Sermon for October 22, 2017: Reformation Month Series #4

October 23, 2017

I recorded this video at our early service on 10/22/2017. At our early service, attended by a smaller number of people, we preach from the floor and not the pulpit. Our pastor, Rev. Eric Hoey, read the Gospel scripture before the sermon.


(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we utilize fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print.)

The Anatomy of Sin: When Disciples Deny Christ

Luke 22:31-34; 54-62

31 “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. 32 However, I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.” 33 Peter responded, “Lord, I’m ready to go with you, both to prison and to death!” 34 Jesus replied, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster won’t crow today before you have denied three times that you know me.”

(vv. 35-53 contain the accounts of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while the disciples fall asleep. Then Judas completes his betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the chief priests and elders of the Temple.)

54 After they arrested Jesus, they led him away and brought him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed from a distance. 55 When they lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, “This man was with him too.” 57 But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I don’t know him!”

58 A little while later, someone else saw him and said, “You are one of them too.” But Peter said, “Man, I’m not!”

59 An hour or so later, someone else insisted, “This man must have been with him, because he is a Galilean too.” 60 Peter responded, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!” At that very moment, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

When Jason and I were first married, we lived in the county, near Cairo on Old Madisonville Road. We lived in a small neighborhood on the highway, with several homes lined up on our side of Old Madisonville Road and a corn field right across the street. It was not uncommon for us to encounter a variety of creatures, great and small. Often, we saw deer in the field across the road. People would dump their unwanted cats and dogs in our area, so it was a frequent occurrence for us to have an extra one of those hanging around. Mice could be an issue, so one season, we welcomed one of those abandoned cats into our home–and she had four kittens shortly after, both tipping us off to why she had been dumped and gifting us with six weeks of cuteness while the kittens got old enough to rehome.

But one morning, when dawn was just breaking, before anyone in the house had gotten out of bed, I became aware of something making a noise that seemed like it should be familiar, but it was not entirely familiar. I opened one eye and sat up a little bit. I tilted my head and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Relieved, I realized it was definitely outside the house. In fact, it sounded like it was right outside our window. I sat all the way up and peeked between the slats of the venetian blinds and found the culprit.

A little black rooster was perched on our porch railing, crowing happily into the morning. Now, understand, until that moment, I’m not sure I had ever seen a rooster up close and I am pretty sure I had never heard one crow at the break of day. I’m from a city and until my seven years in Henderson County, had never lived more than a block away from a busy city street.

I did not think of today’s gospel passage on that morning, but since that day whenever I read this passage, I picture the little black rooster clinging to our red deck porch and lifting his voice above the morning. And considering our passage, although  I may have had little experience with such exotic farm life until that day,  Simon Peter was from rural Galilee. He likely had heard roosters crowing all of his life, their wake up cries as familiar to him as that of the beeping of the alarm I set each night before I go to sleep. “Before the rooster crows” was perhaps even a common marker of time in ancient Galilee, and so when Jesus said that Peter would do something unfathomable and terrible, within the span of time between dinner and daybreak, Peter no doubt was hurt and outraged. But then, it came to pass and I’m going to guess that after the night narrated in our gospel reading this morning, Peter never heard that sound in quite the same way again. From that day on, even after he had made things right with the resurrected Jesus and knew the forgiveness of God…even after he had planted churches and discipled countless others…even after he had spent nights in jail because he refused to ever deny Jesus again, I’m going to guess that the crow of a rooster brought Peter back to this night and the memory of Jesus’ words to him after dinner and Peter’s act of denial.

I know that I am a lot like Peter, and I suspect you might see yourself in him as well. “Oh,” we might be tempted to say, “But I never denied knowing Jesus. And I certainly never was so intentional about it that I did it three times in the same night.” It’s easy to give Peter a hard time–I mean, here’s the disciple who proclaimed that he’d go with Jesus to his death. He’s the one who left everything behind to follow him, who victoriously walked on top of the water with Jesus, who boldly confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” What was he thinking?

