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.
So it comes, just as Jesus said it would. The first denial, as John paints the scene that night, has Simon Peter challenged by the servant-girl at the high priest’s door, “Aren’t you a disciple?” “I am not.” (18:15-17).
As well as the dark there’s the cold. John’s gospel begins with light coming into darkness (1: 5, 9). Now, the darkness closes in and the world grows colder. Little wonder Simon huddles by the fire. He’s close to the heart of the heartbreak as Jesus stands trial. He’s as close as he dares to be. He’s being as faithful as he can be, surrounded by the power and threat of those who want Jesus and his followers gone. Is he desperately plotting a rescue? Perhaps he knows the only thing left to do is stay as close as he can, watching, listening, terrified, waiting. But, whatever fragile faith and courage keeps him by the fire simply can’t endure the heat of their recognition. The accusations hit him too fast. Almost before he knows it, the denials have tumbled out and the cock crows.
Few of us, I imagine, risk our lives for Christ the way Peter is being asked to. Countless Christians have, of course, across the centuries. Many do now. But denials can maybe slip out in less dramatic fashion. Following Jesus becomes a bit awkward amongst friends or family who find it a mystery. An opportunity to voice faith slips past us. Peter fails here. Maybe that’s as much a story we know as any of faith’s triumphs. In time, John will have Peter’s denials reworked. That’s for later. For now, for today, maybe this story is inviting us to sit with times when we haven’t done so well as disciples or churches. Maybe, with Peter, we’re in a moment of confession and lament. And even here, God is.
Forgive us, Jesus, when we falter. We watch Simon’s fireside suffering, Recoil at his denials and yet… And yet we know how testing times can come our way; The chance to share our deepest faith just gently escapes, The Spirit’s voice gets drowned out by other arguments, The witness and worship become a bit of a sham. Hold us, Jesus, in such times. Hold us and save us. If we deny you, forgive us. Amen.
The Rev’d Neil Thorogood, Minister of Trinity-Henleaze URC (Bristol) & Thornbury URC.