John 13:21-38

This year for Lent I’ve decided to move a little bit away from the lectionary readings, and instead to focus in on a single aspect of Jesus’ final week.

Because, of course, that final week of Jesus’ life, from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the crucifixion on Good Friday was such a crucial few days in his ministry, but given a calendar in which we mostly just meet on Sundays, it’s a week that we tend to jump over – blink and you miss it. We go from Palms to an empty tomb, unless we take the time on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and even then we only see a small slither of the week.

So this year we’re going to take time in Lent to reflect on a single conversation, as recorded in John’s gospel, generally known as the “Farewell Discourse”, to which the author four or five full chapters – a chunk of writing similar to that which Matthew commits to the much better known Sermon on the Mount.

It covers the conversation – actually, mostly a monologue – that Jesus has with his friends before he is arrested. John’s gospel doesn’t describe the last supper (at least not in any detail) but instead gives us, if not Jesus’ last words, his last teaching.

And it begins with two betrayals.

We know about both of them, of course. They’re both significant parts of the story. And they both feature Peter – we don’t seem to be able to get away from him at the moment.

If we had started the reading a little earlier in chapter 13 (which we didn’t, because it was already a long reading!) we would have seen the way the scene was set for Peter. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, a symbolic act of servanthood that he called on them to follow.

Peter had resisted – “you can’t wash my feet, you’re the master, not the servant” and then overcompensated “not only my feet, but my hands and head as well”, in his classic spontaneous, words before thought, way.

And then, at the start of our reading, Jesus, troubled in spirit, tells them what it is that’s bothering him. “One of you,” he declares, “will betray me”. Peter motioned to John, who was reclining next to Jesus – “ask him who!”

I wonder if Peter’s heart had jolted when Jesus had said those words. He knew, surely, that he was a bit of a wild cannon – the bit about the foot washing surely reminded him of that. In Matthew’s telling of this story the disciples all start to ask him “surely you don’t mean me?”, but here it’s only Peter who seems to want to know enough to ask – or rather, to get John to ask for him.

So John asks, and Jesus (as ever, it seems, incapable of giving a direct answer) indicates Judas. But no-one else, it seems, knew the meaning of Jesus words and actions. Peter, I think we have to assume, remained, along with everyone except John, in the dark. Worrying, I guess, if somehow it was him who Jesus was saying would betray him.

For Jesus moves the conversation on to another statement that none of his friends wanted to hear – I am with you only a little longer.

He’d been hinting at this for a while, but now he speaks directly: “you will look for me, but where I am going you cannot come”.

And – and from Jesus’ point of view I suspect this was the most important part of the whole – he gives them his famous “new commandment”: that they love one another.

But it doesn’t seem as if Peter heard that bit. He’s still fixated on Jesus’ previous words: “where I am going you cannot come”. It’s another blow to his self-perception, his self-esteem. He’s always been the first among equals, the main man amongst the disciples, one of the first to follow, first the speak, always there at the heart of things.

But he got it wrong in the foot-washing, wasn’t sure if he was the one Jesus thought would betray him; and now Jesus was telling him he couldn’t follow any longer.

“Why not?” he demands, when Jesus repeats “you cannot follow me now”. “Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you”.

“Before the cock crows,” Jesus tells him, “you will have denied me three times”.

This is surely the worst moment of Peter’s life. All his confidence, all his commitment, his – I’m sure genuine – declaration that he would lay down his life for Jesus – all punctured by those words.

You’ve probably heard of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that you aren’t deserving of the esteem others hold you in, and the belief that sooner or later people will discover the truth about you.

That’s how this reads for me: Peter always wanting to prove himself as a follower of Jesus, wanting to prove to himself that he is, in fact, worthy of the trust Jesus seems to have placed in him, suddenly confronted with the truth about himself.

“You think you’re ready to die for me. But before the cock crows – tonight – you will deny knowing me. Three times”. Peter’s unspoken question – “am I the one Jesus says is going to betray him?” – seems to be answered.

And Peter doesn’t say another word. In Chapter 14 Thomas asks questions, Phillip asks questions, but Peter is silent.

The next time Peter gets mentioned at all, he’s drawing his sword to fight off those who came to arrest Jesus.

And the next thing we read of Peter is him denying that he knows Jesus at all. Three times.

But of course that isn’t how the story ended.

Peter discovered that he wasn’t who he thought he was, or who he wanted others to think he was.

But that wasn’t the end of his story.

Because just a few days later it would be Peter who would run to the tomb to see what Mary had declared; it would be Peter who would be commissioned by Jesus on the beach at a breakfast of BBQ fish; it would be Peter who would stand up on the day of Pentecost and proclaim the news of Jesus to all who would listen; it would be Peter who would lead the early Church in Jerusalem.

And in the end, Peter would keep his impulsive promise, and lay down his life for the mission of Jesus.

Because Jesus didn’t need Peter to be the person Peter wanted others to think he was; Jesus needed Peter to be the person he really was.

Which is surely reassuring for any one of us who worries that we aren’t all that; that if people only knew the truth they wouldn’t think anything like as well of us as they do.

For any one of us who, though in our better moments we might say or sing that we’d do anything for Jesus and the reign of God, have a lurking suspicion – or even certainty – that when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t live up to it.

Jesus didn’t need Peter to be who he showed the world. And he doesn’t need us to be that either.

He needs us to be willing to be ourselves.