Scripture: John 18:1–12, 15–18, 25–27
Peter followed his Master out of the upper room. It was late into the night and the cool air rose goosebumps on his flesh. The last hours had been emotional ones for Peter and the other disciples of the Master. The meal that they shared…that the Master insisted was their last. Jesus’ act of washing their feet, at once symbolic but also somehow the most real thing Peter had ever experienced. The long teaching by the Master with wisdom that Peter could hardly grasp in the moment: “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” Now, as he led them to the garden where they had met to pray so many other times, Peter tried to grasp what it all meant.
The grass was already wet with dew and it chilled Peter even more as he sat down in the garden. Here, in this place where he had led them so many times. Here where they had prayed and he had taught them. Here in a place that seemed so safe and protected and far away from the terror that Jesus kept describing. Here, in the place known to the disciples…here in the place known to the betrayer.
Peter could hear their swords clanking against their armor as they approached. The violence of the soldiers and officials marching through the trees seemed to contrast so sharply with the soft peace of the garden. Their very presence seemed an assault on all that the Master had stood for. As they began to see their torches flickering through the trees, some of the disciples whispered to each other, wondering if they should run. Peter reached beneath his cloak and felt the cold steel of the blade that he had brought.
The soldiers arrived in force, and the Master stepped forward, asking who they were looking for. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they barked. Peter would never forget the Master’s response. “I AM.” It was not a simple identification, or sheepish acknowledgement. It was not submission to their power, or their violence, or their authority, or their demands. When the Master said I AM, it was with the full authority that Peter had seen from him throughout his ministry. I AM the Good Shepherd. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Light of the World. I AM the Resurrection and the Life. And simply “I AM”…with no further modifier. When he spoke, it was as if he identified himself with the very verb of being itself. I. AM. Peter heard in his voice the same authority that Moses heard on the Mountain. “When I go to my people, who shall I say sent me?” I AM. It was with that authority that the Master spoke in the garden, surrounded by soldiers and priests and Pharisees…
…who found themselves physically shaken by those words. Literally pushed backwards by the force of their authority. The One who co-spoke Creation into existence spoke again…and those who thought they had the power to stand their ground could not even stay on their feet. They had met the power of I. AM.
The Master spoke once more, commanding the release of the disciples. Peter, the master of bad timing, the one who sank while Jesus walked on water, the one who tried to pitch a tent for Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, the one who felt he needed to explain to Jesus how he was getting the whole footwashing thing wrong. Peter, the master of bad timing, chose that moment to try to be a hero, to draw his sword and cut off the ear of some slave who had the bad luck of getting woken up in the middle of the night and drug into this scene of violence. Peter, the master of bad timing, matched violence with violence, but The Master, for the millionth time, and perhaps for the last time, corrected Peter once again. “Put your sword back in your sheath.” Again, I AM spoke healing and health and justice to all within earshot.
And then they led the Master away.
The disciples scattered into the shadows, like cockroaches into the night. But Peter, perhaps still feeling the sting of the Master’s words, followed the throng of violence to its destination. Still wet with the dew of the garden, he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, outside of the building where the Master had been placed on trial. As he tried to remain unnoticed, Peter at once found himself in a parallel trial. A young woman, the gatekeeper, whose job it was to be suspicious of those who might be there to cause trouble, began to question him. Others joined her in the cross-examination. While the Master was inside, being questioned on his purpose and mission, Peter was outside, facing a similar inquisition.
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
Peter’s response was laden with meaning: I am…not.
Again, the crowd repeated the question.
And he repeated his answer: I am…not.
A third time, this time by a relative of the man who was attacked by the master of bad timing.
A third time, as the cock crowed, he denied following Jesus.
“I am not.”
His words were the polar opposite of the words of the Master. The Master spoke with authority, clear about his identity and purpose: “I AM.” Peter spoke with cowardice, seemingly hiding the truth to protect his own hide. “Are you his follower? Do you believe what he taught. Are you one whose identity is caught up with this man currently held in chains just on the other side of that wall?”
