Then came that fateful night.
Have you ever been in a situation where you want to do the right thing, the best thing, the noble thing; you make promises to yourself and others about who you will be and what you will do? You make commitments because you know the stakes are high and, well, friendship requires that you stand tall? That fateful night was an evening full of such promises.
It began right at dusk. Jesus and the other disciples and I had just arrived at the home where we would celebrate the Passover. Honestly, it began awkwardly because minutes after our arrival Jesus takes a towel and a bowl and begins washing our feet. Oh, if only I had thought about it before he did. Remember, I’m the disciple and he is the master, and yet here he is on his knees thrusting my foot into a bowl and washing it with his calloused hands. The job of a slave being fulfilled by the one we hope would be king.
As the evening progressed things became even more awkward. Granted, Jesus shared quite a bit with us about what it really means to follow him. It was good stuff, helpful stuff—things about being teachable and the power of loving one another and on and on. But it was the talk of betrayal and death that was unnerving. As we were eating he told us that one of us was going to betray him. Then he spoke of his body being broken and he talked about his blood being poured out for people.
When we were wrapping up the time in the house and preparing to head out to the olive grove where we often gathered in the evenings, Jesus looked at us and said, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” With those words I have to tell you I’d had enough. All the doom and gloom talk was getting old, so motioning toward the other disciples I said to him, “Even if they all fall away, I will not!”
Suddenly everyone stopped. I could feel the angry glares of my friends; as if I were better or tougher than they. Jesus stared at me, looked down at the floor for a long moment. Then, drawing in a deep breath he looked up into my eyes and told me words I’ll never forget: “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
With that he pulled his coat over himself and headed out into the cool evening. We followed, silently, weaving our way through the city streets until we found the pathway that led to Gethsemane.
But I went forward stunned and wounded. Did he not trust me? Was he who knew the hearts and minds of so many not believing that I would do anything in the world for him? I would lay down my life for him, and he has the nerve to tell me I would deny him; and not just once but three times! After all, wasn’t it he who told me I’m a Rock?
We arrived at Gethsemane, that olive grove that we so enjoyed when we were in Jerusalem, but no joy was to be found there that evening. Jesus seemed weirdly moody, and we, not quite knowing what to do, kept silent. Asking our little band of disciples to stay put and pray, he took hold of me and a couple of others and brought us further into the grove. I’ll never forget his demeanor. For the first time since I had known him he seemed scared. He hands were trembling and his voice was quivering. “My soul is very sorrowful,” he said to us. “Even to death. Remain here and watch.” And with that he left us and went several paces further and fell to the ground. The words that I heard told me he was praying, but I have to say that he sounded as if he were whimpering; he seemed so utterly distraught.
Now I’m a preacher so I’m used to people falling asleep, especially at the most critical moments. But this moment in the olive grove was not a time to fall asleep. And yet that is exactly what we did. A big meal. A long day. Cool evening. Hearts that were confused and hurting, easily collapsing one’s senses. I don’t know how long I had been dozing when suddenly I am shaken awake by a forlorn Jesus looking pleadingly into my eyes. “Simon! Are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you might not fall into temptation.”
Oh that I had listened. Looking back I suspect that that moment of exhortation, unheeded by me, marked my life. One can only imagine what might have been. But, heed I did not.
I feel back asleep.
Everything that followed seemed like a blur. One moment Jesus is again calling me awake, the next moment we are surrounded by an angry mob with torches and swords. In the eerie glow of the moonlight one could see soldiers approach Jesus to arrest him. I tried to be brave, grabbed my short-sword and thrust it aimlessly toward the soldiers, hitting at least one of them. Chaos erupted, the trees began to turn around and around as I was kicked and pushed to the ground. People were cursing and clawing at one another in what quickly became a fierce fight that finally gave way to, well, an escape of all who had followed Jesus into the grove. And Jesus, bound with chains, was escorted away toward the city.
I laid there writhing in pain, hiding in the shadows, hoping everyone was gone. “My Lord,” I thought to myself, and pulling myself up I began to slowly follow after the mob, of all things with Jesus’ words, “Pray that you might not fall into temptation,” bouncing around in my mind. But rather than pray I kept walking, up the valley’s incline, toward Jerusalem.
Awhile later I arrive at the house of the high priest, the location betraying who was indeed behind this unjust arrest. I was startled by the crowd that was there, men and women seemingly pulled from their homes in the middle of the night to watch the unfolding drama.
