But I have prayed especially for you [Peter], that your [own] faith may not fail; and when you yourself have turned again, strengthen and establish your brethren. Luke 22:32 Amplified
Remember Peter's brash proclamation that follows this statement -- "Lord, with you I am ready to go both to prison and to death!"
However, in a few short hours the cock would be crowing and Peter would be weeping bitterly in the awareness of the magnitude of his failure.
Is there any more storied example of failure than Peter's infamous denial of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest? Maybe David's with Bathsheba. But there are certainly not many that can top it for notoriety.
It is often referenced when we want to illustrate lessons on the danger of impetuousness, pride, arrogance, boastfulness, etc. It is also mentioned when we talk about the evidence of true repentance and how it is sometimes necessary for God to humble us before he can use us.
All helpful, and needful, lessons.
And yet, there is something else that strikes me about the story of Peter that has application to an organic, authentic community of believers.
Simply stated, it is the idea of repentance without recrimination.
Let's think about the circumstances for a moment...
- A multitude, with the chief priests, officers of the temple and elders, come to arrest Jesus and take him away.
- One of the disciples (probably Peter) makes a bold, though futile, move and cuts off a slave's ear.
- Jesus restores order and then is taken away.
- All his disciples flee -- except Peter and John who follow at a distance.
- Jesus is taken away to be interrogated and Peter is left in the courtyard with the servants and the curious.
- There, in the shadows, by the firelight, Peter denies his association with Jesus three times...and the cock crows, announcing the dawn that shines light on Peter's shame.
Peter's failure did not occur on a big stage, with crowds of people witnessing it. It certainly did not make it to the evening news or the front page of the Jerusalem Gazette. In fact, if he wanted to, Peter could probably have buried the whole incident and nobody, especially the other disciples, would have been the wiser.
But he didn't bury it, deny it, excuse it, or hope that the tale would cease to be told with time. He owned it. We know he owned it, if for no other reason, than that the story occurs in all four of the gospels.
He owned his failure. He was devastated by it. He repented of it.
And there was no recrimination -- from the other disciples, from the apostles, or from Jesus himself!
He was not excluded, shunned, shamed or disqualified from contributing. He did not have to sit in the back row, keep his head down, or his opinions to himself. He was not the butt of all the condescending "there but for the grace of God go I..."comments from the brethren.
He was not viewed askance, avoided in the hallway, asked to wait outside, or eliminated from the small group list.
Rather, we see him accepted, acknowledged, and included. After the crucifixion he is right there with the rest of the disciples ( just as downcast and discouraged as they were), when the news of Jesus's resurrection comes. And he is one of the few that run out to verify the claim. He was there at the table, with the rest of the 11, when Jesus appeared to them and admonished them about their lack of faith. And he was the one who leaped into the sea to swim to Jesus, rather than wait for the boat to be beached. All evidences of Peter included. Peter accepted. Peter allowed to be Peter.
Through it all, we never read of any recrimination for his failure that night. Peter is not singled out. He is not publicly shamed or rebuked. And he is certainly not called out or rudely rejected by Jesus when he appears in their midst. Furthermore, he is not disqualified from leadership, privilege or stewardship.
Rather,we receive this amazing illustration of grace from Jesus when he guides Peter into looking deeply within himself. Jesus does this by asking Peter a devastatingly simple question, "Peter do you love me?"
The intention was not to shame or humiliate Peter, but rather to encourage him to be carefully and completely honest about where his heart was. Remember, Peter was the one who claimed he was willing to 'go to prison and die with you," yet betrayed him. Now was the time for honesty and transparency not pride and bravado.
Jesus knew it was essential to Peter's ability to strengthen and encourage his brethren, for him to "turn" completely. To turn away from the self-reliance, pride and bombast that motivated his earlier responses, and turn to true dependence on the grace of God. When Peter finally gets to the point where he says, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you," he experiences the reality of complete surrender and submission. It is the moment when his heart truly belongs to Jesus. And it is the moment when Jesus can really begin to work through him to encourage his brethren.
Peter's three affirmations of love for Jesus had completely erased his three denials of him in the courtyard.
Thing of the devastating consequences if Peter would have had to endure the crushing humiliation of recrimination for his failure rather than the grace that attends repentance. And then think about what your reaction is to those you know, and are in relationship with, who have experienced a dark night of failure.
The lesson in this for me is that failure is an unavoidable fact of life. And when there is failure in the life of another, it is time for me to step nearer, rather than judge from afar.Restore rather than reject. Undergird rather than abandon.Encourage rather than rebuke. Support rather than shame. And always, always point to love for Jesus as the goal.