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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Denial: John 18:12-27 (John Allen)

As the social dominance that Christianity once enjoyed wanes, we may find ourselves in a position similar to that of Peter in the High Priest’s courtyard. Will we answer Christ’s call to witness to the truth, or will we deny him in order to be included within our culture’s political conversations?

John 18:12-27
12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.

13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. 15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. 19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” 24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. 25 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.” 26 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?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Fred Craddock tells a hauntingly recognizable story about denial. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Craddock was a seminary student pulling all-nighters in a greasy-spoon diner in Nashville. A black man was waiting at the end of the counter to be served as Craddock received not only his grilled cheese, but a refill of his coffee. When the man behind the counter finally acknowledged the man, it was with a terse and angry, “what do you want?” Craddock recalled:

Whatever the man said, the fellow went to the grill, scooped up a little dark patty and put it on a piece of bread without condiment, without napkin. The cook handed it to the man, who gave him some money and went out the side door by the garbage can out on the street… I didn’t say anything. I did not reprimand, protest, or witness to the cook. I did not go out and sit beside the man on the curb, on the edge. I was just thinking about the questions coming up on the New Testament. And I left the little place, went up the hill back to my room to resume my studies, and off in the distance, I heard a cock crow.[1]

Peter’s predicament is familiar. Who among us has not wondered: when will my affiliations condemn me to an extent that is intolerable? Jesus knew that his followers would reach these limits. When James and John ask “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” he knows that they are unaware of the cross (Mark 10:35). This text is inviting us to add to our Lenten confessions the times that our commitment to Christ’s cause of justice grew faint at the sight of its cost.

There has been a profound shift in the social position of Jesus’ followers since that night that Peter kept watch in the High Priest’s courtyard. In the early moments of the Jesus movement, affiliation with Christ was a great danger. Peter was right to be nervous because the incipient movement was already seen as a threat to imperial order. By the time of Craddock’s evening in the diner though, Christianity in the United States was a majority community, the problem was just that racism was a more powerful consensus than the gospel.

We now live in a time where Christian language is falling out of mainstream recognition, a time where it will be easy for those of us who claim to follow Jesus to sink quietly into the din of broader political and social conversations. It will be easy to stand by while the deep insights of our rich tradition are reduced to platitudes, because we are terrified by the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s chilling reminder that “when Christ calls [someone], he bids [them] come and die.”[2] In his address to the Convocation of Union Theological Seminary in 2012, Cornel West boomed: “we are living in a time of catastrophes, we are not dealing with the problematic, we are dealing with the catastrophic.” In this season of Lent we are learning to repent of our roles in generating these catastrophes and our silence in the face of them.

The decline of Christian domination in political conversation holds an opportunity as well: the opportunity for our witness to enjoy the power of surprise, the potency of novelty. The voice of the gospel is not resounding in our political conversations today, and it is because most of us who might take it up are spending too much time warming ourselves by fires in the courtyard, denying our affiliations with radical ideas. Christ is calling. The cock is crowing. It is time to bear witness to the truth.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 49.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 89.

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