But if we consider that perhaps another word for “denial” is “sin,” then this story becomes crucial and even precious to us as you and I may see ourselves after all in Peter’s words and actions. As we consider this important night in the life of this disciple, we might consider our own tendency to sin and deny Christ ourselves. I think there are four pieces to consider in telling the story of this sin committed by Peter, and I think every one of them relates to us as well.

The first thing we can be sure of is this: Jesus prays for us and knows we are frail.  “I’ve prayed for you, that your faith won’t fail,” Jesus tells Peter on that night in the upper room. Our sin does not catch Jesus unaware, nor does he despair helplessly over it. Instead, Jesus prays for his disciples.

I would like to invite you to take great comfort in this. Jesus knows exactly what Peter is about to do, even when Peter still believes this possibility is ludicrous. Peter proclaims he’s planning to go with Jesus all the way to prison or death–I mean that’s commitment. And yet, Jesus knows the reality and he knows that Peter will not be so bold in just a matter of hours.

In John’s account of this night, we’re told that Jesus would wash Peter’s feet along with the other disciples. Peter is still invited to follow Jesus to the garden. Peter is still included among Christ’s disciples. And those of us who know the rest of the story know that this horrible night does not limit Peter’s role as a leader of Christ’s church.

“I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail,” Jesus says to us. “I know that you will be tempted to deny me and I know that you will.”

Jesus knows our frailty down to the intimate details. Jesus prays for us, calls us, and claims us anyway.

Despite our best intentions (or sometimes due to wrong intentions), we sin. When we sin, we give into fear and deny Christ through our words or actions.

For Peter, standing in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s house, this is a moment of sifting. He gathers with the servants and guards of the house around a firepit and warms himself on the cool desert night. The first person to question him couldn’t have been particularly intimidating. Scripture is clear in the description, it is a servant woman who first approaches him with the possibility. Likely, she wanted some information. She had no power and probably no interest in seeing Peter arrested, but she was likely curious about what was going on in the house on that night. Staring at him, the observation is simple, “this man was with him too.” Peter’s reply is swift and definite: “Woman, I don’t know him!”

I heard a preacher say one time that all sin is born out of fear, and that’s something I’ve evaluated on a regular basis in my own life. It certainly does seem that Peter must be driven by fear in his denial.

Perhaps Peter was afraid of what would physically happen to him if it were revealed that he is a follower of the man just arrested and facing a death sentence. He seems to be worried about the servants and others in the courtyard figuring it out for certain. It could be that he was afraid for his own physical well-being and so, in hasty self-preservation, and a lack of trust in the promises of God, he denies rather than claims his relationship to Jesus.

I act unfaithfully out of this sort of fear, too.  I know what the right thing to do is, but something of myself is at stake if I follow through with that. I opt for more safe options rather than take risks that could result in me having to give up my time or my space or my privilege, or might result in ridicule because I’ve chosen to follow Jesus. For example, how many times have I remained silent or turned away when I could have shared about my faith in Christ with someone? Very few of the decisions I have made in my journey with Jesus have put my very life at risk, I think I should mention that. There are still places in the world where being a Christian and claiming faith in Jesus is punishable by death or imprisonment. Peter was likely afraid for his very life in those moments in the courtyard and perhaps he lied about his relationship with Jesus in order to save his own life.

But it could be that he’s afraid of something else. Could Peter be afraid that Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be? Remember that Jesus wasn’t exactly the sort of Messiah his followers, or any Jewish people, were expecting. A victorious King, a conquering hero, a strong military presence–they were waiting for something more like that. The meek and mild, the first shall be last and vice versa Messiah caught them all off guard, to say the very least. Certainly, his arrest does not seem to fit with knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God. What if Peter is really saying, “I don’t know him. I never knew him. I thought he was the One, but now I see he’s not.” This fear that Jesus isn’t really who he claims to be results in the denial.

I deny Jesus all the time because I doubt his truth or goodness. When I sin because I think I know what’s better for me, when I decide to make my own path rather than follow in his way, when I puff up my chest and seek my own glory, I demonstrate my fear that Jesus isn’t who he promised and deny his leadership and goodness in my life. One way or another, fear figures prominently in Peter’s sin and in our sin, too.

