Denial by Firelight

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday After Pentecost.

Luke 22:54-62

After they arrested Jesus, they led him away and brought him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed from a distance. When they lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, “This man was with him too.”

But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I don’t know him!”

A little while later, someone else saw him and said, “You are one of them too.”

But Peter said, “Man, I’m not!”

An hour or so later, someone else insisted, “This man must have been with him, because he is a Galilean too.”

Peter responded, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!” At that very moment, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

***

“Never admit you’re a pastor.”

That’s real advice clergy give each other. Never admit you’re a pastor, when you’re at the neighborhood block party, or at the dentist’s, or, God forbid, on an airplane. Never, ever, ever admit that you’re not just vaguely religious, but entirely sold on the idea. 

If you have to read for work, make sure you’re on a Kindle, one friend said. Or cover it up with the dust jacket of a different book. Never fly in a collar, say the Lutherans and Episcopalians. Cross jewelry is fine, but keep it small, like a fashion item. Don’t let them know you’re in the service of Jesus. 

It’s not that we’re a bunch of hypocrites and deniers, promise—or at least, not intentionally so. It’s that clergy know what happens when you out yourself—you either get a breathless account of everything they’ve ever done that makes them a good person, a rant on the evils of organized religion and Christianity in particular, or—my personal favorite—an in-depth look at their personal lives. It’s awkward, admitting you’re a pastor. It’s awkward, admitting you’re a Christian. It can expose you to a lot of stereotypes, a lot of assumptions, a lot of brick walls. Easier to not. Easier, in word and deed, to deny it. Easier to hide this awkward part of ourselves. Keep our faith private. Respectable.

During this post-Pentecost season, we’ve been visiting some of the Bible’s great fire stories. We’ve met the spirit in the flames of Pentecost, and the great I AM in the burning bush. In today’s scripture, though, the flames take on a more sinister cast. 

It is a tense scene in a tense chapter. Jesus has been betrayed and arrested. Most of the disciples have fled. But Peter is still following, as he has since Jesus first called him, as he has done for three long years… but at a distance now. The author of Luke makes that distinction; Peter follows… from a distance. Loyal, but unsure. Faithful, but shaken. 

When our scene opens, Jesus is inside the house, awaiting interrogation, trial, and judgment. Peter can’t go with him there. Peter can’t know what’s happening to his friend. But still he hangs around the outside, as close as he can get. 

He wanders over to the fire that the guards and servants light for warmth, out in the courtyard, and he sits with them. The Bible isn’t clear on why. Maybe Peter was hoping to find out what was happening to Jesus. Maybe he was just cold, on that long, dark night. 

Either way, after a while, he gets noticed. A servant woman sees him by the light of the fire, and even in the dark, even in the flickering play of the flames, she recognizes him. She’s seen him with Jesus before. 

“You’re one of them,” she says.  

Peter denies it. “I don’t know the man,” he says. He won’t even say Jesus’ name. It is perhaps his lowest moment as a disciple, his bitterest betrayal. But—but—Peter doesn’t run. He stays by that fire. Stays as close to Jesus as he can get.

A little while later, and another man gets suspicious. “You’re one of them,” he says.

Peter denies it. But he stays.

An hour passes, an hour in this uncomfortable, suspicious company, when a third man says, “You’re Galilean. You must be one of them.” This time Peter’s accuser doesn’t even say that he’s seen Peter with Jesus, presents no evidence other than a shared hometown. One broad-brush stereotype, and he’s ready to turn Peter over to the high priests, too. 

I can only imagine what it was like to be Peter, huddled around that fire with strangers sneaking hostile glances at him, with everyone a possible enemy and every moment a possible crisis. I can only imagine what it was like, not to know if Jesus was being tortured or tried or absolved or doing some miracle to get out of this. I can only imagine what it was like, the cold night air on Peter’s back, the hot flames on his face, the acid smoke in the air, the muttered voices of the servants and guards who could turn on him and turn him in at any moment. People who only see him as “one of them,” as an enemy, as an upstart radical, as someone to be contained, suppressed, stamped out. I can only imagine what it was like to Peter, torn between loyalty and terror, heat and cold, safety and danger. Hovering there, hoping to be invisible, but still revealed in the firelight. 

The guards and servants only saw part of who Peter was. A familiar face, a particular accent. He had to hide from them, even while they sat around that fire together—hide his faith, hide his fear, hide his anxiety and his anger. It was not a safe place to be fully himself at that moment. Not with that particular group of people. 

