On a hill just south of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, stands a sculpture in a churchyard. The central figure is a man sitting on a bench in front of a column. His hands are partially raised in a gesture that implies pleading. His face is turned toward the figures of two girls standing just to his left. Looming behind this man’s right shoulder, looking down on him is the figure of a Roman soldier. You can almost hear the words:
“I do not know what you are talking about.”
“I do not know the man.”
“I do not know the man!”
You can almost hear the cock crow.
The sculpture is Peter’s denial of Christ located in the yard of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where, by tradition, Peter’s denial occurred. What happened to Peter? Is this the same man who immediately dropped his fishing net to heed Jesus’ call: Follow me! Is this the same Peter who was the first to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Is this the same Peter who said, even though he dies with him, Peter will never deny Jesus. (Mt 26:34-35)
Until he did. Three times.
Peter was among the disciples in today’s Gospel who heard Jesus tell them: “…whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” He knew the consequences. What changed? Did Peter lose his courage?
In our Gospel text today, Jesus asks his disciples to be courageous.
He warns them of the adversity and persecutions they will face. Jesus tells them they will be treated no better than he will be treated. I imagine these words and images were difficult for the disciples to hear; they are stark, prophetic. They are black and white, with no gray areas. The choices and their consequences are clear, direct. Purposely so. This is what it means to be Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus is acknowledging what he asks of the disciples is not easy. He knows it will cause conflict and division. He understands the mission he gives to them because Jesus understands his mission from God the Father. He is experiencing and will experience the same rejection and persecution. What he asks the disciples to share in, he shares with them. More importantly, he will lead the way.
It will take courage to be Jesus’ disciple. Do not fear, Jesus says. Proclaim what you have been taught.
I can imagine the Gospel text may have challenged us today for same reasons the words Jesus speaks were challenging to the original twelve. The idea of God’s judgement can make us uncomfortable, and rightly so sometimes. Not fearing God can have eternal consequences.
Not fearing human judgement is easier said than done, however. Judgement by humans is a powerful motivator, one Jesus understood and experienced. Picture the cross. Picture the image of the Roman soldier looming over Peter. We may not face threats to our health and lives as some have and still face as they carry-out their vocations as disciples. We may experience hostility, rejection, and persecution. We may experience indifference to our proclamation. And we may experience the pressure to soften the message, to cheapen the cost of grace in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The list can go on and on.
We face other, smaller ways that we acknowledge or deny knowing Christ. We show we know or deny Christ in how we live our lives. We show we deny or know Christ in how we treat others. We acknowledge or deny Christ in the choices we make; in the things we do or leave undone. Some of these may require a different form of courage – moral courage -- but courage, nonetheless.
It is understandable how we may succumb to such pressure, to be less than what we are called to be. Because Jesus mentions fear I think he understands it is an all too human reaction to what threatens us and what we value. It sometimes shows what we value more. Jesus shared our human nature and understands all too well our weaknesses and frailties.
We are called to have courage; it goes hand-in-hand with faith, linking our beliefs and actions. A definition of courage states it is not the absence of fear, but the determination to continue despite it. That is what I think Jesus asked of his disciples then and asks of us now.
If you only read the Gospel selection for today, you might get an unforgiving picture of discipleship with no margin for error. But we know the larger picture.
Christ’s mission on earth, one he passed to his disciples and the Church, and one which we carry-on today, is also one of forgiveness and reconciliation. Through repentance and amendment of life, we can be reconciled to each other and to God. Acknowledging Jesus acknowledges the potential for reconciliation. This is also part of the Gospel we proclaim.
Later in Matthew, Jesus predicts his disciples will deny and desert him in his final hours and after his death. He knows they are human. Even though they will deny and desert him, he will not desert the disciples.
Take a moment to picture another scene in your mind, this time from the Gospel According to John: It is morning. The risen Jesus is on the lakeshore, kneeling before a fire. With a stick he stirs the coals, tending the fire. Fish are roasting over fire. A basket of bread lays next to the fire. The disciples join him. After eating, he turns to Peter and asks him:
Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs.
Do you love me? Tend my sheep.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep.
This is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times. Yes, Lord, you know I love you, he says three times.
Though the disciples’ faltered, Christ did not desert them. He will not desert us, either. Tend my sheep, there are a lot of wolves out there.