Sermon for 03-25-12: “God’s Passion, Part 2: Caiaphas and Peter”

Statue of Peter depicting his denial of Jesus.

Peter’s tragic moment of failure in the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas is not usually regarded as an inspiration to us Christians. But in this sermon, I say that there is something from Peter’s example that we can apply to our lives: Just as it was obvious to the high priest’s servant and bystanders that Peter was a follower of Jesus, so it should be obvious to people in our lives.

Let’s let our words, actions, and character—the way we live our lives—give away the fact that we are Christ’s followers.

Sermon Text: Mark 14:53-72

The following is my original manuscript.

I was born in 1970 at the Grady Hospital to a woman from Virginia named Linda, who is here this morning. I was adopted into a family from the Deep South. My Mom grew up about 20 miles north of here, when that was the country, my Dad grew up near Lake Hartwell in rural South Carolina. I say this in order to establish my credentials as a true southerner. This sometimes surprises people who wonder about my lack of a southern accent.

My parents had southern accents. My parents’ extended families had even stronger accents. In fact, a few years ago, I caught a rerun of that old country variety show, Hee Haw, which my family watched faithfully every Saturday night at 7:00. And I saw that comedian Junior Samples, who actually grew up near my mom in Forsyth County. Junior Samples was that large man who wore overalls and talked real slow. But I heard him on this ancient rerun of Hee Haw, and I heard that deep southern drawl, and I thought, “These are my people.” I was transported back in time… transported back to Grandma’s house… and family gatherings with aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, all of whom sounded a little like Junior Samples.

I miss hearing that accent now. It’s fading with each generation. But when I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with it. See, I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, and none of my friends or my friends’ parents spoke with strong southern accents. None of my friends had to watch Hee Haw on Saturday nights. In fact, the father of my best friend was English, which was the coolest and most exotic accent I had heard. Plus I loved Paul McCartney and Wings at a very early age, so I wanted to sound like that. But since I couldn’t sound like that, I at least didn’t want to sound like my parents’ families. I’m not proud that I was ashamed of that accent, but I was. I didn’t want to be perceived as a hick from the sticks. I was very self-conscious of being different. I wanted to blend in.

As Peter warmed himself by the fire, in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s house, he wanted to blend in. But you know what gave him away? His accent. That’s how the group in in verse 70 knew he was from Galilee. In fact, the accent of someone from Galilee, versus someone from Jerusalem, might have been as different as a Boston accent is from a southern accent.

Peter wants to blend in. And he ends up doing the very thing that he swore he wouldn’t do earlier on the Mount of Olives when Jesus warned his disciples that they would all abandon him in his time of trial. Peter said back then, “If I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” And now, in verse 71, it says that he “cursed and swore, ‘I don’t know the man you’re talking about.” This doesn’t mean, simply, that he said some four-letter words. It means that he said something like, “May God strike me down if I’m lying when I tell you that I don’t know the man.

Fortunately for Peter, God is merciful. God doesn’t usually strike us down when we blaspheme him, which is a good thing, because, good grief, if only we Americans were actually praying every time we said “oh my God,” we would be the praying-est and holiest people on the planet. Let me say a word to our newly confirmed and baptized young people. Are you listening? One thing you just now promised to do, whether you knew it or not, is that you gave up the right to say “oh my God” forevermore. Or even to text OMG. You may not do that anymore. That is not a Christian thing to say or do. I know it’s a small thing, and it doesn’t mean anything to you when you say it, but that’s the problem: when we call on God, we want it to mean something, otherwise we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. So let’s work on not saying it anymore. O.K.

Twenty years ago, I took a philosophy class at Georgia Tech. The subject of Christianity came up often in this class. And it wasn’t exactly Sunday school, you know? It was a very skeptical, even hostile, environment for Christian faith. At the end of the term, as the professor was handing out the class evaluation forms, he said, “I often get negative reviews from students who complain that I’m anti-Christian. I don’t understand this at all. I’m very sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe it’s true—any more true than Buddhism or any other religion—but, after all, how many of you believe it’s true? How many of you literally believe Jesus rose from the dead.”

And I’m sitting there, looking around this class of about 30 or 40 students—and I’m sure I’m not the only Christian in the room. But no one says anything. And I would like to say that I spoke up and boldly defended the faith… “I believe in the resurrection, and here’s why.” But please! I felt too much pressure to not say anything! After all, I didn’t want people to think I’m a hick from the sticks.