Journalist Sara Miles was a devout atheist who came to faith in Jesus after wandering into a church out of mere curiosity and being knocked for a loop by the sacrament of communion. She met Jesus, and she wanted more of him. But her first big question, she recounts, “was not about God or church; it was nakedly about me, and my fears. What would my friends think?” (Sara Miles, Take This Bread, Canterbury Press 2013, p. 65)

Sara only knew—or knew she knew—one Christian in the entirety of her social circle, a Lutheran. She tried to get him to talk about his faith. He didn’t have much to say—too cautious to share much, unused to his peers probing this private part of his life. 

So Sara started talking to her other friends about church, about communion, about prayer. She was met with shock, hostility, and derision. “Are you kidding?” one responded. So she pulled back. She tried not to bring it up. She bought a Bible from a second-hand store and read it in secret. It was years before she came clean to her own mother that she’d started going to church.

Sara certainly wasn’t looking to deny Jesus. Not when she’d just found him. But she denied herself, that God-given part of her where her faith was lodged, when she hid it from her friends. 

Peter did not set out that night to deny Jesus. He set out to follow him. Yet he found himself with campfire company that scared him, that made him deny both Jesus and his full self. 

When we sit with our own campfire company, when we create our own social circles, it is rarely with consequences as fraught as those Peter faced. Yet we all know that the people we surround ourselves with can bolster our faith, or stomp down on it. 

None of us want to be Peter. None of us want to deny Jesus. Yet we know, in a thousand ways large and small, we do. We do.

So my question this week is this: do the people we surround ourselves with, encourage us to claim Jesus, to live authentically and fully as people of faith, or not?

I’m not saying all your friends need to be Christian. Not even in the slightest. But I do believe that in true friendship we encourage each other to be fully ourselves; and friends, our faith is part of us. Some of my friends of other faiths—and of no faith at all—have been the most open, the most respectful, and the most encouraging of me. In fact, sometimes its my friends outside the faith who do the best at keeping me accountable to what I say I believe; they won’t let me deny Jesus, even if they don’t have any interest in him themselves. 

So think about your friends—the people you choose to be part of your life. Are they people who can be your whole self around? Your whole flawed, fabulous, faithful self? Do they welcome the fact that Jesus is part of your life? Do they rejoice that you have something that matters so much to you, whether or not they share in it?

I hope the answer is yes. But if it’s not—if you feel like you have to hide the fact that Jesus matters to you, if you find yourself acting like scripture makes no claims on you—then I invite you to reconsider whether or not that friendship is really the right place for you. We need people we can be ourselves with.

Peter tried to hide in the darkness, but the fire found him out. If we try to hide our faith from our friends, we’re denying Christ, true; but we’re also denying ourself, and what matters to us; and we’re even denying that friendship a chance to grow and deepen. 

Those conversations, talking about faith with people we’ve never talked about faith with before, are not easy. But they are important. Because they bring our whole selves into the light. 

Peter denies Jesus three times, as the flames flicker over his face. And after the third time, the gospel includes an odd detail; that Jesus turned and looked straight at him. 

It doesn’t make sense, in the flow of the story. Jesus is inside the house; Peter’s out in the courtyard. It’s dark. Commentators have tried various ways of making this detail fit, suggesting that that was the exact moment Jesus was led out of the house, or that a well-placed and well-lit window allowed Peter to see him. Maybe that’s how it happened. I don’t know. But I do know that in that dark night, Peter was seen. In his faithfulness, sticking by that fire in enemy territory, in his faithlessness, denying Christ and himself, in everything he was: Jesus saw Peter fully. Looked straight at him, and still loved him. 

That’s friendship. 

Clergy tell each other to hide who we are. It’s safe; it’s expedient. But it was an atheist friend of mine who was dismayed to hear me say that. 

“But people need to know who you are,” she said. “I don’t believe in God, but I like that you do. It gives me hope that someone believes.”

So I’m being braver now. I tell people who I am. I tell people who I love. I’m one of them. I know the man. 

And the funniest thing, is that as often as it gets weird, or awkward, it can also get beautiful. It is such a joy for me to say who I am. Because when I tell people I’m a pastor, they can see I believe in a God who doesn’t exclude women or young people from proclaiming truth. They can see I believe in a God that lets me have a sense of humor. They can see I take Jesus seriously enough to commit my whole life to him. They can see glimpses of God in the way I live my life. Flashes of who God is, filtered through who I am. Who God made me to be. 

It’s not an evangelism strategy. I’m not trying to convert anyone. But I’ve come to realize that true relationships require us to be fully ourselves. If we hide our faith, we’re denying people the chance to love us as we are. 

So no more hiding. No more denying. 

I love Jesus. It’s who I am. 

And I want to keep company with those who welcome me, and him. 

Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s