I am not.
What is often called Peter’s denial was not exactly a denial of Jesus, but a denial of his own identity as a follower of Jesus. It was a revoking of his disciple-ship, his follower-ship. In fact, it could be argued that Peter was not lying, but actually was telling the perfect truth.
I am not fully trusting of this man.
I am not on board with his message of service.
I am not clear on what he means when he says he is the Messiah.
I am not ready to accept what he says and truly follow the way of life that he mandates.
Peter had proved over and over again that in a very real sense, he was not a follower of Jesus. Now he tried to join as an equal partner with Jesus, maybe even lead Jesus in the way he thought he needed to go. But one could argue that the best answer to the question of whether Peter was a follower of the Master and his mission was simply and honestly, “I am…not.” With those words, Peter not only denied the last three years of fidelity and sacrifice and relationship and laughter and transformation and memories. But he denied that all of that really mattered to him. He denied that he truly belonged to the alternative kindom that Jesus had come to found on earth. He denied that the message of the Master had actually taken ahold of his mind and heart. In a way, Peter told the absolute truth about his identity and devotion. As the cock crowed beginning Jesus’ final morning before his death, Peter spoke the words that would in many ways define him. I am…not.
Little did Peter know in that moment that his words would be chronicled for generations to come. Little did he know that scholars and saints and sinners would parse his words and guess his intentions for millennia. Some would speak from a place of privileged distance, proclaiming that they would never do anything like what Peter did. If they were there in the moment, they would stand up for their Master. They would swoop in and save the day. They would demonstrate faith and courage and honesty, which of course they have no idea whether that would be true.
Little did Peter know that in the generations to come, there would be others. Some who would read of his account and instead ask, “how would I have failed in that courtyard?” “How have I failed in my life?” “How do I still fail now?” “How have I echoed Peter’s ‘I am not.’?” For millennia, some have heard and read and understood the story of Peter to be a story of their own lives. A story meant to turn the mirror on themselves. A way to ask how we hoard power or side with those who do. How we answer violence with violence. How we demand our own comfort in the face of the needs of others. How we are complicit by our silence. A story of how we, too, have failed the Master.
For it is they who turn the mirror on themselves, who do the work, who are honest and vulnerable with themselves, who begin to see a truth in the story. Alongside of their own complicity and denial, and alongside of their own failures and foibles, there are some who have seen another truth in the story. A truth that Peter was probably unable to see in that moment. A truth that so many scholars and saints and sinners since have still not seen. A truth that gets fuzzier from places of privileged distance.
And that truth is this: Peter showed up. Sure, Peter messed up. And Peter tripped up. And Peter threw up his hands in mock surprise that someone would associate him with that Jesus fellow. But when Judas betrayed. And disciples ran. And Romans oppressed. And Pharisees killed to protect their status quo. In a story filled with failure, at least Peter showed up.
Perhaps alongside of the hard look in the mirror, this is a story that reminds us that God does not ask for perfection. God does not demand immaculate faith or commitment. God does not expect that we will have all the right answers. Or the right behaviors. Or the right background or education or expertise. Because it doesn’t seem like the Master picked Peter out of the boat because he had all of that. Or any of that. Maybe the Master knew that for all of Peter’s failures, at least he would show up.
Throughout Scripture, God has not picked the best and the brightest, the consistent and faithful. But when the ones who God does pick actually do show up, to the dark corners of the night, to the places where servants and gatekeepers struggle to keep warm, to the scenes of violence and conquest in our world, to the places where innocent lives are placed on trial, God uses those people and changes the world.
Perhaps the way that we should remember that late night encounter is the unspoken subtext of the conversation. Maybe the motto of Peter from that night should be: “I am not…but I could be.” Given some time, given some patience, given some grace. “I am not…but I’m trying.” “I am not, but at least I’m here.” “I am not, but I am becoming.” “I am not, but I have potential.”
Because I am not, but I know I AM. And I AM isn’t done with me yet.