THE FALL OF PETER

Mark 14:66-72

(Slightly Rephrased)


"Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, 'You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.' But he denied it, saying, 'I neither know nor understand what you are saying.' And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, 'This is one of them.' But he denied it again. And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, 'Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.' Then he began to curse and swear, 'I do not know this Man of whom you speak!' A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.' And when he thought about it, he wept." (Mark 14:66-72)

The fall of Peter has called forth the easy scorn of multitudes who never ran any risk for Christ. But if he had been a coward and his denial a dastardly weakness, it would not be a warning for the whole Church but only for feeble natures. Rather, the lesson which it proclaims is this deep and solemn one--that no natural endowments can bear the strain of the spiritual life. Peter had dared to smite when only two swords were forthcoming against the band of Roman soldiers and the multitude from the chief priests. After the panic in which all forsook Jesus (and so fulfilled the prediction "ye shall leave Me alone"), none ventured so far as Peter. John indeed accompanied, but John ran little risk. He had influence and was therefore left unassailed, whereas Peter was friendless and a mark for all men; and Peter had made himself conspicuous in the garden. Of those who denounce his lack of courage, few indeed would have dared so much. And whoever might misunderstand him, Jesus did not. He said to him, "Satan has desired to have you (all) that he may sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for thee (especially) that thy strength fail not." Around Peter the fiercest of the struggle was to rage, as around some point of vantage on a battlefield; and it was he, when once he had turned again, who should establish his brethren (Luke 22:31,32).

God forbid that we should speak one light or scornful word against this great apostle! God grant us, if our footsteps slip, the heart to weep such tears as his.

Peter was a loving, brave and loyal man. But the circumstances were not such as human bravery could deal with. Resistance, which would have kindled his spirit, had been forbidden him and was now impossible. The public was shut out, and he was practically alone among his enemies. He had come "to see the end," and it was a miserable sight that he beheld. Jesus was passive, silent, insulted. His foes were fierce, unscrupulous, confident. Peter was more and more conscious of being alone, in peril and utterly without resource. Moreover, sleeplessness and misery had lead to physical languor and cold, and as the officers had kindled a fire, he was drawn there, like a moth, by the double wish to avoid isolation and to warm himself. In thus seeking to pass for one of the crowd, he showed himself ashamed of Jesus and incurred the menaced penalty, "of him shall the Son of man be ashamed when He comes." Also, St. Mark tells us that the method of self-concealment which he adopted only showed his face, strongly illuminated by the flame.

If now we ask for the secret of his failing resolution, we can trace the disease far back. It was self-confidence. He reckoned himself the one to walk upon the waters. He could not be silent on the holy mount, when Jesus held high communion with the inhabitants of heaven. He rebuked the Lord for dark forebodings. When Jesus would wash his feet, although expressly told that he should understand the act hereafter, he rejoined, "Thou shalt never wash my feet," and was only sobered by the peremptory announcement that further rebellion would involve rejection. He was sure that if all the rest were to deny Jesus, he never should deny Him. In the garden he slept, because he failed to pray and watch. After that, he did not wait to be directed but strove to fight the battle of Jesus with the weapons of the flesh. Therefore he forsook Him and fled. The consequences of that hasty blow were heavy upon him now. It marked him out for the attention of the servants. It drove him to merge himself in the crowd. But his bearing was too suspicious to enable him to escape unquestioned.

The first assault came very naturally from the maid who kept the door and had therefore seen him with John. He denied it indeed, but with hesitation, not so much affirming that the charge was false as that he could not understand it. Thereupon he changed his place, either to escape notice or through mental disquietude, but as he went into the porch the cock crowed. The girl, however, was not to be shaken off. She pointed him out to others; and since he had forsaken the only solid ground, he now denied the charge angrily and roundly. An hour passed, such an hour of shame, perplexity and guilt as he had never known. Then there came a still more dangerous attack. They had detected his Galilean accent while he strove to pass for one of them. A kinsman of Malchus accused him; and even though he could not prove the miracle in the garden (Malchus' wound had vanished), he used words as threatening as possible: "Did I myself not see you in the garden with Him?" Then Peter, to prove that his speech had nothing to do with Jesus, began to curse and swear, saying, "I know not the man." The cock crowed a second time. Now Peter remembered the warning of his Lord, which had sounded so harsh then, but now proved to be the means of his salvation. The eyes of his Master, full of sorrow and resolution, fell on him; and he knew that he had added a bitter pang to the sufferings of the Blessed One. The crowd and his own danger were forgotten, and he went out and wept.

What lessons are we taught by this most natural and humbling story? That he who thinks he stands must take heed lest he fall. That we are in most danger when self-confident, and only strong when we are weak. That the beginning of sin is like the letting out of water. That Jesus does not give us up when we cast ourselves away, but as long as a pulse of love survives or a spark of loyalty, He will appeal to that by many a subtle suggestion of memory and of providence, to recall His wanderer to Himself.

And surely we learn by the fall of this great and good apostle to restore the fallen in the spirit of meekness, considering ourselves lest we also be tempted, remembering also that it was to Peter whom Jesus sent the first tidings of His resurrection. That message found him in company with John, and therefore in the house with Mary. What might have been the issue of his anguish if these holy ones had cast him off?

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