It was cold, I was scared, and I really wanted to blend in. Moving into the courtyard I drew close to a group of people huddling together in front of a fire. The talk was one of confused ideas about what was happening, some people charged up with venomous notions against Jesus and, well, all of us who followed him. My heart began to race, my eyes began to shift from face to face, desperately searching out whether or not I was safe huddling there with them.
And then it happened. These next moments seem frozen in time to me. So surreal are they that I feel as if I’m in some trance, some dream, or, worse yet, some nightmare. Surely were I to awake it would be over with, not real, not true.
“You,” came the voice. “You were with him.” The servant-girl’s quick words totally caught me off guard. “No,” I muttered. “I do not know him.” And with that she backed away, her cautious face disappearing into the shadows.
A darkness began to settle over me as I sought to justify what I had just done. “I need to be here for him,” I said. “That means I might need to be secretive. Yes . . . secretive. Covert. Undercover.”
But then a man spoke up, harshly, accusing: “You also are one of them!” Those gathered around this part of the courtyard turned and looked at me, glowing faces filled with disdain. “I do not know what you are talking about!” I offered forcefully. And eventually they turned away, back toward their own business.
An hour passed. Everything got darker. And colder. Indeed, the chill of the night air seemed to penetrate straight into my hurting heart. I tried desperately to tell myself that I was fine, that even being in the courtyard, in the face of such hostility, was proof enough of my loyalty to Jesus.
And then it happened again. Another man, same accusatory tone: “This man was with him!” And with that I just snapped. I began to curse and wave my arms violently, shouting to the man, and everyone else, that I didn’t know what they were talking about; that I didn’t know Jesus. And as I was saying all of this, off from the distance a certain noise began to pierce the chaos in the courtyard: the crow of a rooster. And with that sound I stopped mid-sentence, the reality of Jesus’ words from earlier in the evening crashing in upon me, bile rising violently up into my throat. And I looked upward, across the courtyard, toward the chamber where Jesus was being questioned, and . . . he looked at me . . . with eyes I will never forget . . . eyes that knew.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. And the tears wouldn’t stop. Running aimlessly down the streets of Jerusalem I finally managed to fall on my face south of the city, underneath some ancient, scraggly trees, retching. The rooster’s cry. Those sorrowful eyes. My own words of denial. I couldn’t escape these things. How can a man do the very things he doesn’t want to do? How can a man stand firm in the face of temptation?
Oh the pain. Oh the grief. Oh the nightmare in which I was living.
A nightmare made worse by his death—a death that left me with no feeling inside. Numbness would have been a blessing, but I could not even have that. So I sat, staring into nothingness, shame eating away at me like a school of fish attacking raw meat. Fear gripping me. Regret overwhelming me, the pain of my betrayal destroying me from the inside.
I thought the pain would never stop. I never dreamed I had so many tears, so much pent up self-hatred, so much fear. Words cannot explain the trauma of that Friday that he died. Nor are words sufficient for the emptiness I felt on that Saturday. (weeping)
And with him gone there was no hope to be had.
Or so I thought.
Sometime in the very early hours of Sunday I made my way back toward the house where we had been staying. Most of the others were there, but no one said a word. We all knew we had walked away from our friend. We all knew we were losers, abandoning the one who got on his knees to wash our dirty feet.
But who would wash our dirty hearts? Who could wash mine?
Suddenly the door flung open and into the room fell a couple of the women that often traveled with us as we followed Jesus. “He’s alive,” they shouted. “He’s not in the tomb. He has risen from the dead! Come and see. . . .”
With that I took off, running hard and fast toward the tomb where he had been buried a couple of days before. Out of breath I entered the dark grave, finding nothing but a spent burial cloth. My eyes couldn’t believe it, my heart was beating fiercely, and my hopes desperately wanted to take hold of what was unfolding before me.
Walking out into the bright morning sunshine of Jerusalem found me filled with a strange mixture of hopefulness and fear: hopeful that he might indeed have risen from the dead, but afraid that he would never want to see me again. After all, I had denied him; why should he not deny me?
And then there he was, standing in front of me, looking more like a victorious king than a crucified rabbi. “Peter,” he said.
And then he held me as I wept uncontrollably, my face buried in the folds of his garment.
[Excerpt taken from “Saturday With Peter,” (c) 2010 by Matthew R. St. John]