15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants 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?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
Poor Peter. What with all the details of the Passion narrative that are left out of one or other of the Gospels, you would think that one at least of the Gospel writers—just one!—could’ve been kind enough to omit the shameful story of his denial of Christ. And yet there it is, one of those few episodes important enough to make it, in substantially identical form, into all four Gospel accounts—and what’s worse, in that part of the Gospels that would be most frequently read, year in and year out, down through the ages of the Church. For many of us, having grown up on the story, and having wondered in our youthful innocence how anyone could be so cowardly and inconstant, it is the first thing we associate with Peter, despite his many other noble moments.
Yet there is a curious tweak in John’s telling of the story, one of those odd, at first inexplicable little tweaks that seem to crop up all over this most curious of the Gospels. John breaks up the story: first Peter denies Jesus once, then the camera suddenly cuts from the fire outside where “Peter was standing and warming himself” to the inner chambers where Jesus is before Annas, fearlessly rejecting the charges against him, then suddenly the camera cuts again and we are back, with strange repetitiveness, at “Peter was standing and warming himself,” before John recounts briefly the latter two denials and the rooster crowing. Why the interruption? I confess that the reason had never occurred to me before, but like most literary gems in the Fourth Gospel, it is blindingly obvious once you do notice it. Like a master filmmaker, John seeks to heighten the drama through contrast and irony. Outside is Peter, too afraid to answer a simple question from a servant girl; inside is Jesus, who is unafraid to boldly answer the high priest. Outside is Peter, unwilling to speak openly about his own relatively lowly identity, but tries to keep it secret; inside is Jesus, who proclaims “I have spoken openly to the world. . . . I have said nothing in secret.” The sheer pitifulness of Peter’s cowardly denial is driven home with every line. But it gets worse.
The key issue in the exchange between Jesus and Annas seems to be Jesus’s teaching, but John inserts, almost unnoticed, a couple other key words: Annas “questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.” Of course, it is precisely about Jesus’s disciples that those outside by the fire are also interested in, and Peter’s refusal to answer seems to be its own answer—apparently he is not Jesus’s disciple after all, or he is not acting as one at the moment of denial at least. But what does Jesus have to say to Annas about his disciples? “But why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” Now that burns—ouch! “You don’t need to ask me about what I’m up to—ask my disciples; they’ll be happy to speak up!” Meanwhile Peter is outside loudly shushing the servant girl. “They know all about me and what I’ve taught.” Meanwhile Peter is outside swearing, “I know nothing about any of it!” Of course, seen this way the exchange is as much to Christ’s glory as to Peter’s shame. Jesus knows full well, after all (cf. Jn. 13:36-38) that Peter is denying him. And yet he does not deny Peter. Even while his disciples are scattering and hiding, Jesus confidently declares that they will bear witness to him, as indeed they would after his resurrection.
When we consider how often we act just like Peter, it is perhaps a comfort to know that Jesus is still smiling and saying, “Ask those who have heard me,” confident that we too can gain the courage to proclaim him. We, like Peter, deny Jesus in the workplace when we keep our faith and convictions quietly to ourselves, trying to fit in unobtrusively with a culture of crudeness, greed and ambition. We, like Peter, deny Jesus on an airplane or bus or whenever making small talk with a stranger, when we try to steer clear of mentioning our faith. I am the chief of sinners in this regard: always awkward and uncomfortable when it comes to small talk, I fear the moment in any conversation with a stranger or new acquaintance—“So where do you teach?” “So what does your non-profit do?” “Oh, what was your Ph.D in?”— when it emerges that I am not merely a Christian, but one of those crazy people who has actually dedicated my whole career to studying and disseminating my faith. But perhaps worst of all is when we deny Jesus in places of political power, which is after all the setting of this episode in the Gospels. Jesus is being brought before the political leaders of the land and his claims examined. Peter, tagging along with another disciple (John himself?) who has some connections—he knows the high priest!—is able to sidle in. He tries to act like he belongs there, “standing and warming himself” with the servants and soldiers. He needs to be close enough to the situation to know what’s going on, and he doesn’t want to lose that opportunity by giving away his identity—maybe, he reasons, he will be better in a position to help Jesus if he lays low.
So it is for many Christians who, by virtue of good connections, find themselves in places of political influence. Their denial is rarely so overt—after all, it’s still fashionable in American politics to be a churchgoer and to claim to be personally pious. But to actually live out commitment to Christ, acknowledging his kingship as the foundation of justice, and opposing unjust wars, unjust deals, unjust power relations, even unjust freedoms, in the name of Christ—that’s another matter. And of course, here we find ourselves in a conundrum. For does not our very Constitutional system, with its refusal of religious establishment, and our pluralistic political society, in which those of all faiths or none are granted equal rights before the law, force us to be like Peter, to keep our mouths discreetly shut about whose disciples we are and work anonymously for the common good? Privately, to be sure, we can be guided by our faith, but to advocate policies publicly on that basis would be to invite ridicule, alienate colleagues and constituents, and perhaps invite a lawsuit from the ACLU. Such is the dilemma any Christian in public office might face.
To be sure, Christians are also called to exercise prudence, and in the very next chapter of John, we see the examples of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, secret disciples of Jesus among the Jewish leadership, who used their high position to gain permission for a honorable burial of Jesus’s body. Jesus himself tells his disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Mt. 10:16), and this might mean being strategically silent about one’s Christian commitment in certain political contexts. But for any Christian in political power, or engaged in political activism, it is essential that we ask ourselves how often our silence about our allegiance to Christ, and what that allegiance demands, indeed stems from virtuous prudence, and how much stems from shame and cowardice. Indeed, often it is perhaps not Christ we are ashamed of, but others who bear his name. Since those Christians who are unafraid to invoke Jesus on the campaign trail or in the Capitol stand for policies that many more moderate Christians might find loathsome and backward, these Christians may deliberately shy away from identifying themselves as Christian politicians. And yet our allegiance to Christ must be stronger than any such shame.
And that allegiance is above all a commitment to tell the truth about the world, its injustice, and its true king. Jesus says to Pilate a few verses later: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (v. 37). And yet Jesus calls on us, timid as we are, to step up and bear witness on his behalf: “Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” Sometimes, to be sure, we struggle to know what Jesus said, and what he demands of us. More often, though, we do know and are, like Peter, too ashamed to repeat it. This Good Friday, as America is embroiled in an election year in which deceit has become the standard political currency, let us commit ourselves to bear witness without shame to our king and his truth.