Thursday: The Cock Crows

Jesus predicts it in three different ways. It happens three times. And Jesus spends three days in the tomb because of it.

Peter’s denial of Jesus.

It’s a pivotally important moment that sometimes we lose track of in the accelerating cascade of events following the Last Supper that leads to Calvary.

But it contains such spiritual riches for us, even though it forces us to confront our own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Let’s begin by reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are almost identical but for one or two words. Here’s how Mark relates it:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”

John’s account is briefer, albeit with a haunting rhetorical question from Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And then we have Luke, one of the synoptics but oddly the outlier in how he portrays this incident:

“‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’”

They vary in their details, but the painful crux of the matter remains the same: Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.

Peter cannot fathom it.

Hasn’t he been faithful to Jesus these three long years?

Didn’t he leave his home and family and livelihood for Jesus?

Hasn’t he stuck by Jesus when they were hungry and homeless on the road? When the crowds crushed them and demanded to be healed, fed, taught, long after Jesus and the twelve were completely exhausted?

Hasn’t Peter been faithful even now, when the religious authorities are closing in?

Why would Peter abandon him now—Peter, who was the one to proclaim Jesus the Messiah and was called the Rock of the Church for it?

We all feel the same, if we’re honest.

Maybe it’s not denying Jesus literally, for in our comfortably hegemonic society, it’s not the least bit risky to self-identify as Christian.

But we have all heard of a crime or an act of violence or an ethical violation and thought, “Oh, I could never do that.”

Peter is living proof that yes, we could.

And the more certain we are that we couldn’t do x, y, or z, the more devastated we will be when it happens.

Being good and moral people, even being followers of Jesus, is no guarantee that we would not do any number of terrible things if the right circumstances and pressures converged.

And oh, how poisonously painful it is to realize our own base nature when our self-preservation instincts are triggered and we sell out.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree on how it devastates Peter, but Luke has the most poignant account:

“Then they seized [Jesus] and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”

It is the nadir of Holy Week for Peter.

He does not witness the crucifixion personally. This is probably the incident that shames him so completely that he runs away and deserts Jesus entirely.

Having seen the depths of his own hypocrisy, his inability to hold fast to the brave statements he made earlier, he is crushed.

He swore he would die for Jesus.

Peter, who fantasized about remaining stoic in the face of possible interrogation and torture, cannot even stand up to the idle questioning of a servant girl.

But notice something important here.

Jesus, in all of the accounts of the Last Supper, says, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

He means Judas, of course.

But if we think about it, that’s actually kind of strange.

We would expect him to say, “Truly I tell you, two of you will betray me,” meaning Judas and Peter. But he doesn’t.

Jesus doesn’t seem to regard Peter’s denial as a betrayal.

That is fascinating. What do we make of that?

Let’s put that fact together with another.

Jesus predicts Peter’s denial in a very specific way.

He doesn’t say simply, “Peter, you will deny me three times,” full stop.

In all four gospels, he says that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows.

That’s a very specific detail.

And sure enough, immediately after Peter’s denial, the cock crows and the truth comes crashing down on him.

In Luke, the cock crows as Peter is still speaking. Jesus looks across the courtyard into Peter’s eyes, and time seems to stop in the pain of that moment.

But the cock crowing is not usually a harbinger of doom.

It is the traditional signal of the advent of the dawn.

When the cock crows, it signifies that morning has come and the night is over.

I think this has profound significance for this story.

I believe this moment is the hinge of Peter’s salvation.

Peter has been firmly in the grip of the false self through the entirety of Jesus’ ministry.

He, God love him and all of us who are in the same boat with him, including myself, is completely driven by his ego.

It’s all about jockeying for position among the other disciples, being Jesus’ favorite, and most of all, loudly insisting on his own future loyalty and bravery.

Here is where it all falls apart.

I believe the resurrection begins for Peter when the cock crows, the traditional symbol of dawn.

It is the dawn of truth for him, and it is a devastating but a liberating truth.

Peter is at last brought face to face with his own fallibility and duplicity.

He has had his mask of competence and control ripped away, and been forced to confront his all-too-human frailty. For the first time in his walk with Jesus, Peter is driven to his knees. Humility comes crashing in on him as he realizes the truth.

It hurts so badly, but it is a vulnerability that he deeply needed.

He cannot receive the benefit of Jesus’ saving work on the Cross if he doesn’t even understand that he needs it.

This moment batters down every shield of blindness he has placed around his fragile ego. He finally understands how hollow his bravado is.

And in his heart, emptied of false pride, there is now room for grace to enter in.

This is why Jesus does not call Peter’s denial a betrayal.

It is a failing and a falling, but it is a profoundly necessary and ultimately beneficial failing and falling.

It is the turning point of Peter’s salvation.

After this moment, he can never go back to the vain show that was his spiritual life before.

He can try to put on his bankrupt Brave Disciple Leader front again, but it will never fit the way it used to, and he will always and forever know it is a false mask.

It is his own realization that he is naked and ashamed, cast out of the Garden with his new knowledge of good and evil.

But now he is liberated from the tyranny of the false self.

Now he has been led to the Cross inside himself and died a bitter, humiliating death.

Now he is ready to be taken through the tomb to resurrection, and it all happens in this one cataclysmic moment of being held in Jesus’ gaze as the cock crows.

The loving gaze of Jesus, which withholds neither painful truth nor abiding love, offers resurrection to Peter even as his pride and self-image are crucified.

And Peter more than any other disciple is Everyman.

Peter’s journey is our journey, and we know his triumphs and defeats intimately in our own lives if we’ve spent any time in searching out spiritual growth.

And so we realize that our own denial of Jesus, however that takes form, is the hinge for us as well of crucifixion and resurrection.

The moment of our greatest shame and failure heralds two things: Jesus’ words coming true in our lives, and the cosmic unfolding of the salvation of the world, which we are a part of.

Jesus predicted we would deny him but did not condemn it as a betrayal.

And our coming to that moment—which may happen over and over—is always our invitation to realize and surrender to the Cross and the Resurrection.

And remember what Jesus said to Peter in the Gospel of Luke: “I have prayed for you that…you, when once you have turned back, [will] strengthen your brothers.”

Our own crisis of faith is not just for ourselves alone.

Our greatest humiliation and defeat as it leads through the Cross to Resurrection, will be our greatest gift to our fellow travellers.

So remember, the next time the cock crows in your life, that it will be your awakening to your deepest weakness and failure, but it will also create your readiness to receive the grace and healing we all so desperately need.

It feels like you’re betraying Jesus, but he doesn’t see it that way.

Do not be afraid to meet Jesus’ gaze across the courtyard at that moment.

He is giving you truth surrounded, permeated, and upheld by undying love.

It is his invitation to you to be called through the Cross to the Resurrection.

Remember that the cock crowing is the herald of the dawn.

As our psalmist says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

 

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