Imaginations of the Heart: Denial
(Matthew 26:36-46; John 18:1-18; 18:25-27)
[For a pdf of this imagination, click here]
You condemn me, do you? Do you think I don’t condemn myself even more? But you weren’t there, were you? You don’t know what it was like. I’m not offering excuses, there are no excuses; but an explanation might help a bit.
You can have no idea of the sheer intensity of it all, of that night. I can hardly recall all the details myself. So much of it remains a blur. So where to start? OK, after supper…
We left the room in high spirits; at least that’s how it seemed on the surface. Supper with Jesus was always wonderful, Passover even more so. But this had been a strange one: the foot washing (how I struggled with that) and those words over the bread and cup—strange, beautiful and menacing words—what were we to make of them? So, yes, it was a joyous crowd that tumbled out of that upper room but there was an undercurrent of anxiety and unease as well.
It was a clear night, the moon big and low in the sky, blood-red. The air was calm and still and we could hear the murmur of voices from the houses around as they continued their celebrations. “I’m going up to the Garden,” said Jesus, “I need to pray.” Some left then, to go back to homes or families or masters and those of us remaining followed Jesus up to Gethsemane.
It was one of his favourite places when he was in Jerusalem and so it was one of our favourites too. We’d go there for peace, for refreshment; a little bit of nature just a little way across the valley from the city walls. Someone said, “Where’s Judas?” but he’d been behaving strangely all day and I thought he was probably ill and had gone back to our lodgings in Bethany.
We crossed the Khidron valley and climbed up to the Garden. The moon was higher now, the birds had almost stopped singing and there was an eerie stillness in the half-light as we followed one another up the path, the shadows from our torches flickering here and there as we walked.
We got to the flat grassy knoll and paused for breath. I was suddenly very tired as the events of the day caught up with me. “Wait here for me.” Said Jesus. And then, “No, you three,” and he gestured at James and John and me, “You three come and pray with me.” And so we set off and stopped a hundred yards or so further on.
“Will you come and pray with me?” he asks and so it’s the three of us again—the Thunder Brothers and Rocky—following behind as Jesus leads us on. In fact we don’t go much further, just into a glade where, over there, glistening in the moonlight, is a rock; seeming in this half light as if it is an altar.
“Stay here,” says Jesus, “and watch with me. Pray for me.” Then he walks over to that rock no more than five yards from us and lays himself down in front of it. We can hear his words, especially as he starts his prayer, drifting over the still night air. I look over at James and John. They are squatting under the trees, obviously as drained and exhausted as I am. “Father, if it is your will take this cup from me…” my own thoughts start to kick in. what ‘cup’ is he talking about? What is it that he wants taken away? It must be pretty bad because I’ve never known Jesus turn down a challenge before.
And then, with a sickening, constricting, breath-stealing and growing sense of horror I know—know with an awful certainty—what it is he wants taken away. He’s talking about his death. He’s done that before often enough—I’m still smarting from the time I confronted him about it—but this is different. This time it’s real; this time it’s imminent. Jesus is going to die, soon, in the next few days, unless God releases him from his mission, unless he leaves Jerusalem right now.
Then my next thought—and I am ashamed of this, even though it’s quite natural I suppose—was for myself. What will I do if Jesus dies? First, but least in some ways, will I be in danger too? I suppose I might. If they—and we all know who ‘they’ are—if they kill him they might go after us too. Or they might think that we’re just not worth the effort. Hard to tell and not really so much worth worrying about at the moment because something much worse is seeping through all these thoughts and now it overwhelms them.
If Jesus is dead, what am I?” what is my life? What will I do? For the last three years he has been my reason for living: my inspiration; my sun, moon and stars; my love, my Lord; my life. If he is dead I might as well be dead. Yes, I could go back, start fishing again, maybe start that family we talked about before he came along. But I don’t know if I could face it. Everything would be drained of colour, nothing would ever taste good again, every laugh would be hollow. Without Jesus in my life the world would collapse into nothingness. And I cannot bear that, and…
The next thing I know, Jesus is shaking me—and the brothers—awake. With an anguished smile on his lips he says, “Couldn’t you even watch with me just one hour?” his voice is gentle, his tone is sorrow not anger, and it hurts more than if he’d screamed and beaten us with sticks. What kind of friends have we proved to be. And yet…
Jesus left us then and went back to the rock. Some clouds had started to form and they were now scudding across the moon. A breeze had arisen, with a cold bite in its midst, and I suddenly found myself shivering—or was it shuddering?
We resolved, all three of us, I know, that we would do better this time. “Father,” he almost shrieked, “take this cup from me—unless it can only be taken away by being drunk…” the moon was suddenly uncovered and I saw his face bright in the moonlight yearning up to heaven with a look of pure anguish and pain in his features. It seemed, in the half light, as if he were sweating great drops of blood. Then his voice dropped and his head bowed and his shoulders shook and I could swear that he was weeping tears of such deep distress that I could bear to look no longer.
