A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 4, 2018
We began the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the story of Jesus as the good shepherd, as the gate for the sheep. Jesus said:
“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Jesus is the gate through which we come into the shelter of the sheepfold and go out into the world with the thieves and bandits. In this story today, the word for “sheepfold” is the same word used for “courtyard”. The word for “gate” is the same word Jesus claims to say “I AM the gate”. Jesus is the gate and all gates will lead us to Jesus. In all the stories of our lives, we find ourselves in courtyards/sheepfolds where we are God’s flock.
Peter and the other disciple continue their role as sheep in God’s beloved flock, and in this story, I’m reminded it is difficult for us to hear Jesus’ promise that we will be saved. Whoever enters by me will be saved, says Jesus. Peter seems to not have internalized his salvation yet. He’s deep in denial, still hoping that human sneakiness and power might save him.
Before the verses we heard this morning, Jesus has been arrested, betrayed by his own. Every time, coincidentally, the soldiers ask Jesus who he is, he answers honestly. No denials from Jesus.
Peter cuts off the ear of a soldier and Jesus tells Peter to put his weapons away. Violence may be the way the world works, but it isn’t how God’s flock is called to live. Salvation does not arrive through violence. Not even in the midst of the violence and the fears we inflict on each other. Violence will not bring salvation.
And so we end up in a courtyard, another sheepfold, as Jesus is taken to high priest. The other disciple with Peter and Jesus is known by the person at the gate, and so he goes in with Jesus. Peter is left in the courtyard until the other disciple comes out and says “he’s with us”. It’s as if Peter’s backstage pass didn’t come through and he needs someone to vouch for him. The woman at the gate then asks Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’
Reading this story, I wonder if Peter was ever really in danger here. He is clearly afraid. The first time he’s asked who he is, it’s so he can join his friends. The other disciple moves back and forth, through the gate, without interference. He doesn’t have the privilege of being anonymous, but it doesn’t seem to hinder him. The other times Peter’s asked, I can’t decide if they are trying to figure out who he is, where they’ve seen him before, or if they want to put him in the right box. Is Peter on their side, or on Jesus’ side?
This past year, I read the book Bear Town by Fredrik Backman, who you may know better for the book, A Man Called Ove. Bear Town is a small town, facing the struggles small towns face. And the ice hockey team is where they’ve pinned their hopes on success. It’s a great book about the good and bad sides of teams, of community, of future fears. In this book, he writes:
“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time.”
All of that takes place in this courtyard story, doesn’t it? Jesus chooses his side, on the side of love, which is hard. The other disciple does too. Peter, for the moment, can’t hold two thoughts at the same time—he knows that salvation is from Jesus, and he’s afraid death is the worst thing that could happen.
Peter stays warm by the fire as he denies Jesus, while Jesus is on the other side of the gate, bound, facing violence for speaking truth. Jesus says “I AM” throughout John’s gospel. Here, Peter says “I am not”. The contrast is stark, and is meant to be. Peter’s denial occurs in all 4 gospels. In the others, though, he denies knowing Jesus. Here, he denies his own identity as a disciple, as a follower of Jesus.
As one commentator on this passage wrote, “Violence is easier than testimony.”
We are people who often choose the easy path, even when it is a path that leads to violence.
This week, I’ve been thinking about people who choose the difficult “I am” path of complicated love, rather than the easier, violent, divisive path of “I am not”. Who are the people in your life who have shown you that the cost of love is always worth paying, despite the complications?
In the wake of the shooting at Parkland High in Florida, on Valentine’s Day, the students who survived that shooting are the ones now leading the charge to end violence in schools. I realized these kids have grown up in a world where shootings in schools have always happened. Columbine was in 1999. Their entire lives, these kids have seen our lack of response to the threats they face, and have seen the way we, as a culture has said “I am not” going to have the difficult conversation about gun violence.
Whatever our solution may be, we’ll never get to it if we won’t come to the table and talk through it. We will never find a solution if we keep sending death threats to high school kids—which has happened to all of the Parkland survivors who have said “I am” going to change things so that no more students die at school from gun violence.
We are all sheep in the same flock. Jesus calls us in to the sheepfold and sends us back out into the world. In this story, Peter and the other disciple found themselves in a courtyard (sheepfold), with the choice to go through the gate to where the Shepherd faced questions. Or to stay by the fire. And also face questions. The risk is real in both places. Questions will be asked in both places. Our response to the risk is always ours to make, each day, a new choice, a new question asked of us.
To be clear, Peter isn’t any worse than any other sheep in God’s flock. Here, at least, he’s also not better than any other sheep in the flock. We are people, like Peter, who deny.
We deny our connectedness.
We divide into “us and them”.
We seek easy answers to complicated questions.
We are people who choose the comfort of anonymity by the fire, rather than speaking truth that will have consequence.
Our denials often go unnoticed, by us at least. Peter is aware of his denial when he hears the rooster crowing in the morning, and remembers what Jesus said to him at the end of chapter 13.
Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
This isn’t the final act for Peter. Our denials are not our final acts either.
Remember this story after Easter, when Jesus will ask Peter three times if he loves him. All three times, Peter will say “Lord, you know I love you”. And each answer of “I am” will help Peter walk away from his answers of “I am not”. And he will go on to be the boldest of the disciples, and the rock on whom the church will be built, as he follows Jesus commands to “feed my sheep”.
This week, in the news and in our own lives, look for those moments where we say “I am” and then go through the gate that leads to life and hope. Look too, for the moments where we say “I am not” and stay by the comfortable fires of our fears. Whatever answer we have chosen in the past, we can always choose a new answer today.
Thanks be to God.