Before Easter, in my sermon to the Revive Community, I posited the question, “What was worse: Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial?” At first you want to answer Judas, because that is what tradition has taught us. We are predisposed to him being the bad guy and all of the other disciples good.
The problem is that when you really take time to think about it, while Judas’ betrayal is bad, so is Peter’s. It would be hard to designate one as bad and the other as worse, but to focus on Judas and not Peter is to miss a big part of the Resurrection story.
For Judas, his betrayal represented a true severance from God. It was such a powerful severance that he felt that his only choice was suicide. But when we look at the story, what really was at the root of the suicide was not the guilt as much as it was the feeling of true separation from God.
But Peter did the same, even though he did not see it the same way. His threefold denial of Christ was a true moment of separation from God. But something unique happens in the story. Christ, in his resurrected state, confronts Peter and gives him a gift, the chance for reconciliation. Christ challenges Peter to show his love. And Peter does, but not without some frustration. By the third time Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” we see Peter’s frustration boiling: “And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’”
So Peter makes the commitment and is reconciled to Christ. But he is reconciled at a price. He must now be a leader, and in that role, he will have to follow the desires of Christ, rather than his own. The scripture states: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
For most modern Americans, this is a very scary thing. Even recent immigrants who come to this country do so to have some control of their own future, to have the freedom to do as they please. But the problem with always doing as you please is that often the things that please us do not please God. In fact, often we find ourselves in situations where we are denying Christ, not just through our words, but through what we do.
This is where we find hope and is really where we see the difference between Judas and Peter. Peter found redemption (even though, arguably, he was not looking for it). Christ gave him the opportunity to come around and accept him once again. Judas never had that opportunity, because he took his life before it could happen. It often makes me wonder what might have happened if Judas had not taken his life. Would he have been given the same opportunity as Peter? Let the theological debate commence!
But really, the truth is that Christ wants us to be his disciples, and no matter what we have done in the past, no matter how real our denials have been, Christ wants us back. The only problem is that when we are reconciled to Christ, there is a catch. Just as Christ gave himself for us, we must dedicate ourselves to him and serve him where he leads us, even if that is a really uncomfortable place¾moreover, even if it is a place where we are no longer able to choose our own destiny. So how do you answer the question when Christ asks, “Do you love me?”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen