There’s an old story—it’s probably a legend—about an evangelist who travels to Indiana, to farm country, to share the gospel, to convert people to Christianity. He meets a Mennonite at the general store. The evangelist says, “Sir, are you a Christian?” And the Mennonite responds, “I’m not the best person to answer that question. You should ask my neighbors.”
The point of the story is that it’s one thing to say we have faith but it’s another thing to live like we have faith, for the people around us to notice our faith. It’s one thing to say a few words, it’s another thing to ask our neighbors what they hear our lives saying to the world. Words are important, and their context is important—the context of our lives, words spoken by bodies. What truths do our whole lives speak?
Earlier in John’s Gospel, in chapter 13, after Jesus washes his feet, Peter makes a confession of faith, a commitment, a promise to Jesus, to be by his side no matter the cost. “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). But, now, in our passage today, Peter keeps his distance from Jesus; he stays far away. His words and his body deny any connection to Jesus.
There’s artfulness in this chapter—the way it highlights Peter’s denial, his shift away from Jesus. When Peter is asked if he knows Jesus, if he is one of the disciples of Jesus, Peter offers a blunt response: “I am not” (18:17, 25). Two words in Greek, ouk eimi—“not me.” He says this twice in our passage, the same two words, whenever he’s asked about his association with Jesus.
Are you a disciple?
I am not.
Are you a disciple?
I am not.
Earlier in the chapter, when Judas comes with the soldiers, with their torches and swords, there in the darkness of the garden, the armed soldiers step up to Jesus and ask him, “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” And he offers a clear answer—direct and concise: “I am he” (18:5, 8). Two words in Greek, ego eimi—“I am.” He says these words twice as his response.
Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
I am he.
Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
I am he.
There’s a stark contrast between Jesus’ truthfulness and Peter’s denial.
Not only does Peter deny Jesus with his words, he denies Jesus with his body. The scene in verse 18 has Peter on side of the people who have captured Jesus—Peter is “standing with them and warming himself” by their fire (18:18).
This is the same phrase used earlier in the same chapter to talk about Judas, when he hands Jesus over to the soldiers. “Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them” (18:5). Standing with them. Judas stands with the soldiers who arrest Jesus. And Peter stands with the people putting Jesus on trial. Like Judas, Peter stands with the enemies of Jesus. He denies Christ with his body, by where he stands, by his position in the crowd.
We want to be like Jesus, but most of the time we are like Peter. He says he has faith, he says he will follow Jesus, he says he will stand by his side. But, when it matters, when his confession is tested, when his words put on trial, his life confesses his lack of faith. “Are you a disciple?” they ask him. “I am not,” he says as he stands with the enemies of Jesus.
I thought I’d tell you a story about when I felt like I denied my faith, when I felt like I denied Jesus. I told this story five years ago—some of you may remember.
My friend Lauren and I were going to teach a class inside Central Prison in Raleigh—a class for prisoners inside that maximum-security facility. But first we had to meet with the chaplain. He had to approve of us, to sign off on our visitation passes for the year. So we show up at the prison the week before the class starts. A correctional officer escorts us into an office room and tells us to sit and wait.
We sit there for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, a half hour, then the chaplain finally bursts in and we jolt up from our seats. He acknowledges us with a nod as he lifts his cowboy hat off his head and drops it on the table. “So ya’ll gonna teach some classes here, are ya,” he says as he stares at us, his eyes shifting from Lauren then to me, from me to Lauren, back and forth, studying our faces and clothes and bodies. We’re all just standing there awkwardly, and the way he was staring at us makes me nervous so I start talking nonsense, thanking him for meeting with us, complimenting the prison staff for their hospitality, appreciating his willingness to approve our class.
“Ya’ll can take a seat now,” he interrupts me. “I gotta tell you a thing or two before I’ll sign off on your paperwork, to get you approved.” Lauren and I plop into our chairs; but he stays standing, looking down at us. “The most important thing you need to know,” he says as if he’s preaching from a pulpit, “You need to understand that they are not like us. They don’t think like us. They don’t have the same kind of mind that we do. They’re criminals. They’re corrupted.” I could feel my heartbeat picking up speed, the panic in my veins. “I’ve been her for 20 years and I’ve seen it all,” he says, “I know what goes through their demented minds.” I try to stay calm. I take deep breaths. I force a half-smile and nod. “Before you go in there,” he says, “you’ve gotta know that they are not like us. Repeat after me, they are not like us.”
Lauren and I glance at each other, bewildered and shocked, at a loss for what to do, what to say. I look down at the table, at the floor, at the wall, the ceiling, the door, my eyes darting here and there, thinking through how to get myself out of this situation.
“You can’t go in there unless you say it. Repeat after me, they are not like us.” We want him to stop, so Lauren and I turn to one another and, silently, with just a look of the eye, we give each other permission to say what we do not believe, to speak lies, to give the chaplain what he wants so he can sign his stupid piece of paper and give us our ticket into prison. So we mumble the words, “They are not like us.”
“Louder,” he says. So we say it louder. “Again,” he says. So we say it again, and every time I pronounce those dehumanizing words, I feel like I’m making a false confession, like I’m denying my faith in a God who creates all of us in the divine image, in God’s likeness. I feel like I’m betraying Jesus, the one who told us that when we visit prisoners, we visit him. The chaplain finally deems me fit for prison-work, after I deny what I believe to be true.
We are in the season of Lent—a time to reflect on our lives, on who we are and what we’re doing with our live. Lent is a time to prod our faith, to wonder about the things we confess to be true about God and the world and ourselves, and how we live into that truth. What do we say about God in our day to day lives?—with how we move about in our world. If we were to ask our neighbors, what would they say about our lives?
Even though Peter stands with the enemies of Jesus, warming himself by their fire—even though he denies his relationship with Jesus three times, he’s welcomed back to the community of disciples. He’s welcomed back, when Jesus returns from the grave, after his resurrection. Even though Peter abandons Jesus, Jesus doesn’t abandon Peter. That’s the gospel, the good news of God’s love—that Jesus never denies his faith in us, that he never stands with our enemies against us, because the only thing Jesus says about us is that he loves us. His only confession is love.