Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him. When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ He replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’ All of them asked, ‘Are you, then, the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ Then they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!’
The thing that Jesus said Peter would do, but Peter denied he would do, he did. As I read this passage again I am struck by how cut up Peter must have felt during this episode and in the hours and days that followed.
Jesus was seized and taken to the high priest’s house. A group of people, including the arrested man, and Peter who had followed at a distance are sitting together around a fire in the courtyard. I am struck too by a realisation that the courtyard cannot have been particularly big to enable an arrested man to sit at the fire yet big enough that the curious are able to enter and warm themselves. This encounter takes place at the boundary between private and public space in a place that is simultaneously intimate and terrifying. A place to which people are dragged and are drawn. A place where inconvenient questions are posed by curious women. A place where friends betray friends.
This place, the high priest’s courtyard, functions as a counter kingdom in the story. Many elements of Jesus’ earlier ministry are present. The intimacy of people gathered around a fire. Questions being asked. A curious collection of people. Yet Jesus did not arrive at this place voluntarily. He is not at the centre of the story, or is he?
Peter denies knowing Jesus three times in Jesus’ presence. I wonder if these denials, spaced out over several hours of a night, hurt Jesus more deeply than the other ways he was tortured on that fateful day? Shortly after Peter’s denials, Jesus is mocked and beaten. At the end of our passage Jesus’ identity as Son of God is revealed on the lips of those who taunt and torture. But ultimately neither friend nor foe could cope with the reality of having God in our midst. The temptation to deny or to destroy is a strong one. I wonder how that is present in us?
Holy One, strengthen us in our witness of your story. Show us a better way than the way of denial or destruction. Help us to turn our lives around as we live out our vocation to be your people. It hurts to be the denier or destroyer. Whatever end of that process we find ourselves give us your peace and help us to turn our lives around and start again recreated and renewed. Amen.
The Rev’d Sarah Moore serves as Transition Champion for the National Synod of Scotland and as Assistant Clerk of the General Assembly.