Sunday’s sermon brought out the English major in me.
By that I mean it all hinged on John’s use of language — his wordplay, really — in describing the circumstances around Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus. At every turn in the story, Peter is either a bystander, or he is standing still, or he is still standing. In contrast to every other New Testament description, he is not moving.
And with that kind of stagnation comes the inevitable devastation.
So here is Sunday’s message. Entitled “Fail,” it lands at this bottom line: When you stop moving, you start denying.
Can I give you some really juicy church gossip? Not from this church, of course, but another church? And the gossip that I’m going to give you is the best gossip of all – it MAY be true. Or it may NOT be true. It’s speculative! Perfect! It’s almost from the realm of legend, this gossip I’m fixin’ to give you. You ready?
Here it is. Peter – whose life and letters are the subject of Movementum – in the years of the early church (like after most of the books of NT written) would walk by a crowd of people at a church meeting and they’d imitate the crow of a rooster. Like this: (audio clip). Yes! They’d be at some quarterly or semi-annual or even annual gathering, and a group of preachers huddling around drinking coffee and talking, checking their iPhones for messages, because that’s what preachers do all day since they are so important, and Peter walks by and he’s sort of a big deal, and one of the folks in the circle would crow like a rooster. And Peter’d turn in anger and ask, “who was that?!” And they’d be like, “Wasn’t me!”
And why was that a phenomenon in the early church? Because of this story in John 18, a story that is pretty familiar even to a lot of people who aren’t regular in church and don’t read the bible. And, like most good stories, this one actually starts before the story begins with Jesus’ predicting Peter’s future actions in John 13:37-38:
37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!
So with that sort of in the background, jump ahead five chapters to the night before Jesus was crucified in 18:15-16:
15 Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, 16 but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
Now: note a couple of things here. First, this “another disciple” is probably-though-not-certainly John & in John’s way of referring to himself in the third person, we learn here that he is better connected than Peter in the same way that we’ll learn in chapter 20 that he runs faster than Peter as well. Second – and more on point with this talk – you see that “John” here does the kind of thing that Peter normally does … meaning, taking the initiative and getting involved … while Peter acts in a way that’s very out of character: waiting outside at the door. So something is already amiss, something has gone awry w/ Peter’s behavior.
Then look at 18:17:
17 “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.
He replied, “I am not.”
READ No I am not. Oh Lord, if you’ve been paying attention in John you know that Jesus’ main way of referring to hisself is I AM & all of a sudden Peter negates that. I AM NOT. It’s the kind of wordplay that highlights the contrast – and I guarantee you that it’s not by accident that John words it that way. And look at what he does afterwards in 18:18:
18 It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
Standing still, motionless, doing what he can to ensure his own comfort. Tuck that away.
Because, then – after an interlude in which Jesus is interrogated by the religious and political authorities and denies nothing – Peter’s story picks back up. Look at 18:25:
25 Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”
He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
See that? Still standing. He’s Elton John! (play clip) And he gets asked the question yet again and denies it yet again, with that same NEGATE THE I AM formula as before. Not only is he denying who he is but it’s pretty clear he is denying who Jesus is. And I love the way the question gets asked: “You aren’t . . . are you?” Almost giving Peter an easy opt to deny self and deny Savior. These days it’s so similar & you might get asked this way: You don’t really believe the bible, do you? You don’t really believe Jesus is different from other religious figures, do you? You don’t really believe your body is a temple of the HS, do you? You don’t really believe in hell, do you?
And then comes Round Three, when a relative of Malchus, whose ear Peter had cut off in 18:10 (I wanted to work that story into Movementum but couldn’t figure out how!), asks in 18:26:
26 One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?”
And the third denial followed by the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in 18:27:
27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
And – legend or not, gossip or not – that tale & that failure haunted and hunted Peter the rest of his life. The Rock wasn’t so steady when the crisis hit. And maybe, just maybe, the early church leaders took the opportunity rub salt in that wound (no doubt in Jesus’ name!) by crowing when he walked by. Or maybe not. Either way, this denial was a central story in the early church and in Peter’s life because it is in all four gospels in all its vivid, gory detail. (BTW, this separates Xnty from other faiths – we present our heroes as fully rounded characters, full of features AND flaws.)
But there is an incredible pattern in the story that makes its point all the more compelling. It involves the subtlety of the language and, again, it’s not accidental because John – like Mt, Mk, and Lk before him – is a genius. In 18:15, Peter abdicates his normally active role and waits outside. In 18:16 he’s there waiting. In 18:18, he is standing, not moving. In 18:25 he is STILL STANDING, still warming himself. And in between those two scenes is Jesus’ being interrogated where he stands up and denies nothing while Peter stands still and denies everything! Again, not by accident! And so I contrast standing still Peter with standing up Jesus, I contrast Peter here with every other reference to him in the NT where he is like a perpetual motion machine, opening his mouth, moving his feet, walking on water, leading his posse, and the implication is clear for us: When you stop moving, you start denying. When it comes to your living relationship with Jesus Christ, if you stop progressing, you start dying. When you stop advancing you start failing. When you become satisfied with standing still you will run yourself over. John is so brilliant – he shows us by the lack of motion surrounding the fall, that When you stop moving, you start denying.
