Vicar's Sermon - Tuesday of Holy Week
Peter denies Jesus and Jesus judged by Pilate.
Then Peter remembered...and he broke down and wept.
Pilate handed him over to be crucified.
The two Ps. Peter and Pilate. Held together by what? If last night our shared word was ‘pretence’, this evening the word ‘conflicted’ comes to mind.
Poor Peter. The big man who proved, in the end to be something of a softy, blubbing in the darkness as he pulled away from the fire in the courtyard. So strong...when all was going well. But then undone by strip of a girl who recognised a northern accent in the crowd. He had promised much...only to fail miserably before the night was out, and to rub salt into the wound Jesus had known this, had seen this weakness in him, had warned him to beware.
The others had gone, scattered in the darkness of the garden of Gethsemane, hidden in the crowds that had come up for the Passover, lying low in their ‘upper room’ perhaps, the doors locked. John will emerge on Good Friday alongside Mary at the foot of the cross. The others...Judas was in a hell of his own making. Thomas had initially encouraged the disciples up to Jerusalem that they might die with Christ...but these words had evaporated. Peter at least had tried to be true. It was Peter who had raised the sword in the garden, he had even attempted to defend Jesus by drawing blood from the unfortunate slave Malchus, but the disciples were outnumbered and the ‘snatch’ took place quickly and efficiently. Jesus was in custody and the guard had their man, not bothering to round up his disciples – small fry who would presumably creep back home with their revolutionary zeal well and truly crushed.
‘Gethsemane’ – the word means ‘olive press’. So it is a place of intense pressure. Peter had resisted the pressure so far. He would be true. He would be faithful. He entered the courtyard. But then it was all too much for him. His love for Jesus was real. He wanted to follow to the end, he wanted to be faithful but then fear got a hold on him. Legend has it that Peter was crucified outside another city – then he would face his death with courage, but he wasn’t ready now, far from it. Jesus would be crucified with two strangers – none of his friends would be alongside him on Good Friday: they are conspicuous by their absence. Love drove Peter forward. Fear held him back – he had stepped out of the boat once beforebut by failing to follow now he would still be engulfed by the waves of fear that washed over him.
And the other P? Pilate. In the space of just a few sentences Pilate moves from asking ‘What evil has he done?’ to ‘handing him over to be crucified’...ensuring that he is flogged first for good measure. In the other gospels Pilate is shown to be a man who cannot make up his mind about Jesus. Matthew tells us that his wife warned him against sentencing Jesus, so badwas her dream about the affair: he would not the only man who did not listen to his wife! In John’s gospel Pilate rocks back a forth between conversation with his prisoner and the priests who are outside the door of his residence (unable to step inside because of their fear of ritual contamination). Pilate can’t decide, he lacks the inner strength to uphold justice. Expediency, real politik, the shouts of the crowd combine with his indifference for the life of another Jewish dreamer to ease him out of his half hearted attempt to save Jesus from his accusers and across the line of no return. ‘Not my problem any more.’
Peter’s struggle was the more intense. How could it be otherwise? Pilate had only just met Jesus, Peter had shared his life with Him for at least three years but he had not managed to come to terms with Jesus’ teaching that he (and his followers) must die to self to inherit the kingdom. Peter weeps for his failure but he weeps for the loss of his dreams – things have not turned out as he dreamed they would: he must get real.
The command to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our minds and all our strength is so far beyond us, conflicted as we are. One of the alternative confessions offered us in our liturgy quotes the prophet Hosea: ‘our love’ it says ’is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early’. Peter has been joined by many down the centuries who have wept at their faithlessness. Far easier to ‘talk the talk’ than to ‘walk the walk’. And Pilate? Is he the only person in human history to have done what was easy as opposed to what was right? Here we are again, looking at ourselves in the mirror of this story, bundles of feeling and emotion, of idealism and devotion combined with indecision and fear – trying to be faithful, trying to be true, trying to do the right thing and falling short.
And yet, what love is this?
Forgiveness all divine!
Christ says of our poor faithless souls,
‘I know them, they are mine’.