Peter and the Apostle’s Denial

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During this Holy Week I would like to turn to another event that all of the Gospels share. Although Simon Kepha has historically endured a great deal of criticism due to him denying knowing Jesus, we should take a moment to return to the scene where he and the other Apostles made a promise to never leave the Lord’s side and gleam what we might say about the liturgy in light of that discourse.

Let us that a look at the text first from – Matthew 26:31-35, which is also recorded in (Mark 14:27-31; Luke 22:31-34; and John 13:36-38. Matthew’s account reads:

Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’; but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”  Peter said to Him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.”  Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”  Peter said to Him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.”  And all the disciples spoke likewise.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Simon Peter made two very emphatic statements concerning his fidelity to the Lord.  These two accounts also inform us that the other ten Apostles (Judas Iscariot not being present) concurred with Peter, by speaking likewise in declaring their fidelity.  The attempt being made here by Christ Jesus was to prepare His remaining Eleven Apostles for the tests to come.  While Judas Iscariot never had any faith to shake, in the hours to come, at Gethsemane, and up until Jesus returns to them in Galilee after His resurrection, the little faith that the Eleven do have will be put to the greatest tests that they have ever experienced up to now.

Luke is the clearest of all the Gospels in regard to communicating exactly what Jesus expected of Simon Peter and, moreover, what He expected from every successor of Peter.  Inasmuch as the gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church, Satan will never stop trying to do that very thing; that is, for Satan to sift a group of men like wheat, is to test what they are made of, through a process that bears the demonic fruit of division and separation.

In the Lukan account, Jesus said to Peter, I have prayed that your own faith may not fail,” so we know that Simon Peter had been given supernatural protection and divine assurance for the upcoming test.  Then Jesus said, “and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”  The over-protective Peter obviously did not appreciate the idea of him turning back or leaving the Lord alone, so he moved to reaffirm his fidelity by saying, “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison with you and die.”  When Jesus replied to Peter, by telling him that, “before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me,” He was not speaking in a way that should be construed as being demeaning, pejorative, or alarming.  Remember, Jesus had just told Peter that, “I have prayed that your faith may not fail,” so Peter’s three denials are in no way related to any personal failure of faith.  On the contrary, all that Peter could have inferred from this prophecy/command was that despite the good intentions of his heart, he would indeed turn back and, once he did, he must strengthen those who are weaker in faith.  As the Psalm 30:7 sings, “Complacent, I once said, “I shall never be shaken.”[1]

Earlier in John 13:30, Jesus said, “My children, I will be with you for only a little while longer.  You will look for me, and as I told the Jews, ‘Where I go you cannot come’.”   According to the Gospel of John, before they enjoyed the Seder Passover meal, and after Jesus had given them the new command to “love one another,” Simon Peter had discerned the hour correctly and came to understand what Jesus had been telling them all along; that He was going to a place where no one could immediately follow Him.  Then Peter boldly asked the question that the Johannine Jews repeatedly grumbled amongst themselves about,[2] “Master, where are you going?”  The Lord tried to reassure the first Pope by telling him, “. . . you will follow later,” but later was not good enough for Kephas, “Master, why can’t I follow you now?  I will lay down my life for you.”  Jesus, discerning more of a desire from Peter to dictate to Him, rather than to cooperate with Him, told Peter why he couldn’t follow Him now, “Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.”

This was not the first time that an Apostle tried to dictate to God by telling Him where He could not go, or where they wanted Him to take them.  According to the Gospel of Matthew, after Christ Jesus foretold of His Passion to the Apostles for the first time, Simon Peter “took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, [[saying]], “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”[3]  Then there were the Sons of Thunder and their mommy who, days before Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem, had mistakenly discerned that He was about to reclaim the earthly throne of David, and asked, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.”[4]

Let’s talk about The Challenge of Keeping Promises

There are any number of unemotional promises, based upon the truth that can be made in the Circle of Grace, such as our vows made during the Sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Orders. These vows do not contradict the words of our Lord who said, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”[5]  Rather, the meaning of that command is to instruct us in the fact that it is not in our power to sustain or to preserve in any promise we might make.  What a promise is – is a created reality – a truth essentially, and no thing outside of God can create any thing; that is, it is not in our power to create truth – it is only in our power to either cooperate with or to disobey the truth.  Summarily speaking, it is to say, that if a Catholic Christian promises to do this or to do that, in conjunction with lovingly receiving a Sacrament, in essence, what they are doing is merely confessing to always cooperate with the grace of God who sustains and perfects all things done according to His will. 

While humans are incapable of creating truth and keeping promises outside of God’s grace, the beautiful thing about the Divine Symphony is that it is the one example we have on earth that God always keeps His promises. For example, Jesus promised that He would always be with us; and the Mass itself is evidence that Jesus keeps that promise to us on a daily basis. Jesus promised that if we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we would have eternal life; the Mass keeps that promise. God promised to lead us to the knowledge of truth. In leading us directly to the Real Presence of Jesus, who is the truth, the liturgy uniquely keeps that promise. On the night of the Passover, God established a perpetual command; that we must eat the Passover lamb and sprinkle the blood on the lamb on the doorposts of our home; the Mass keeps that that promise with us eating Jesus Lamb of God. God promises to conform us to the image of His Son, and the Mass keeps that promise by having become who we eat. Jesus promised that when two are more are gathered in His name, He is in our midst, and the Mass most uniquely keeps that promise through the Priest in Persona Christi and the Holy Eucharist – the Real Presence – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. These, and so many others promises that God has made in His covenants with His people, the Mass most uniquely fulfills. The Holy Mass is the fulfillment of a promise made and a promise kept. The Mass is the only place on earth that we can go to bear witness of God fulfilling every promise He has made to His People.

[1] Ps. 30:7.
[2] Cf. Jn. 7:35, 8:22.
[3] Mt. 16:22.
[4] Mt. 20:21.
[5] Mt. 5:37.