Think of how true this is in life. A friend told me about an outdoor wedding in the swamps of south Georgia on a 100 degree day back in June. The air was still and deadly. You’ve been in that oppression where it just feels the air has stopped moving and has started sinking all over you. Or stagnant, standing water (AV). You wanna go swimming in that? No thanks! What is standing water like that good for? Nothing but attracting mosquitos. Or do you know what happens if a shark ever stops moving? It dies! Suffocates! It has to be moving to breathe! Even more important to them than attacking ppl of the NC coast in the summer of ’15! They have to move to live.
And it is the same with you and with me. If we stop learning, if we stop growing, if we ever say “I’ve come as close to Jesus as I want to; I’ve invested enough of myself as I’m going to” … then death and denial are just the next step. You’re never more vulnerable than when you are stationary. Complacency precedes compromise. And here’s the thing: when I talk about stop moving & start denying, it’s not only God you’ll deny. Because I doubt if many of you will be asked a question as overtly as Peter was and I know you won’t be asked it in the midst of such historic circumstances. No, the denial goes deeper than that.
You’ll be denying your best self. That’s what was so sad about Peter! He was not a coward! He was not timid! He wasn’t one to choose his own comfort over the progress of the Kingdom! Lord, we know that much later he was so brave for Jesus that he was crucified upside down for his faith. So the authentic was bold and courageous and thoroughly sold out for his faith. Yet in that moment when he stopped advancing, when he was still standing and standing still he became so vulnerable to acting contrary to the better angels of his nature. In contrast to his own gifting.
So: have you seen that? As you look in your rear view mirror, do you see that? Have you seen how in those seasons where you decided you’d had enough Jesus but didn’t want too much of him that you were vulnerable to denying what was truest about you? That’s when you started drinking too much. It’s when you found the computer more interesting than three dimensional people. It’s when you lost the ability to filter out the negative, the critical, the hateful and you ended up hurting the people you loved the most. Sure you were denying your faith but just as critically you were denying the authentic you, the you for whom Jesus died, the you for whom his resurrection promised you new life, and everyone in your orbit ended up paying the price. And for more than a few of you, it is not a rear view mirror thing. It is a today thing. You settled in and settling in really just set you up for failure. You’ve been taking it easy and that was really a prelude to getting taken down.When you stop moving, you start denying; and the light just went on for a number of you.
You know what is interesting but true? Every failure, every denial has a prelude. The fall starts before the fall. Even with THE fall! Did you know that in Genesis before the man & woman took the bite of the apple the woman had already added to the words of God and the man had already abdicated his protective role? Something was awry before they bit! Same with Peter in this story! He’s standing when he should be advancing; warming when he should be soldiering. And it’s the same with you. Some of you here aren’t in denial mode, you don’t have your failure fatigues on, but you’re playing the prelude. It’s the compromise that resists the pull of a LifeGroup. It’s the mental laziness that says, “I’d rather watch Family Feud than read Scripture.” It’s the false confidence that says, “If I contact her on Facebook, no one will know.” It’s the most dangerous place you can be because you’re falling already and you don’t realize it! I just want to wake you up now so I can prevent regret later. When you stop moving, you start denying.
So: MOVE. Think of it this way. You send a college and they don’t go to any classes. You’re . . . upset! . . . because you paid for what they never used. Huh. Jesus paid it all and we have this privilege of responding with give me more. You know who is most vulnerable in this whole area? Those of you who’ve been at it a long time and those of you who refer to yourself as “mature.” There’s a danger in that designation and a peril to your veteran status.
And I so believe that moving involves two main things, both of which we try to give you every resource possible to take advantage of: 1) daily time away and alone – (isn’t it ironic that to move you do have to be still every?). That being still is the surest way to advance. Bible on lap (or phone!), dedicated time where it’s you and the Lord. 2) LifeGroup and/or Reveal classes. Most of you advance better in community than in isolation. That’s why we’ve got LGs (explain). And then I know some of you advance best in more of a classroom format; that’s why we have Fall & Spring Bible Classes (AV) with best teachers around, anywhere. You’re never too old to learn!
Like 90 year old Priscilla Sitieni of Kenya, the oldest elementary student in the world. Do you know why she enrolled in grade school? So she could learn to read. Why? So she could read her bible. I’d say she committed to keep moving. As Harry Truman said, “the only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all.” Yes they are.
Because when you walk by a group of people at this church or any church, I sure don’t want them to imitate a cock crow in front of you. I want them to say, “that guy or that girl is on the move.”