By Sarah Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 26:69-75

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” 71When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. 75Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Meditation

Each gospel has its own telling of St. Peter’s denial. And theologians have done some interesting work to demonstrate how the different depictions hang together. However, right there on the surface, without any need for theological excavation, is Peter’s cowardice. None of the four gospels cut Peter a break — not even St. Mark, who was a follower of Peter’s.

Not long before, as Jesus was being arrested, Peter drew a sword and cut off a man’s ear. Ultimately, his grand, heroic gesture meant nothing. But three denials in the quiet of the night — each more specific and fervent than the last — they mean everything.

How strange it is that Jesus chose Peter as the rock on which to found the Church. What can we learn from his example?

First, our grand, heroic gestures may prove empty and foolish if they do nothing to further the ends of the Lord. The quiet, daily gestures of affirming what is true, regardless of the consequences, may not be nearly as satisfying as dramatic acts of defiance, but in the end, they may require more sustained courage.

Second, there is hope and restoration in repentance. In St. John’s account of the time that Jesus spends with his disciples following the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time, one for each denial, Peter affirms that he does. Jesus then charges Peter to a great yet humble task: to care for his sheep.

Grand gestures may defy our fallen frailties, but they do not erase them. In fact, they may hide and protect them. Peter quickly succumbs to cowardice even after his reckless display. What strengthens our weakness is humble repentance. Only then is Peter prepared to take on the role of the Rock and to care for the Good Shepherd’s sheep.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have five children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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