One of the most famous scenes in the Gospels is Peter's denial of Jesus in the courtyard. As his Teacher stands before the high court, Peter slinks around the fire to get a closer seat. Head down. Face covered. Just trying to see what's going on and not be bothered.
Although his heart was already bothering him.
I've seen this scene played out in various forms over the years - in dramas, in VBS, on stages, on screen - and what I've always seen is an antagonistic Peter. A Peter afraid for his own skin, who adamantly denies ever knowing the Man. Not that long ago, I was reading a book about the disciple and the author had an interesting suggestion, which he almost said in merely one sentence and then moved on quickly. I stopped, went back, and read that sentence over and over again until I got what I thought I had missed. And then, I really wished he'd made the point and stuck with it.
The point is this: by that point in their ministry journey, by that moment in their lives, it is entirely possible that Peter didn't think he knew anything about this Jesus.
Granted, it was a risk to follow this Man at all. He certainly didn't look like any king, promised or not. The entire Jewish community was waiting around for royalty. They had their eyes peeled for the extravagant. Then comes this child in rags in a stable, and they hardly notice. He comes walking along the seashore in common sandals and it's probably still easy to miss Him. He shouts, "Come! Follow me!" and they go, more out of curiosity than any real sense of calling because in all their meager years, who has ever said such a thing? To a man who reeks of fish.... The Pharisees certainly were never looking for followers; they were too busy looking for failures. And Peter, one of the most famous "failures" of them all, was probably taken by the difference between this Teacher and the theologians.
Through three years of ministry, they're all waiting for Him to do something Messianic. Some display of political power. Some display of actual power. They've seen the miracles, sure, and that's a nice trick but it doesn't answer the pressing societal issues of the day. Healing from on high, sight amidst blindness, even life after death does not tell these men how this Messiah responds to the real world. To Rome.
If He's not political, they at least expected their King to be religious, but this Man doesn't seem all that interested in that, either. He keeps defying the Temple in the same breath that He respects it. He knows the Scriptures, but He doesn't use them the way they've grown accustomed to. They're just not sure what to make of this man, and yet, it is their hope for something yet unseen that keeps them following Him.
He's taken. He's captured in the garden. Not simply that, but He gives Himself up. He lets them take Him. The disciples know they're going to kill Him; they've been talking about that for months. They think that He knows they're going to kill Him. They can't understand how He simply steps forward...and goes.
Flash forward back to the courtyard, to a trial, to the turmoil of Peter's heart. His head is down; he's trying not to be noticed. His ears are tuned to the sounds of the court and nothing more. He's trying to understand what just happened, not just to Jesus but to his hopes for a Messiah. He's trying to figure out if the last three years of his life have been a joke. This Man's a lunatic! Peter concludes. He's a crazy Man, and He knew He was a crazy Man. That's why He let them take Him.
As his heart starts to draw the inevitable conclusions, looking at a Cross that does not yet reveal an empty tomb, Peter is surely coming to know that He doesn't know this Man at all. He never understood Him. He never let himself look too hard into the story because he was always looking for the greater narrative. The one he expected, but the one it now seems will never come. Was never possible. Not with this Man. Not with this so-called Teacher.
Then a voice pierces his thoughts. "You were with Him! You knew this Man!" And Peter shakes his head. "I never knew Him..." his voice trails off, and it feels weird to say the words out loud. Then another voice. "Yes, Yes! You are one of them! You were with Him!" And Peter shakes his head again, still quiet but with a little more surety in his voice. "I never knew Him..." he trails off again, still trying to figure out what all this means. Then one more time, "You must have been with Him! You have the same accent!" And Peter declares, with the fullness of his tired voice, "I swear to you...I do not know this Man."
And at that moment in time, maybe he doesn't. Maybe...in the glow of the fire...he realizes that he just doesn't know this Man. He doesn't know this Messiah. (He doesn't look anything like the brochure.)
A moment later, the cock crows and beyond his mind that does not understand, Peter realizes that his heart knows. Only now, it seems too late. Only now, it's almost over. And there's all of that to wrestle with.
It's certainly a perspective on Peter I had not considered. For all his zealousness, his impulsiveness, his attitude, I just assumed the scared, frantic, insistent Peter had gathered around the fire with those men. But I think the story I've just shared is not necessarily far from the truth, either. Perhaps it was a quiet, reflective, wondering, aching Peter who sat by the fire that night. If you can entertain that thought, good. Stay with me. In the coming days, I have a little more to say about how this story parallels with our own.