power are their real gods. They so caught up in the possibility of losing their status and safety, they let God go without a second thought.

And here’s where we really hit close to home. There are lots of ways we too finish that sentence: “we have no king but _____.” What are the things we bow down to, pledge our allegiance to, serve? we have no king but…busyness? money? our political party? the military? no king but our memory of the way things used to be? no king but our picture of what life is supposed to be like? what church is supposed to be like? We have no king but our own desires, which we’ll ask God to bless?

We have no king but the emperor, the chief priests cry. And so Pilate comes out to the judgment seat, to the stone table where the sacrifice is made, and at noon on the day of preparation for the Passover, he gives the order to sacrifice the Lamb of God, whose life will pour out for the life of the world.

Pilate wants desperately to have it both ways—he is caught between the doors, with no way to walk through both. He has to choose, as we must choose: the ways of the world, with power, wealth, status, and security? Or the way of Jesus, which insists on meeting people’s pain with compassion, meeting contempt with hope, meeting anger with love. When we are afraid, we so often lash out and hurt others, or we lash in and shame ourselves, but the way of Jesus is about faith, hope, and love. It is about being a peacemaker and a caretaker, even when that way seems impossible and ridiculous. It is about choosing the door to the cross, which will mean leaving all else behind.

That is a scary proposition, even though Jesus has walked this way before us. Jesus has already traveled this road of suffering, grief, hope, compassion, friendship, loss, laughter, tears, pain, frustration, and joy. He told us that we too know the way, so we do not need to be anxious. After all, perfect love casts out fear—which does not mean we will not feel fear, it means we don’t have to act on it. Perfect love pours itself out, washing away the well-worn ruts of our mocking, our questions, our idolatry, making new paths of faith, hope, and love. Or, as the trolls in Frozen sing: “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed, but true love will bring out their best.” One of my friends reminds us often that “hurt people hurt people”—but we don’t have to hurt them back. Perfect love calls us to love as well—to follow in Jesus’ footsteps even when that means letting go of the paths we have always known, even when it means saying “We have no king but Love.”

May we step across the threshold into abundant life, today and every day.


Monday, March 31, 2014

despair and hope--a reflection for April 6

(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)

Psalm 130, John 11

One year during Lent, we reversed the Advent candle tradition—at every worship service during Lent we blew out a candle, until the last was extinguished at the end of the Good Friday service. Though the days lengthened outside the sanctuary, inside the darkness was growing as we took this journey through wilderness, despair, and dark valleys. By the end of the season, we longed for the light of resurrection. We had learned to trust God in the wilderness and to be honest about our distress.

Mary and Martha have learned this lesson well. The disciples may be a little dense, but Mary and Martha are honest. Their tears fall even as they say “If you had been here, things would have been different.” They don’t hold back their grief, their disappointment, their dashed hope.

How often, when we walk into the valley of the shadow of death, do we find that God seems to have left us there alone? It sometimes seems as if God has a penchant for disappearing or for hiding just when we most need to know God’s presence. We call into the darkness and get only darkness in return, and so often we give up. We stop talking to God, perhaps afraid that we shouldn’t be angry or sad or despairing or lonely, perhaps tired of receiving no answer.

Mary and Martha knew this isolation and disappointment. They called out to Jesus, and Jesus intentionally held back. But when he did show up, they weren’t shy about sharing their feelings. They already knew something we learn over and over again: God can take it. We can rail, shout, cry, and be real, because not only can God hold all of that, God rails, shouts, and cries right along with us.

It seems improper somehow, but throughout Scripture we see God’s people expressing the full range of emotions—from joy to despair and everything in between. The Psalmist even offers us words when our own fail. “Out of the deep I call to you—hear my voice!” The darkness deepens, there’s no way out…Where are you? The candles are going out, one by one, and I feel alone…and “my whole being hopes for the Lord” (v.5, CEB). Not just my sad self, not just my intellectual capacity, not just for the kids, but my whole being.

Sometimes it seems too soon to make that move. It can feel jarring, as in a piece of music that seems so dark and then moves to a brighter major key (for example, Rutter’s setting of Psalm 130 in his Requiem). But even Rutter moves back and forth between darkness and light, between cello and oboe, between lower and higher voices. We know that feeling—the vacillation between despair and hope, the Mary and Martha experience of “if you had been here” mingled with “I believe.” In many ways, this is Christian life: to hope even in the dark valley, knowing that life is indeed possible, and stronger than the darkness.

Monday, March 24, 2014


I keep meaning to blog, I really do. I know that "writers write" and that I need to do that, and that it's important for me to blog as a reminder that not everything in life is unbloggable.

But I keep forgetting.

I think my memory has slipped well into middle (or old?)- age long before my chronological age.

Part of the issue is that I'm trying to turn off the computer at 9pm, and lots of nights I don't get home until after that.

Part of the issue is that I keep feeling like I can't write about everything because, well, that's the reality of pastor life sometimes.

But the root of it is that I forget.