That is a Peter-in-the-courtyard moment if ever there was one. But while it may be the most obvious example, it’s hardly the only one. The truth is I deny Jesus more often than I care to admit. I don’t think I’m alone. The first time pastor Adam Hamilton visited the Holy Land was in March, around the time of year when today’s scripture takes place. He was staying in a hotel on top of the Mount of Olives. He couldn’t sleep one night, so he got dressed and went out sat on a bench underneath an olive tree, looking out over the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem. He wrote:

I shivered in the cold and immediately began to think of Peter trying to warm himself at the fire in the high priest’s courtyard. As I sat there lost in my thoughts, somewhere down the mount from the the hotel, a cock began to crow. Suddenly my mind was filled with all the times I had denied Jesus. I had denied him when I said and did things I knew were not in keeping with his will, when I engaged in thoughts and deeds that were counter to my faith, when I was more concerned with what others thought of me than with what he thought of me, when I was afraid to stand up and be counted as one of his disciples, or when I did something I knew was wrong because other people were calling me to do it. I sat there on the Mount of Olives in the cool, spring darkness and knew, for a moment, a taste of the grief and shame that brought Peter to tears.[1]

This incident involving Peter is one of only a handful of stories that is found in all four gospels. Here’s a good question: How do you think it got in there? It got there because Peter himself told the story, even though it didn’t make himself look good. He probably told it sometimes when he preached. He probably said, “I know you’ve denied Jesus. I denied him myself. I denied him in a way that I am deeply ashamed of, and yet I have to tell you: I betrayed the Lord, but he gave me grace. He took me back. And if you’ve denied him, he will take you back, too.”[2]

Today in our church, many young people have stood up before us and done that thing that Peter was afraid to do on this night in the high priest’s courtyard: They have come out of the darkness, stepped into the light, and told the world the truth about who they are and what they believe. “Yes, we know Jesus. We belong with him. We are his followers. And we promise to follow him, no matter what the cost, no matter what other people think of us, both now and for the rest of our lives.”

To these new brothers and sisters in Christ, I say, “Welcome to God’s family.” Something very important has changed for you this morning. You have been made a part of God’s family now. Hallelujah? You are a child of God now! Hallelujah? You are a beloved daughter or son of God our Father now! You have eternal life now? Jesus Christ is your brother now! Jesus has got your back now. He’s strong when you’re not strong. He’s tough when you’re not tough. He won’t fail you even when you fail him. If you keep following him, he’s going to lead you to the Promised Land. Amen? Glory Hallelujah!

I mentioned earlier that I was adopted. My mom likely reflected the experience of many adoptive mothers back then when she said that for the first couple of years after she got me, she used to fear the thought of a stranger knocking at her door and saying, “I’m sorry, Mrs. White, there’s been a mistake. Brent doesn’t really belong to you. We’re going to have to take him away from you. He can’t stay in your family.”

These young people were adopted into God’s family today. And these young people can be confident that no one has the power to say, “I’m sorry… There’s been a mistake. You don’t really belong in God’s family. Don’t you know that you’re too big of a sinner to be here? God doesn’t love you because you’ve let him down and denied him too many times.”

Young people, if you hear that voice, if you think those thoughts, if you have those feelings, you can be confident that that is the devil talking. And he’s lying. But you can tell the devil, “You’re right. I am a huge sinner. If it were up to me, I could never earn my way into God’s family. But it’s not about who I am or what I’ve done that gets me saved. It’s about who Jesus is and what he’s done through his life, death, and resurrection. He paid the price of my sin for me; he defeated sin and death for me; and that’s the sole reason that I’m now a part of God’s family—because of what he did. I can’t undo what he did; I’m not that powerful.” And now that I’m a part of God’s family, there is nothing in this world that can separate me from God’s love, “not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or anything else in all creation.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Amen?

One more story about college… This is a happier one. When I took the introductory electrical engineering class at Georgia Tech, I had a professor named Dr. Whit Smith. He was brilliant, of course, but he was also an unusually kind man, a patient man, a compassionate man; he genuinely seemed to care about his students. There was just something about him. It was noticeable. I knew, I just knew, that this man was a Christian. That was, like, 15 years ago. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a colleague in ministry who, upon learning that I was a Georgia Tech alum, said, “Oh, I have a parishioner at my church who’s a Tech prof. Maybe you know him.” And I’m thinking, “There are a lot of professors at Georgia Tech.” He said, “His name is Whit Smith. He teaches EE.” And I’m like, “Yeah! He was the best and kindest professor I had!” And my colleague went on to say, ‘Yeah, he considers his work a ministry. He feels called by God to share Christ’s love through his work.”

See, it all makes sense now. Of course he’s called by God! Of course this is his ministry!

Despite Peter’s best efforts, the people gathered round this fire outside the high priest’s house just knew that Peter was a follower of Jesus. His accent gave him away.

Wouldn’t it be great if people could look at our lives and hear the words we speak and know, just know, that we’re followers of Jesus?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, including our newly confirmed and baptized brothers and sisters, I hope that our words gives us away. I hope that our actions gives us away. I hope that our character gives us away. I hope that our integrity gives us away. I hope that our lives give us away. May people reach that unmistakable conclusion about us: “I know… I just know that you’re a follower of Jesus. I can see it in the way you live your life.” Amen.

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 58-9.

[2] Ibid., 58.

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