As promised, at the completion of his trinity of denials, the rooster is crowing. And then something surprising happens. Verse 61 says “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” What does this mean exactly? No one is really sure. Perhaps Jesus was being moved from place to place and saw Peter, maybe through the window. Or perhaps the meaning is a bit more mystical. But either way, the author of the gospel includes this detail. The Lord looked at Peter. I think that our Lord and Savior looks at us, too. Our Lord sees us even in the moment of denial.

When you picture this happening as recorded here in Luke 22, what do you see in Jesus’ face in that moment?

Do you see condemnation? Do you see disgust or anger or annoyance?

Do you see pain or confusion?

Do you see love and compassion on his face?

I am grateful for this detail in the passage. I am grateful that Jesus looked at Peter in the midst of his sin. Because this happened, I can confidently claim that Jesus sees me in the midst of my own sin. I don’t think Jesus’ face was contorted in condemnation or anger. I think Jesus saw Peter in that moment, claimed Peter in that moment, and loved him even still. And I believe that’s what happens when we sin.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean sin is ok with Jesus. That doesn’t mean sin doesn’t grieve God. I believe that it does. And Peter was keenly aware of that in this moment. The scripture says he “wept bitterly” or “cried uncontrollably.” No doubt angry at himself and aware of how he had denied the one who had given him so much life and purpose in the past few years, he cries out of sorrow and regret.

As ones who follow Jesus, too, we know this pain and sorrow. Once we realize what we have done and how it has grieved God, we remember Christ and are convicted of our sins.

When we know, we know. When our sin becomes obvious to us, we are grieved. Scripture is full of this happening over and over again. The moment when King David understands the point of the prophet Nathan’s story about the rich man and the poor man and the little Ewe lamb, he cries out–”I have sinned against the Lord!” When King Josiah is presented with the words of the Law, and realizes how far off his nation has wandered, he tears at his clothes and despairs outright. In the parable Jesus tells of a father and two sons, the prodigal son returns home with the words “I have sinned against heaven and I’ve sinned against you and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Part of being a disciple involves acknowledging and confessing our sin. It’s having the humility to acknowledge our own frailty and our frequent denial of Jesus through the decisions we make every day to act or speak unfaithfully. It’s knowing when we have turned away from the one who is always enough and always has a plan and purpose for us.

When it comes to Peter, perhaps you know the rest of this story. You’ve read the book, you’ve heard it preached before, you’re anticipating a morning on a beach after Jesus is raised from the dead. We’ll leave that for our Pastor, Eric, to proclaim next week, the last week of our series and Reformation Sunday.

On this night in the high priest’s courtyard, Peter doesn’t know there is any more to the story. He weeps bitterly and no doubt spent the next few days in agony as Jesus was sentenced to die, crucified, and buried. And so, it seems that we might sit with him and consider our own reflections in his story. We ponder our own sin and ways we turn away from Christ. We feel the gaze of Jesus on us as we listen to the rooster crowing. We weep with Peter as we realize what we’ve done.

There is good news. It is the good news that you hear proclaimed each Lord’s Day from this pulpit, that you proclaim to one another as you pass the peace, that you can carry out of this building and share with your friends and neighbors who are feeling far from God, and good news that we would share with Peter if we could. This good news is this: We may weep at the expanse of our sin, but we no longer weep without hope. When we come up against our own sin, as we often do, we have access to the throne of God, mediated through the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ and we know a good God who is loving and forgiving and gracious to us. We confess our sins together in worship each week because we believe that these words are heard by a God who cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We can trust in God’s good promises about this.

What happens next, after the rooster crows and we are convicted of our sins? Let’s read Jesus’ first words to Peter in this passage again.“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” This odd almost fragment of a sentence: “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” is there among the prediction of Peter’s denial. It’s there among our denial, too. You will sin. It will grieve God and it will grieve you, faithful disciple of Jesus. But you are welcomed to turn back, called to turn back. And when you have turned back, you will tell of the goodness of God’s grace, and you will stand with and lend strength to your brothers and sisters in Christ. May it be so. Amen.