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I Am NOT: Peter on Good Friday

Good Friday

29 Mar 2024

 




Descent.  The noun of the day.  Good Friday is nothing if not a story of descent and descending. 

Is this not the lowest moment in all of Christianity?  Jesus is murdered by the Romans in a state sponsored execution.  God is killed by the World.  Nothing could go any lower or deeper than that.

And Peter!  He went as low as a person could go; saying “I am not” in response to Jesus’ “I am.”  I am the way, the truth, and the life; I am not any of those things. Peter had abandoned God, had abandoned his friend Jesus, and denied all the practices he had been living as he followed Jesus. Peter was the great “I am NOT.”  Was this the same man who, the very night before, had pleaded with Jesus to wash all of him? 

I thought about how I have denied, and still deny, Jesus.  Mostly, I think, these are the sins of omission, the things I don’t do.  We all are like this, doing or not doing that which Jesus taught us.

Yet this descent of Peter was essential. Christianity is about letting go.  Did Jesus not tell Martha all of us have need of but one thing?   Jesus taught us the way of the cross, which is the way of descent, the way of letting go.  The way of ascension is the way of feeding the self, our own egos.  Jesus said that the Truth would set us free. To be free we need to let go of, first of all, our fears.  Peter was afraid.  Was it fear of losing his life?  Was it fear of being put to shame?  We may not fear loss of life, but on some level most of us fear loss of control and loss of the things we want.  Richard Rohr says we become free when we let go of three driving forces: a need for power and control, safety and security, and affection and esteem.[1]  Peter did not want to let go any more than I want to let go.  Yet every time I have let go of something I thought was essential, I have become a freer human being.  Every time!  The way of descent is the way of the cross. We do not descend because hell is “down there”, which it is not, we do so in the same way the Pueblo descended into the kivas: you are alone with God and God only.  That is all that matters.

That night Peter started throwing off all those things that kept him from Jesus.  His “I am not” was a direct denial of being one of the followers of Jesus.  Our own “I am not’s” are far more subtle.  What would you say if the answer to that question might cost you your livelihood or even your life?  Peter is seeing the full might and cruelty of the Roman Empire being played out in his very presence.  I would have been paralyzed with fear, looking for a way out, any way out. Peter must have realized that it would be no problem at all for the Romans to deal with him as they were dealing with Jesus.  Self-preservation is a great motivator.  Is the story of Peter’s denial there to shame him and all of us?   To make us believers out of fear we will be cast out?  Or is it there to remind us that Peter was human, just as we are, and that our fears are very real and understood by God.  Denying Jesus was not the end of the story for Peter. We do not know where he went after his third denial.  He fled.  I picture him going back to the garden of Gethsemane and curling up in a fetal position and letting go of everything that was inside.  Peter was emptied, not in the way Jesus emptied himself for us, but in the way of letting go of everything so that the new way of Jesus could come inside of him.

Perhaps Peter was thinking these words:

 

When you know the world is grieving

and you are partly responsible,

what words of solace can you offer?

When you could have done something—

anything—

and you did nothing,

what then can you do?

The earth is shaken, and so am I.

But do I deserve to grieve?

Have I brought this on myself?

Have I brought this on him?

On us?

I have not earned these tears.

I do not deserve this catharsis.

But what else can I do?[2]

 

What else can any of us do?  That is the question at the heart of Good Friday.


[1]  Richard Rohr.  The Path of Descent, Daily Medications, CAC, June 21st 2017. The Path of Descent — Center for Action and Contemplation (cac.org)

[2] Stations of Peter, A Sanctified Art.  “Wandering with Peter” 2023.

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