Loyalty, faithfulness, and reliability is what every servant leader pledges, just as Peter assured Jesus, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Yet that very night, after invoking a curse and anathema upon himself that he knew not the arrested Jesus, the words of Jesus to Peter, "Before the rooster crows you will deny me three times," were made manifest. Fr. Timothy Lowe suggests that arrogance must run its full course so that our only hope is in the mercy of the Lord.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast at the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, the executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And today, it's just Fr. Timothy Lowe and me, your co-hosts of this Doulos podcast. Fr. Timothy is a retired priest who has served within the Orthodox Church in America, and also formally as the rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Greetings, Fr.Timothy!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:36
Hollie, always good to be here. Thank you.
Hollie Benton 0:39
So let's start off our conversation by reflecting on reliability and stability. A leader who has any role in their church, school workplace, even within a family aspires to be true to his word: dependable, reliable, trustworthy. And we appreciate such qualities in others who serve on our teams and staff. We likely have all experienced the opposite of reliability: shiftiness, fickleness, instability, disloyalty, the fairweather friend, people who are more interested in their own protection, their own popularity and promotion, than in doing the right thing for the sake of the community. We do see it easily in others who have betrayed us, but it may not be so easy to see it in ourselves. Fortunately for us, Scripture is filled with stories and characters who pledge allegiance to the Lord, but then fail miserably. And the Lord is merciful. Having been betrayed, The Lord just might offer us another chance. As we record this podcast, we are in Lent approaching Holy Week, where Jesus is arrested, falsely accused and crucified. Today we'll be looking at Peters denial of Christ. Father, Timothy, give us some context here. I'll play devil's advocate a bit here. Why is Peters denial so devastating when so many other people were already against Jesus Christ? I mean, it's not like Peter is driving in the nails.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:06
Well, Hollie, if you read quickly through the Gospel of Matthew, you will see that most of the Twelve disciples honestly never speak. They are literally flat characters, names on a page,with Peter being the one real exception. And so you see what, for lack of a better word, sort of character development. This means we imagine that we can get to know the Peter of St. Matthew's Gospel. So if you pay close attention, there's always drama that surrounds him, mostly bad drama, and on the very rare occasion, good. So other than Jesus, he is the next dominant character from chapter four when Jesus calls him and his brother Andrew to follow me, to become fishers of men. So as we look at today's reading, we will see that it literally closes the book on Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, for he will not speak again. And so this significant closure will expose all of his flaws once and for all that have been unfolding since chapter four, so almost 23 chapters. So the devastation being done is to Peter himself. His arrogance, as he imagined himself to be the great exception to the rest of the Twelve. If you recall, when he said even if others abandon you, I will not. I am prepared to die with you in the Petrine grandiosity about himself. Or there is an earlier passage when he tries to correct the Lord about the teaching of the cross just after that great confession where he's lauded, right? Christ has to tell him, Get behind Me, Satan. So Peter here will be exposed. You know, readers, be gentle, as a fraud, weak, proud fool of himself. So a lot has led to this moment, and we must pay attention to his folly, and we must see it for what it is. And thus, here's the kicker, our folly, for we must always identify ourselves with the one who is failing or falling when we read Scripture. So perhaps his denial is not just that he rejects the idea of not knowing the person of Jesus. But I will infer that he's actually rejecting the teaching, specifically, that the idea that the Messiah, the Lord must suffer and die. He is hardly presented to us as a faithful follower of Christ, but rather as one who is deeply flawed, and it's being played out before our eyes in which we will see shortly.