My own thoughts turned again to the consequences of his death. No longer, this time, just about its impact on me but the effect on the work, our gospel work. With him gone, was it all a failure? Sure, people had been healed, people had been given hope, people had been given glimpses of a new way of living and of God’s true kingdom. But was that enough? Was that all he had come to do? I had always thought there was more; that we were on the verge of some great breakthrough—and now this! Even if he survives this, the whole project is surely compromised, dead in the water. Everything’s come to nothing…
And for the second time he is shaking me awake. I can see that he is still disappointed in us but there’s a change in his face and voice. There’s still that deep, deep sorrow but underneath is steel: a sense of resolution and purpose.
And then we hear the shouts and the cracking oif twigs and the clinking of metal on metal and there’s no time to think any more.
The flicker of torches and lanterns, the shouts, the sound of feet—many feet—could all mean only one thing: they were coming to get us. They were coming to get him anyway, the rest of us were just bit players. As the voices drew nearer I wondered what had happened to the others. I guess they jus melted away into the shadows as they heard the crowd coming. I certainly would have do. But we couldn’t. we couldn’t leave Jesus and he wasn’t going to run; I just knew it. So we stood there, the four of us, just waiting.
As they came close enough for us to make them out I noticed glints of reflection from the burnished metal on their uniforms. Temple Guard, then, not the Romans—and a glimmer of hope rushed up through my mind. Maybe this wasn’t so bad? Maybe, even, this was a routine patrol just going about their business.
But no, there were lots of people, too many people, behind them and I knew that this was no coincidence. And no sooner had this realisation crushed the little burst of hope than I saw who was leading the guards. It was Judas! What was he doing here? Does that mean it was going to be alright after all? Had he been arrested. I couldn’t make any sense of what was happening.
They walked right up to us, with Judas at their head, and they stopped. I’m still trying to make sense of it all when suddenly everything clicked into place. Judas had brought them here! That’s why he’d been acting funny all day, that’s why he hadn’t come with us. He’d slipped away to bring the guards, to betray us, to hand us over.
And then he stepped forward. “Teacher,” he said and he kissed Jesus in greeting. And that was it. A kiss! I just lost it: “You bastard! You fucking bastard!” I yelled, “I hope you rot in hell for this. How could you do this to us?”
The boys grab me and hold me back—but only just, for my rage is so huge—the guards draw their swords, Judas draws back, and the whole scene is confusion and tumult. Except for Jesus. He stands there, in the midst of it all, as calm as a rock. “Do you come for me by night with swords and clubs to arrest me? Why not in the Temple in the daylight? I would not have resisted you.”
But of course they wouldn’t have dared to do that, the cowards. And what about all those with the crowds, getting bolder now, coming up to Jesus and talking at him. One in particular, a temple servant I think, really got to me. “Because, Galilean,” (and he makes it sound like an insult) “you won’t be able to stir up the rabble here and because we didn’t want to profane the holy Temple.”
Didn’t want to profane what was holy? Doesn’t he know true holiness when he sees it? That, and his sneering tone, was suddenly too much for me. I pull free of James and John, draw my dagger, and rush at him. It was pathetic! I half stumble, fall towards him and nick his ear with the knife as I pass him. He howls like a stuck pig (which was some comfort to me) and in the resulting clamour I find myself falling headlong into the midst of a thorn bush. In the heat of everything happening I felt no pain, though it hurt like hell afterwards, but the thing was that I disappeared from sight. I could hear them all crashing about trying to find me and suddenly I was very sober and very scared.
But the captain called them back. “never mind him. It’s the organ grinder, not the monkeys, that we’ve come for.” And with that they took Jesus and led him away. I stayed in the bushes, the thorns now beginning to prick and scratch and hurt as sensation returned and as the lights and the voices gradually faded away.
I stayed in the thorn bush, painful though it was, until I could no longer hear voices over the sound of my pounding heart. Then suddenly, splitting the silence, a half shout, half whisper. “Peter! Simon! Where are you?” it was John. Slowly, carefully, I extricated myself from the bush. “Over here, John. I’m in this bush.”
As I got out I saw John standing alone looking anxiously around. “Where’s James?” I asked. “Gone to Bethany to tell the others what’s happened. But I’m going back to the city to find out what going on.” First thought: ‘Absolutely. I’ve got to be there for Jesus.’ Second thought: ‘No way! I want to be as far away from there as I possibly can. There’s still the chance they’ll come for us as well.’
But John is already striding back down the hill and it seems I have no choice—his words were more instruction than invitation. John worries that we’ll lose them. I worry that they’ll find us. In fact there was no cause for concern either way as the lights and chatter were easy to pick out in the distance and as we got closer it became clear that no-one was looking out for us.
So we followed at a safe distance along the valley and over the Khidron and would our way back up to the city. As we entered the gate I suddenly worried that we would be challenged, arrested, taken away and beaten but the guards must have been asleep or playing dice or wenching because we walked through without a sound.
We were in the city streets now, walking more slowly and dodging into the shadows lest anyone trun back and see us. My determination, such as it was, was ebbing away again. “They’re going to the high priest’s house.” Whispered John. “That’s good. I know people there.” “Look, John,” I said, “I think we should go now. We’ve found out all we can for now, there’s nothing we can do for Jesus and we need to get back to the others.” (‘And I’m so scared I can hardly stand up’—but I didn’t say that bit.)
“No, no,” says John. “It’ll be fine.” And we walked on towards the high priest’s house. “Wait here a moment and I’ll sort it.” And suddenly he was gone into the shadows and I was left alone with my fears. I shivered with the cold and pulled my coat tight around me. Hunched into a doorway I watched and waited. I still couldn’t believe it or make sense of it but the growing threat of dread and doom was beginning to overwhelm me. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. I wanted it to be over. I wanted Jesus. Oh, Jesus, where are you when I’m in such distress? Come and comfort me. Work one of your miracles again, show us God’s power and come and heal me. Lift me up and support me as you always do. Why won’t you come?
But I knew that he wouldn’t; couldn’t. there’d be no miracle this time. The age of miracles had passed and the age of death was rushing in.
Suddenly John is beside me. “It’s OK.” he says, really excited, hyper. “Come on. Come On. They’ll let us in and there’ll be no trouble.” And he tugs at my sleeve and sets off. I follow numbly, with no will of my own left and so we enter the gates and pass through into the high priest’s courtyard.
The courtyard seemed vast and menacingly open after the narrow streets and doorway hiding places. In the far right hand corner was a brazier with half a dozen people huddled round it. The chill of the night had really set in now and I envied them. “Wait here.” Whispered John. “I’ll see what I can find out.” And he was gone again leaving me just inside the gate alone with the girl who had let us in. I felt very awkward and alone.
The girl smiled. ‘Pretty’ I thought as I looked at her in the half light. “You’re a friend of John’s?” “Yes.” “So are you with that Jesus, the one they’ve taken inside?” “No, not me.” The words slipped out like a wriggling fish from the hand. I just couldn’t stop them. The girl gave me a funny look. The smile disappeared. “Oh. I thought you were.” I just shook my head miserably. This was getting worse and worse. “Well, if you say so.” she responded, suspicion and doubt deep in her voice, “Anyway, you must be cold. Come and warm yourself by the fire.”
I was torn between a desire to be alone and a need for warmth and humanity. Not that it mattered; I’d long ago ceased to have any free will of my own. I followed her meekly over to the fire and the little group of people. They shuffled apart a little to let me into the circle.
“This is a friend of John’s.” said the girl, “What did you say your name was? “I didn’t,” I replied, “But people call me Peter.” “I recognise that accent,” said one of the officials round the fire. “You’re from up north—Galilee. Say, were you with that Galilean they’ve just brought in?”
And I was trapped. My earlier slippery lie was already catching up with me. I wanted to say, ‘Yes, I know him. He’s called Jesus. We’ve been close friends for years. He is the most marvellous man you will ever meet. He brings the love of God right here into the midst of our world and there is no good reason on earth why he should be under arrest.’
But if I say that, or anything like that, the girl will ask why I lied to her and they’ll all get suspicious and maybe call the guard and then they’ll arrest me too and I can’t bear the thought of that. So one lie forces out another: “No, I don’t know him.” I say. “Surely you must. Everybody's been talking about Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Oh, that one!” I say. “Yes, of course I’ve heard of him. Who hasn’t? But Galilee’s a big place you know. Our paths have never crossed.” (‘Oh Jesus! What am I saying? How did I get to this?’) for a moment they seemed to be satisfied. But then the clouds clear from the moon and we are all bathed in light.
“You were with him!” says a voice from across the circle. “I saw you. I’m sure I did. You were the one who went for my cousin with a knife.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I don’t have a knife! This man Jesus is nothing to do with me.”
And the clouds cover the moon again and a cold bitter wind gusts around, causing the fire to flare up and the shadows to dance around. The group fall into a rather embarrassed silence. In the distance a cock crows. “Oh, is that the time?” I say. “it will soon be dawn. I must get home.” And I rush out of the courtyard into the street and sink to the ground in a doorway.
‘Before the cock crows you will deny me three times... Before the cock crows you will deny me three times... Before the cock crows...’ how did he know? What have I become? And I had the nerve to be angry at Judas! Two betrayers in one evening. What a pack of cowards and scoundrels we turned out to be. But me—I’ve denied my best friend. I’ve betrayed the best thing in all the world. When it came to the mark, I just wasn’t up to it.
I want to pray. But I can’t—not like Jesus taught us anyway. How can I say, ‘Dad, I’m sorry. I’ve just betrayed your only son. I hope you don’t mind too much.’ Why doesn’t a bolt of fire come down from heaven and burn me up? Because that’s not God’s way, that’s why. Didn’t I learn anything from Jesus?
And so I do pray: not many words, really, just a turmoil of thoughts and feelings. ‘Oh Dada, please forgive me. I’m so scared, so tired, so hurt, so sorry. Help me trust you, trust Jesus. Deep down I know that even now you are in charge. Just put your arms around me Lord and love me and hold me tight.’
And with that I fell into a deep sleep right there in that doorway.