SO...remind me, ok? And if you have any suggestions for improving memory (besides, which I already play almost every day...when I don't forget), I'll take them. :-)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

moment of truth--a sermon on John 18

Rev. Teri Peterson
moment of truth
John 18.12-27
23 March 2014, NL4-29, Lent 3 (at the threshold)

So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
 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, 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. The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 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. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
 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.’ 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?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

After three years of traveling around the country together, listening and learning, and seeing amazing signs…after the discussion around Jesus washing his feet, after trying to protect Jesus by cutting off a man’s ear…after all that, the question:

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

Surely his friend, the other disciple, could hear the question and the answer. Maybe even Jesus could hear it too. Peter took his place around the fire with the very people who had brought Jesus to this place—the police and slaves. He was inside the gate, but still outside the understanding. He was in the right place at the right time, but he couldn’t quite step through. He knew who Jesus was, but he had forgotten who he was. And so the moment of truth:

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

Peter’s answer is, on the surface, simply a denial of knowledge. But below that is a betrayal of himself. Even as Jesus stands before the high priest and speaks openly, Peter hides out in the open courtyard. Jesus says “ask those who have heard me” and Peter, who has probably heard the most of anyone, says “I am not one of his disciples, I do not know him.”

And, in a sense, Peter is telling the truth.

Peter knows many things, or thinks he does. He has information about what Jesus has done, and he definitely knows what he wants Jesus to be.

But the wisdom to see past his own desire to God’s will, and to claim that as his path? Not yet.

That only comes through practice and prayer.

At this moment, Peter is in, but also out. It’s like the old saying that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car: Peter is in the same room as Jesus, but he still has some work to do to be a disciple.

The good news is this: God’s grace is always at work, and never leaves us as we are. God refuses to define us by our worst moments. There is always new life possible through God’s grace. That new life may look nothing like we expect, but then again resurrection is the definition of unexpected, right? Peter’s statement in this moment may be the truest thing he’s said so far. He recognizes that he is going to have to let go of his own planned outcome in order to participate in God’s mission. First he has to admit that he prefers his own will to God’s, and in that sense he doesn’t know Jesus. With that confession, there’s room for God’s will to grow inside Peter, and it’s from that truth that he can begin to allow God’s grace to blossom in him. This moment of truth sets the stage for Peter to become the preacher and teacher and Rock of the Church that we know he will be. And Peter will practice—he’ll gather with the disciples and wait, he’ll run to the tomb, he’ll pray and be open to God’s response, he’ll preach and teach, he’ll sit with others and listen for God’s will. He won’t assume that being in the right room is enough—he’ll have to keep on letting go of his own will over and over again in order to let God work through him.

Many people suggest that Peter is sort of a stand-in for all of us. Sometimes he hits on a right answer, sometimes he gets things very very wrong. He’s a little headstrong, and a tiny bit stubborn, and incredibly eager. If we can read ourselves in the place of Peter, then I wonder about the moments we have denied knowing Jesus and inadvertently spoken the truth? When are the moments we have betrayed our own identity, and what did we do with that experience? The denial may come in the form of words as innocuous as me telling people on airplanes that I work for a non-profit, or in the form of actions that demonstrate a very different ethic than that of Jesus. It has been said that if we want to know what we truly worship, we should look at our calendars and bank statements. What do they say in answer to the question: Aren’t you also one of his disciples?

It’s a painful thing, to hear the rooster crow as Peter did. It’s easy to get defensive and say we’re trying our best, or it was too dangerous, or the world is different now. Truth-telling is hard, especially to ourselves or our friends—and it’s also necessary. It’s why we have a prayer of confession every week in worship: because we need that moment of recognizing that we are often more invested in our own ways than in God’s ways. Because the truth will set us free— free to truly be a disciple, walking beside Jesus, rather than always asking him to walk beside us. Free to grow and transform into who God created us to be.

Ultimately, the question Peter is asked is not about Jesus. It is not about what Peter thinks or believes about Jesus. It isn’t about what he has done or how often he’s heard the teaching. The question is: Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples? It’s a question of Peter’s own identity, and a question of our own identity.

Here is who Peter is, and who you are: a beloved child of God, created in God’s image.

Peter has forgotten who he is, and covers his true self with what he thinks people want him to say. At the same moment, Jesus is being his most true self, being open about who he is and what his calling is: to follow God’s will even to the end, to love even to the end, to drink the cup and carry the cross.

It is hard to shed those layers of expectation, of what we think is the right answer, of shame and guilt when we have hit the bottom. And yet the reality of our identity is as true as Peter’s: a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, and called to walk Christ’s way—a way of truth and faithfulness and hope. How often we have forgotten.

Like Peter, we go in fits and starts, we fail while pretending we didn’t, and we accidentally reveal the truth with our actions and our words, our calendars and our bank statements. We are not always Christ’s disciples. And yet God does not give up, leaving us in our worst moments. God’s will is always for transformation, for new life, for the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. So why define ourselves—or others—by those worst moments? Instead, the rooster crow is a wake up call, a moment of truth, a reminder of who we really are: created, loved, called.

May we live that truth.