Commentary on John 18:12-27
The week’s text is a tale of two interrogations, with Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus told in two parts and Jesus standing like a beacon of truth in the center.
Immediately on either side of this text is violence, but stretching out into eternity beyond the violence in either direction is love.
Violence is easier than testimony. The nonviolent resistance of love expressed in testimony is vulnerable and courageous. Both of those are demonstrated here and throughout John 18-19.
Violence begets violence, so when the arresting party shows up with weapons in the verses immediately prior to these, Peter responds with a sword. This Gospel identifies the wounded person in his particularity as Malchus, a slave of the high priest as Peter is a slave-friend to Jesus (John 15:15-20). Peter’s violence, utterly contrary to Jesus’ commandment to love, is also pointless. Jesus has already come forward to surrender himself. Even when evil seems most in control, it isn’t, and Jesus’ life will be finished when he says it is.
Jesus, arrested and bound, is taken to Annas. There is no trial before the Sanhedrin in this Gospel. They have already condemned him to death (John 11:47-53), as we are reminded in John 18:14.
Peter and another disciple follow Jesus. This disciple, who gets Peter through the gate and into the courtyard, may be the one whom Jesus loves, who appears at the cross and who is with Peter at John 13:23-25, 20:1-10, and John 21:7-23, but we are not told, perhaps because the narrator wishes us to identify exclusively with Peter at this moment in his story.
Gate and courtyard here are the words for gate/door and sheepfold in the good shepherd discourse of John 10:1-18. There, Jesus both enters by the gate and is the gate himself. Now, in the fold of the high priest, Jesus the shepherd-gate is laying down his life in order to take it up again. Later it will be clear to Peter, and we as Jesus’ sheep might also come to see, that every gate leads to him and every courtyard is his, and even if we close ourselves away behind locked doors from the dangers of the world, Jesus will come to us there (John 20:19-26).
But at this point in Peter’s story, prior to the resurrection, he can see only treachery and danger, so when he is given his first chance to testify, when the female slave at the gate asks if he is Jesus’ disciple, but asks it in such a way that the answer invited is no, it is ever so easy to respond that he is not. This negation is the perfect opposite of Jesus’ voluntary I am (John 18:5, 8), spoken with an authority that causes the soldiers and police to step back and fall to the ground.
Peter, who has followed into the fold of that same group with their weapons of war, now has a chance to say whose he is with similar boldness but chooses instead to mingle in a lie in the heat of their charcoal fire.
The scene shifts from Peter’s fear and denial to Jesus, bound and under interrogation, but fearless and free. Jesus has nothing more to say because he has spoken boldly to friend and foe all along. This boldness will later be characteristic of Jesus’ own when they become witnesses to God’s love in the world. It is the word that describes Peter’s speech in Acts 2:29 and Peter and John in Acts 4:13. The believers pray for it in the face of danger in Acts 4:29 and receive it in Acts 4:31. In the final verse of Acts, Paul, in prison, proclaims the kingdom of God with this same boldness.
Jesus suggests that his accusers question those who heard what he said, that they call witnesses, in other words, that they behave justly, but they have no truth and justice in them. They have condemned him in advance. All they have left is violence, so a policeman strikes Jesus. Jesus invites him to explain himself, but having no testimony to offer and needing Pilate for the ultimate escalation in violence, they send him on to Caiaphas.
Meanwhile Peter, still warming himself among the arresting party, is given a second chance to testify, then a third. The first model for testimony in the Gospel is John, who confesses and does not deny. Peter, by contrast, denies and does not confess. He chooses the temporary safety of a lie in part because he has already resorted to violence, which as an act of fear creates more fear in the perpetrator and the victim and everyone associated with them (as here a relative of Malchus), until love, justice, and truth finally stop the cycle of violence, fear, and deceit.
Peter is right to be afraid if what he fears most is death. John has been imprisoned and, we know from other Gospels, beheaded. Jesus will be crucified. Peter himself, once he follows boldly in love, will be taken where he does not wish to go for a death he would not choose.
But in the reality from above, love is greater than this and has already overcome it. Abundant life, which begins now, is not defeated by death. It only bears more fruit.
As the third denial passes his lips, Peter hears the cock crow. We are instantly drawn back to John 13:36-38, where Peter has insisted he will follow and Jesus has known he cannot yet. We are also drawn forward beyond another garden to another charcoal fire, where Peter will get another chance to say three times whose he is and to acknowledge that to belong to Jesus means to love (John 21:9-19).
Peter will tend and feed and die for love. He will be the hired hand who does not run away when the wolves come. He will be the boldest of the bold.
So there is hope for the least bold among us, in our desperate lashing out and comfortable complicity and fearful denial. There is hope for the part in each of us that has failed repeatedly, chosen easy warmth, and heard the cock crow over our failure. Even we can love boldly: tending, feeding, and bearing witness to the relentless, abundant, life-giving love of God for the world.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
We, like Peter, often turn our backs on you. Forgive us and show us a new way to live, walking boldly and passionately toward you. Amen.
Stay with us, Walter Pelz