No one likes failure. You may not have experienced it, but it happens, even to the smartest of people. We can experience failure when we let others down or when we fail to meet our own expectations. It can happen in unexpected moments when we like to feel we are in control. In whatever form it takes, none of us likes to feel a failure. We are embarrassed and it can wound us deeply.
Departure. Come with me to the scene that John records of Jesus’ closing hours with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. There is an air of gloom as Jesus tells them he is going away (John 13).
In verse 33 we read Jesus’ words: Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come…’
Grief. The idea of Jesus going away left them grief-stricken. Over three years they had come to see that he is God incarnate. It was all too much for Peter: “Lord, where are you going?” he said. To which Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Peter’s plea is like that of a distressed child: ‘Why can’t I come with you now?’ And, next moment, he insisted that only over his dead body would anything happen to Jesus. Clearly Peter was devoted to Jesus. His grief-stricken response is understandable. But let’s think about his words, “…I will lay down my life for you.”
It was not long since Jesus had said that he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). To ensure that everyone had heard him, he had said it again (John 10:15-18). And now that the time had come, ironically Peter was saying said he wanted to reverse the roles: “I will lay down my life for you”. I wonder if there was the suggestion of a smile on Jesus’ lips as he replied, ‘Will you really?’
At first Peter’s words seem courageous. However, they reveal his underlying pride. His response is similar to his words a little earlier when he had said to Jesus who was about to wash his feet: “You will never wash my feet”. To which Jesus had responded: “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me” (John 13:8).
Pride. Clearly Peter had not understood the import of these words. And now, the ever-impetuous Peter, still prideful, was saying: ‘I won’t let you die for me Jesus. I’m not like the others’. Jesus’ response is gentle, but clear: ‘Peter, courageous though you may think you are, a time will come shortly when you will need to let someone else do for you what you can’t do. You will have to accept someone else’s generosity. You can’t put yourself in my debt.’
This is important. Jesus owes none of us anything. We are the ones who are totally dependent on him for his charity. Devastating though it may be for our egos, we need to get to the point where we are willing to see it that way.
Pride is the one passion Jesus won’t allow his disciples to have, not least on the eve of Good Friday. Nor will he allow anyone of us to have such pride.
Jesus’ warning to Peter is prophetic: “I tell you the truth, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times” (John 13:38). And before dawn, Peter did deny Jesus three times. As we read elsewhere, Peter came to grieve with deep sorrow and self-reproach. This proud disciple came to despise his cowardice and turn in heartfelt repentance to the Lord.
Christ Alone. Peter had to learn the hard lesson we all have to learn. Jesus doesn’t love us because we are faithful to him, let alone prepared to die for him. He loves us in spite of all our failures. Our allegiance to him must be based on this. It’s humbling and it hurts, but there’s no other way.
There will be times when we are like Peter. We don’t want to give in to Jesus. And there may also be times when we feel that others are so much more spiritual than we are. But remember this: Jesus is not impressed by super-spirituality.
He knows there are those who like to give the impression that they are first-class followers. They talk about their spiritual experiences, or their certainty of the Lord’s leading them to do this or to do that. They are always active, doing ‘Christian’ work. But Jesus knows when this is done to impress others.
Jesus urges everyone who would follow him to trust him – as we see in the opening words of John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also me”, he says.
Humility and Trust. ‘Trust me Peter’, Jesus insists. ‘Before the next twenty-four hours are over, you will all feel failures. But your faithlessness won’t mean the end of everything. ‘The faith, or trust, that I am talking about is not based upon on what you can do for me, but rather in what I alone can do for you.’
It’s easy for some of us to be like impetuous, proud Peter. But we should never forget the wisdom and prophecy of The Book of Proverbs: Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall… (16:18-19).
Jesus urges us to learn the lesson of humility and believe in God. We can be very confident that he is committed to us, no matter what. The events of the first Good Friday and Easter Day assure us that this is true.