Hollie Benton 4:34
Thank you. So let's turn to that passage in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 26. "Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a maid came up to him and said, You also were with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied it before them all saying, I do not know what you mean. And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him and she said to the bystanders, this man was with Jesus of Nazareth. And again, he denied it with an oath. I do not know the man. After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, certainly you are also one of them for your accent betrays you. Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear I do not know the man, and immediately the cock crowed. And as Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times, and he went out and wept bitterly." What I find, Fr. Timothy, so interesting is that Peter himself is not on trial here. Jesus is the one on trial, hardly saying a word, if we read Matthew's gospel, but it's Peter, who is just hanging out with the bystanders, defending his own skin as though he's on trial. Also, what's remarkable is that suddenly Peter is perky and awake. It didn't matter just a few verses before in the story that Jesus asked him to stay awake, to pray, to keep watch. But Peter just couldn't keep his eyes open when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying. Now suddenly, out in the courtyard with the bystanders, his blood is pumping, he's invoking a curse on himself and swearing that he absolutely has no association with Jesus. He's really taken a posture of defensiveness. Does Peter really have to be so defensive here?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:25
The simple answer is, of course not. But I'm here to tell you, I don't think Peter is in his right mind. Why? Because he's playing the role of the proud fool and fools, well, they are what they are. I mean, let us look closely at the text you just read. First, the translation that you read, says a maid comes up to him, that does not actually give the right image. It is actually a young serving girl. Imagine a spry teenage girl coming up and making a statement about your relationship. It's hardly exactly intimidating, okay. But his response is quite terse. He denies it, and states that she doesn't know what she is saying. She's just a girl, maid servant. He quickly moves from the courtyard to the entryway, and then another serving girl, I want to show who he's dialoguing with, because it's sort of making Peter look worse. So he goes on and makes another statement of fact that he does not know Christ, but he does it more vehemently and takes an oath. Okay, so that's a statement of fact. So it's more technical, instead of just dismissing or like he did the first one. So what I'm saying in the progression, Peter is continually digging a deeper hole for himself. Now, note here, that they're not accusing him of any wrongdoing, merely, I'm being associated with Jesus, the Galilean, the guy from Nazareth. So then it comes to the last statement, the bystanders, they seem to jump on board, and base it, I like this just for humor sake, on regional bias. See, I live in the South now, I'm a Yankee. Your accent makes it clear, makes it clear, it's evident by your accent. Well, it's not exactly a strong case in a trial. But nonetheless, we have to note Peter's extreme response. And this is where, Hollie, I beg our listeners to pay attention. Peter invokes what I would call the worst word in the entire New Testament. And it is used only once, only once right now in the Gospel of Matthew, you will not find it any other place. You will find other examples of a less, toned down word that St. Paul will use, but it is a word vehemently damns to destruction in an oath. So when we say swear we think of saying bad four letter words. No, it's making a technical oath that he does not know the man. So he uses this word to curse himself and it's the word anathema. It's a more strong, forceful word than anathema, which means let him be accursed. Let him be devoted to destruction, let him be damned to hell. We see here as the whole flow of Peter being put to the test, that he fails it not just once or twice, but in good Orthodox fashion, three times. And so in that sense, he is absolutely and this is the point if you just look at the personality of Peter as it's given to us in Matthew, he is crushed once and for all. He cannot imagine himself that he is actually a faithful disciple. He has accused and cursed himself and the coup de gras, if you will. It's the bloody rooster, right? The bloody rooster that heralds it all. You see, that gives voice to it all that makes it public. And of course the kicker is, you know, Hollie, is it's just as the Lord said it would unfold in the previous chapter. Peter does not need to be defensive but, and this is another point I want the readers to pay attention to, because it's something fundamental about the flaws in our character. His arrogance has to run its course before there is any hope that he might turn from it. That's the key. It has to run its whole course in our lives, Peter's life, because when it finally crushes us, then finally, if there's any hope, we can now turn from it.
Hollie Benton 10:28
Well, I agree when it comes to learning from the story of Peter's denial, I hope that we don't cut corners, like we often do when we talk about something like the Holocaust. People naively say, Well, if I had been a German living in the time of Hitler, I would have defended and protected the Jews. Really? Or in this case of Peter, Well, now that I know that Christ is the Messiah, and the Son of God raised from the dead, I wouldn't deny Christ as Peter did. If I had been one of Jesus's disciples, I would have been faithful and loyal. I would have gone to the cross with him. Really, really? Do we really think that? Do we think we can do better than the Apostle Peter? So is there any hope for us in our arrogance, Fr Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:12
I spent two years of my life translating Holocaust survivor testimonies, and all of them had a common link, and it was the desire to survive and live another day. And those that did pass through death time and again, time and again, and saw grace come to them, when it was unexpected, even from sometimes the German soldiers who usually would just shoot them to death willy nilly, and they decided that day not to. So you know, I live in South Carolina, funny you should talk about hope, because in South Carolina, they have a wide range of license plates you can put on your car. There's the free one, that's standard, then you can get specialty plates. So there's one license plate that I just can't stand. And it has a motto that we're all familiar with. It says, In God We Trust, but you have to pay for that one. That's extra, okay? In God We Trust. Why can't I stand it? Because I find it intrinsically arrogant. Because from my point of view, I think it's the Scripture teaches only will God decide at the dread day of judgment if you, I, any of us trusted him. So, we do not get to make the broad proclamation before the time. I find that just a little bit presumptuous, okay. God will decide, not me, it belongs to God alone. So let us leave the dread judgment throne as St. John Chrysostom (says) Do not dare to sit on that throne. Leave it to the Master Himself. But there is the free license plate. Again, this is South Carolina. And it says something for us cheapies, with a motto it says, While I breathe, I hope.
Hollie Benton 11:17
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:36
Not bad, huh? License plates - In God, we trust - arrogance. While I breathe I hope - humility. See? Which one are you going to pick? Practically speaking, to answer your question about, is there any hope for us? No. For example, there's a cloud that just weighs on all of us right now, as we witness what's going on in Ukraine. Once again, senseless destruction of people for no appreciable reason. And I like it for us Orthodox, one Orthodox country seeking to take and destroy another Orthodox ,for whatever reason, and I'm not interested in past history. I'm not into politics. It is objectively what has happened. Whether it's anybody, or now for Peter, the only hope is if God decides to show him mercy. Again, mercy. Peter is gone. In the Gospel of Matthew, he will not speak another word. The last word of the eleven is, I never knew the man. The next chapter we'll hear from Judas. And that will be it. Oh, I have betrayed the blood of an innocent man. Okay, so there is no hope. Unless God simply chooses to show mercy. If Peter is allowed back into the household of Christ, then it is mercy, unmerited grace, which can no longer be misconstrued by Peter. Peter is at the bottom, okay, he can't go any lower than death itself. That's when Peter can possibly have hope. Since we cannot, as you said above, be greater than Peter. It also applies to us until we have come to that point of hopelessness, despair, where it is no longer about us, no longer our story, no longer our ego, no longer our pride, no longer our self-absorption or whatnot. And at that point, we can become open to the grace of God, if He chooses to give it, see, He can choose not to, depends on Him, okay. I'm at His mercy and that's the whole point of mercy. It's not something you can earn and manipulate. So I have one final suggestion for our hearers, it's free of charge. I would like to suggest that we all buy one less icon, instead, purchase a stuffed rooster to place in our house as a reminder of Peter's, and thus our denial of Christ. We all like images, things to remind us of, calls to remembrance. A stuffed rooster, why? Because it's absolutely ridiculous, which is the point of using it, okay. I have a house where, you know, I look up and there's the pillar next to the gargoyle, okay. It makes for a funny joke, but it sends a message. And that's the point, right? That's the point.
Hollie Benton 15:30
I'll be searching for the rooster to put on my mantel.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 15:32
Oh, this is South Carolina, we can find them real easy. It's a local thing. And because for us, there are many ways we can deny Christ, as you point out. And of course, ultimately, it is the rejection of his teaching and replacing it with something else. And this is where Peter begins to fail, when he rejects Christ, rebuking him because He's talking about the cross and what's going to happen in Jerusalem to the Son of Man and so on. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, that is the issue. It is the cross however it manifests itself in our life, in our daily lives, because we're not going to be grandiose, we're just simple people. You live in Minnesota. I live in South Carolina. We live our humdrum lives do we do and so on and so forth. At the end of the day, we're not being confronted with persecution. No one is challenging our faith. And are you kidding? We got bumper plates saying, In God We Trust, so you know, I'm in the Promised Land. But at the end of the day, the hope is in the grace and the mercy of God and not in anything human because anything human is bound to disappoint.
Hollie Benton 16:37
Thank you, Fr. Timothy.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai