Narrative Lectionary Reflection
March 4, 2018
If you are called to serve on a jury, you get to see American jurisprudence (or wherever you live) in action. Both sides present evidence to the jury and when both sides rest their case, the jury goes over the evidence and decides the fate of the accused: guilty or innocent?
In today’s text we continue our slow walk of the Passion. Last week we talked about the Washing of the Disciple’s feet and the betrayal of Judas. This week, Jesus has been arrested and is facing a trial. But the trial Jesus faces is not fair. It becomes little more than the show trials we hear of in authoritarian regimes.
But Jesus isn’t the only person facing a trial. While Jesus is being judge by the religious leaders, Peter, one of Jesus disciples is also facing a trial of sorts. He was being asked by people outside of the house of Caiaphas if he is associated with Jesus. A test was set up for Peter and he failed.
Today we look at the two trials of Jesus and Peter.
Engaging the Text
The servant woman stationed at the gate asked Peter, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”
“I’m not,” he replied.
A lot has happened between chapter 13 and today in chapter 18. Starting with chapter 13 and going all the way through Chapter 17 is what has been called the “Farewell Discourse.” This is where Jesus gives his final words to the disciples before his arrest. In the first part of Chapter 18, we see Jesus being arrested and his disciples scatter. That leads us to this point. As the text starts, Jesus is sent to the home of the former high priest Annas, while Peter stood outside of the gate of Annas’ courtyard. An unnamed disciple was with Peter, and because he knew the high priest, he was able to come into the court. He is able to talk Peter into the courtyard where Peter could warm himself by the fire.
Inside, is when an “unofficial”(and maybe unlawful) trial begins. It’s important to note that Annas had no formal legal standing because he wasn’t the high priest. He was the high priest at a time in the past, but the current high priest was his son-in-law Caiaphas.
There is some evidence that in Jewish trials, the defendant was never required to testify or answer questions. Instead witnesses were called on the behalf of the accused to testify to their integrity. After this, the witnesses against the accused spoke.
This was how it was supposed to be done, but Annas dispense with procedure and started questioning Jesus by telling Annas all of the people who saw him preach out in the open and wondering why they weren’t called to testify. This causes a response from a nearby guard. “Do you answer the high priest like that?” the guard said, which is a way of saying “Who do you think you are?” Jesus is then led to Caiaphas for trial, but we already know the verdict: in John 11:47-52, we see the high priests coming together after the raising of Lazarus from the dead. They all wonder what they can do and Caiaphas says “You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” He has already made up his mind that Jesus would be sentenced to die in order to please the Romans and save the Jewish community. Even though Jesus is going to trial, it is yet another show trial- Jesus fate was sealed before long before Christ enters the Caiaphas’ house.
What Annas, the guards, Caiaphas and Pilate don’t realize is that it really isn’t Jesus that’s on trial, but them. When Jesus calls them on the show trial, it reveals that the high priests and Roman leaders have been judged and found wanting by Jesus.
Meanwhile, Peter is entering the courtyard. The woman at the gate asks him,“Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?” Peter immediately responds “I am not.” Peter is set up as the opposite of Jesus here. Throughout John, Jesus announces himself using the words, “I AM” (think of in John 6 where Jesus says he is the Bread of Life). Here in John18, Peter says “I am not.” Peter’s denial is really one of identification. When Peter starts to deny Jesus, he is denying his relationship with Jesus; it is a rejection of his discipleship. He not only denies Jesus, he denies being a disciple.
Peter denies Jesus two more times. Earlier in John, Peter brags that he would lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37). This is in stark contrast to Jesus, who before the authorities is willing to speak boldly even to the point of death. In this passage, like in similar passages in the other gospels, we learn of the cock crowing three times, just as Jesus predicted. Here in John, the story ends there which is different from the other gospels that have Peter weeping loudly for having let Christ down.
While it is true that the act of washing heals the man’s blindness, the washing also enables him to see where Jesus comes from, and, in the end, he is brought into the fold of the Good Shepherd. The healing of the man born blind is also a sign that exposes those who do not believe. The foot washing in chapter 13 has similar connotations. It is a washing to be made clean if the sense is washing away that which would prevent full recognition of who Jesus is and what is about to happen. It exposes Judas. The washing makes possible having a share with Jesus, being in relationship with him, in his community, in the fold, as opposed to being cast out, like the blind man or going out, like Judas.
Judas is not clean because he doesn’t believe. Why? We don’t know. What we do know is that as Jesus shows what it is to be a follower, Judas misses the point.
There is an old saying that goes, “If you were charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to arrest you?” The point behind the statement is to ask if our lives, our witness is so evident that people know who we are and whose we are.
In the passage today, we are given two examples, one positive and one negative. Jesus got into trouble with the high priests because he raised Lazarus from the dead. There were willing to do what it took to make sure Jesus was put to death. Jesus’ witness was in the open and it was considered so shocking by those in power, that they charged him with death.
On the other side is Peter. Peter who made bold promises to give up his own life for Jesus. The Peter who earlier in chapter 18 is willing to start a fight with the authorities and cuts off the ear of a servant. This same Peter now didn’t want to admit he had anything to do with Jesus. He stands with the guards instead of standing with Jesus. When push came to shove, Jesus didn’t want to be identified with the One that would soon be crucified.
The hope in this passage, is that Peter ultimately finds grace. He is given a second chance and reading the book of Acts, we see a more bold Peter witnessing to the love of Jesus.
The 1987 movie Cry Freedom tells the story of Steven Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who died in police detention in 1977. A scene from the film portrays a trial that took place in 1976, a year before Biko’s death. Nine young men are on trial for subversion. Biko is being questioned by the prosecuting attorney, and while he himself is not on trial, his beliefs were. The late Donald Woods, a white South African journalist who wrote a book that the movie is based on, described the trial (the movie clip is available here):
In 1976 [the year before Biko’s death] Steve Biko played a leading role in one of the most remarkable trials in South African history.
A group of nine young blacks was prosecuted in the Supreme Court for alleged subversion by intent. That is to say, in a sense their thoughts were placed on trial. That Steve sought to establish that their philosophy, the Black Consciousness philosophy … was a danger to public safety in that it was likely to lead to a mobilization of black opinion against the established white order in a manner calculated to cause “racial confrontation.”
…The defense took the line that blacks needed no inculcation of resentment against white racism; that such resentment was already widespread among blacks; that even within the country’s statutory curbs on anti-apartheid expression blacks had the right to mobilize opinion to seek redress of their grievances and that Black Consciousness was a constructive rather than a destructive philosophy.
The lesson here is two-fold: are we bold enough to identify with Christ even when it costs us something, even if it costs our lives? And are we bold enough to accept the grace from God when we fall short?
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.