A Failure of Courage

A Failure of Courage

The stories about Peter were important in the life of the early church because many of these narratives portrayed a person who was enthusiastic for Jesus, but at critical moments his courage failed him. He had more enthusiasm than he had courage, and many, many ordinary believers could identify with his example.

The story of Peter’s denial of Jesus seems to be authentic, because Peter’s behavior is so consistent with his character in other stories in the gospel. Peter was the follower who climbed out of the boat during the storm and then sank because of his fear. He was the disciple who first identified Jesus as the Messiah, and then rebuked Jesus, when Jesus told him the Jerusalem authorities would likely kill him. Peter is the disciple who refused to let Jesus wash his feet at the Last Supper, and he also joined in the argument with the other disciples about who was the greatest of the followers of Jesus. There is even a tradition that when Nero instituted the persecution of the Christians in Rome, Peter tried to flee the City. As he was walking out of Rome to escape almost certain arrest and death, he experienced a vision of Jesus walking into the City, and the vision of Jesus asked him, “quo vadis,” or “where are you going?” According to tradition Peter turned around and walked back into the City to be crucified upside down.

The early Christians were placing themselves directly in opposition to Rome. The Christian affirmation, “Jesus is Lord,” was treason in a world where “Caesar was Lord.” Those early Christians were running an underground subversive faith community, and they were constantly in danger of being found out. The Jerusalem authorities and the Romans, when they arrested Christians offered them mercy if they would renounce Jesus and affirm their faith in the Temple or in the Emperor. The Romans even had a ceremony, where the Christian was supposed to burn a pinch of incense before a statue of the Emperor and swear allegiance to Caesar. Many early Christian leaders compared the temptation to renounce Jesus in the face of Roman oppression with the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. 

Personally, I identify with Peter. I don’t like confrontations. When push comes to shove I am a coward. Put me on the spot and my knees quake and my courage fails. Fear brings out the worst in me. Generally speaking I live to fight another day. But how often have I betrayed my vocation by taking the path of least resistance and saving my own skin? The early Christian community was trying to encourage those initial followers of Jesus to accept the consequences of remaining faithful to Christ. It ain’t easy.

Peter at least had the courage to follow Jesus to the home of the High Priest after his arrest, when all the rest of the disciples scattered. But what about his profession of love and loyalty he had voiced only a few hours before at the Last Supper?

Luke 22:33 “And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’”

Jesus understood that Peter would fail. Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again and rediscovered your courage, strengthen your comrades.”

Like Peter Jesus can see right through us. God knows the limits of our courage. God knows we will fail. And when we fail, God calls us to pick ourselves back up and go on. God forgives us. There is a story I can identify with, because as a child I was afraid of the dark.

A little boy was afraid of the dark. One night his mother told him to go out to the back porch and bring her the broom. The little boy turned to his mother and said, “Mama, I don’t want to go out there. It’s dark.”

The mother smiled reassuringly at her son. “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark,” she explained. “Jesus is out there. He’ll look after you and protect you.”

The little boy looked at his mother real hard and asked, “Are you sure he’s out there?”

“Yes, I’m sure. He is everywhere, and he is always ready to help you when you need him,” she said.

The little boy thought about that for a minute and then went to the back door and cracked it a little. Peering out into the darkness, he called out, “Jesus? If you’re out there, would you please hand me the broom?”

There are times I am still tempted to peer out into the darkness, of the unknown, what can seem like a really scary future, and pray, “Jesus, if you are out there would you please help me!”

Let me ask you, is there something that scares you? Are there times when your courage fails you? Living in a time of recession, with high unemployment and shrinking pay checks, investments evaporating and businesses going broke, we might be suffering from economic anxiety. Younger people are trying to figure out how to prepare for an uncertain future, what vocation can they pursue? In an economy where jobs can disappear suddenly and without warning, unexpectedly outsourced, or made obsolete by technology, many of us feel insecure. Since we are a graying congregation, many of us are looking ahead to the potential of health problems. When the physician says, “when we get to a certain age,” or “I am sorry to have to tell you this,” our whole world can be turned upside down in a minute. Some of us may be dying even as we speak. All of us are facing the unknown.

God can see right through us and knows that alone our courage will not be enough. Alone we will become afraid and betray our commitments to follow the way of Jesus. Alone, like Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest, we will turn tail and run in the face of danger and hide.

And that is why God does not intend for us to be alone. God has given us the Body of Christ, where good spiritual friends can help to strengthen us. Our faith community can hold us by the hand and pray with us and for us when we are afraid. When we look out into the darkness of the unknown, we can pray, “Jesus, if you are out there would you please help me!” And here is the good news of the Gospel. Jesus is out there. Remember the message of the angels to the women on Easter morning at the empty tomb? “He is not here. He has risen, and he is going before you.” Christ is still alive in the community of faith of those who follow Jesus, those who seek to love God and love their neighbor, rejecting all forms of violence and caring for the poor, the least and the lost. But we have to run to catch up. Jesus isn’t somewhere back there in history, Jesus is now and in our future as we pray with and for each other, sharing with the poor, and working for peace and justice.

You know in Huntsville you can meet a lot of people who have jumped out of airplanes. This story was told by a young lieutenant who was about to make his first night jump. As they were flying toward the drop zone the jump master asked him, “Scared, lieutenant?”

“No,” the lieutenant replied. “Apprehensive.”

“What’s the difference?” inquired the jump master.

“Apprehensive means I’m scared, but with a college diploma.”

College diplomas don’t eliminate fear. Apprehensive or scared, God can see right through us. Fear is the enemy of faith. Out of fear we can betray our vocations and betray others. Fear causes us to turn inward and become less generous and selfish. Fear sucks all of the joy out of life. And following the way of Jesus should inspire faith and lead to true joy.

Let us live faithfully without fear, trusting God to see us through. For as Paul wrote long ago to Christians who were facing persecution and death. Romans 8: 37 No, in all these things we conquer our fears through Christ who loves us.

38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,

39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you’re out there, Jesus, help us!!


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