Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Truth-Telling

Text used – John 18:12-27

  • He’s a good man. He’s a giving man. He’s a man who loves his family and his friends and is deeply loved by them in return. And he’s also a man who’s had a rough day – a really, really rough day. He’s a man who’s stressed and worried. He’s a man who’s feeling pulled in a lot of micro-directions – who’s feeling the weight and tensions of expectations: expectations from the past, expectations from those who love him, expectations from those who don’t love him, and expectations from himself. He’s a man who’s trying to do the right thing in the face of a mighty struggle but who feels like, no matter what he does, the only luck that keeps finding him is bad luck. At the end of the day, his business is threatened, his reputation is in jeopardy, his family is stressing him out, and George Bailey is at the end of his rope. → Wait … why are we talking about a Christmas movie 3 mos. after Christmas in the middle of Lent, esp. when we just a read a Scripture passage usually reserved for Holy Week?
    • One word: DICHOTOMY
      • Definition of a dichotomy: a literary technique that divides something into two equal and contradictory parts or between two opposing groups[1]
      • George Bailey – the main character in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic – is a time-honored example of a dichotomy one description online: Grumpy, disillusioned, dissatisfied George Bailey appears on our television screens every Christmas. He’s an unhappy and even unlikable man for much of the movie, but what we love—what we keep coming back to see year after year—is the inherent goodness, the unfailing selflessness hidden away beneath all that grumbling.[2]  That’s exactly what makes us love George Bailey – those glimpses of goodness and generosity, compassion and selflessness that we get even in the midst of his grouching and distress.
        • See it when he dances with Mary at the very beginning
        • See it when he takes over that old Building and Loan after his father’s stroke, indefinitely postponing his grand plans for a life of adventure and travel and grander things
        • See it reflected in all the faces and lives of the people who show up at the end of the movie to help George – the people who’s lives he’s made undeniably better by helping them out … even when he didn’t know it
        • Throughout his life – even in the times when he couldn’t see it … especially in the times when he couldn’t see it – George Bailey’s story was inextricably entwined with the stories of the people around him in Bedford Falls. His story lifted up other people’s stories. His story made space for other people’s stories. His story gave a spark and a shine to other people’s stories, even when he felt like is own story was dull and boring … even when he felt like his own stories was useless and unimportant, a story better left untold.
    • Today’s Scripture reading presents us with an interesting dichotomy in a story where we’re not used to finding one: story of Peter’s denial of Christ
  • FIRST: interesting point at which to compare Jn’s gospel to the synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)
    • Mt, Mk, Lk = “synoptic gospels” because they share so many similarities
      • Similar stories
        • Stories of Jesus’ life/travels
        • Stories that Jesus told – parables
      • Similar words of Jesus
      • Similar order of events
      • Long-accepted theory by Biblical scholars = Mk was written first Mk’s account was used as a template of sorts by Mt and Lk all 3 used some long-lost secondary source that included quotations of Jesus (called Q source by scholars)
    • Jn = somewhat separate thing all together – many of the stories in Jn aren’t found in the synoptic gospels Or, if we do find them, the way that the story is recounted in John is markedly different than the account in the other gospels. What’s interesting about comparing John’s gospel to the synoptic gospels at the point of today’s passage is that here, with the beginning of Jesus’ trial and through the story of his crucifixion, John’s gospel lines up with the other three gospels more than at any other point.
      • Scholar: [Here], we find dramatic similarities with the Synoptics. Perhaps this is because the Passion Narratives are likely to be the first Jesus stories fixed in the Church’s oral tradition. John follows the same pattern as the other three while highlighting specific Johannine motifs.[3]
  • So let’s dig into our story for this morning. There are two particularly powerful dichotomies in our story that have a lot to teach us about faith and about testimony.
    • First dichotomy = Peter himself … and, more particularly, Peter’s testimony
      • Remember our encounter with Peter last week? When Jesus was washing the disciples feet – teaching them about hospitality and love and service?
        • First, Peter = so devoted he refuses to let Jesus, his revered and cherished rabbi, stoop to the degraded position of washing Peter’s own, humble feet
        • BUT after Jesus tells Peter that those who want a place with Jesus must have their feet washed by him, Peter = so devoted that he begs Jesus to wash “not only [his] feet but also [his] hands and [his] head!”[4]  Clearly, Peter is willing to do anything to prove his adamant and unwavering devotion to Jesus. Hmmm.
      • Btwn that reading and today = 5 more chs. of Jn’s gospel
        • Mostly Jesus’ final discourse (lesson/sermon) for his disciples
        • Includes Jesus’ prediction of today’s events: Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times![5]
        • Also includes confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is arrested Peter is so hungry to prove his undying devotion that he takes his sword and cuts of the ear of one of the high priest’s servants[6]
      • Clearly, there is a fire within Peter – a fire of dedication and loyalty. It’s an intense fire. It’s a zealous fire. It’s a fire that stirs him to great passion and fierce faithfulness. At least, it did … until today, when Peter finds himself gathered around a very different fire with a group of people trying to tie Peter’s own fate to the fate of The Accused – that rabblerouser and unrest-mongerer Jesus who was just inside being questioned at that very moment. Suddenly Peter’s zeal fizzles like a dud firecracker that snaps and sputters but refuses to ignite, and the dichotomy of Peter’s testimony is revealed.
        • Suddenly Peter’s words don’t match his actions
        • Suddenly Peter’s story takes an unexpected (and, some would argue, unflattering) twist
        • Suddenly Peter’s zeal and steadfastness are drowned out by his own voice – his own frantic and fearful denials that he even knows this seditious Jesus character
      • And yet as we sit here more than 2000 yrs. later – as we sit here in our comfortable pews and our lives of abundant safety and security – are we sitting here judging Peter too harshly? – Rev. Barbara J. Essex (both reminds us and convicts us): Peter’s denials are prudent, given the circumstances. He is afraid and with good reason. He is surrounded by a multitude of the enemy – Roman and temple police and officers – armed and prepare to shoot first and ask questions later. What would we do if we were in Peter’s situation? Likely keep our mouths shut and hope for the best. Peter’s actions are understandable.[7]  This is a good point at which to remind ourselves that Jesus knew was Peter was going to do. He’d already called it out. He had acknowledged it in front of everyone … but he also let Peter stay. Jesus could have condemned Peter, turned him away, and Peter’s thread in the Grand Story of Faith would had ended in a ragged, unresolved, fraying moment of shame. Instead, Jesus not only lets Peter stay. He continues to work through Peter and his ministry – through Peter’s own testimony – time and again throughout the early life of the church. Peter’s testimony even in this lowest moment is a truth-telling testimony in that it speaks only to Peter’s own life … Peter’s own heart … Peter’s own story. In his denial, he doesn’t denigrate those who do claim to be followers of Jesus. He doesn’t deflect by pointing an accusing finger at the disciples (presumably the beloved disciple) who came with him and accompanied Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. He doesn’t trample the significance and truth of Jesus’ own story by denying that Jesus is important or that his ministry was the life-changing experience that it was. Peter only speaks to his own story.
        • Encounter that reminds us that even when we don’t have “the perfect words” for our own testimonies, there is power in them still
        • Rev. Essex speaks to this: In the midst of failure, disappointment, and shame, however, this is not the end of Peter or his story. His failure sets the stage for a marvelous comeback. Peter emerges from the passion story with more fire and passion than ever – rightly directed, channeled, and empowered. Peter never gives up in the face of failure or shame. Peter always comes back for more. The next time may be his opportunity to embody true discipleship – hearing and doing the word, and engaging in acts of compassion and justice.[8]
    • Other dichotomy in the midst of today’s text speaks to the power and efficacy of the good news of the gospel in the face of all the muck and trouble the world can throw at it You see, in the middle of Peter’s story of denial – truly, even in between denials themselves – we get Jesus’ words of radical and elemental truth in the face of the high priest’s questioning: Meanwhile, the chief priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered, “I’ve spoken openly to the world. I’ve always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews gather. I’ve said nothing in private. Why ask me? Ask those who heard what I told them. They know what I said.” After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. “Is that how you would answer the high priest?” he asked. Jesus replied, “If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?”[9]  In the midst of Peter’s denials (could Jesus hear those denials even as he was in the courtyard being questioned?), Jesus testifies to the power of truth, to the freedom of truth, to the ultimate and unbreakable nature of truth. Even in the face of everything that has already happened – Judas’ betrayal, his rough and merciless arrest in the garden, Peter’s own denials even as they were happening in that moment – Jesus’ truth remained unchanging. The good news of Jesus’ life and teaching – the presence of God among the people and God’s unmatchable and unrelenting love for them (for us!) – remained unchanging. No matter what the world tries to throw at it, the ultimate testimony of the gospel remains: God loves you. God hopes for you. God wants to be a part of your life.
      • Rev. Essex: It is a fact that we deny Jesus in our daily walk. … We all have moments when we fall short of what we confess and what we say we believe. Like Peter, though, beneath the surface there is the faith and the will to do the right thing. There will be things to test our faith, commitment, and resolve. In any given moment, we may deny that we know Jesus and that we are his disciples. We do not love all the time or love completely; we pick and choose when and how we follow Jesus. We give in to the pressures of the culture: consumerism, justice for some but not all. We rely on electronics and social media for community, instead of being with people. Peter denies his connection with Jesus while surrounded by enemies. It is a life-and-death situation. Our situations may not be as dramatic, but they are just as crucial. The challenge and invitation is to determine how we will handle ourselves in a world that lulls us into complacency and compromise.[10] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://literarydevices.net/dichotomy/.

[2] K.M. Weiland. “11 Dichotomous Characters – and Why You Should be Copying Them” from https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/12-dichotomous-characters-and-why-they/.

[3] Ginger Barfield. ”Commentary on John 18L12-27” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/peters-denial-2/commentary-on-john-1812-27-3.

[4] Jn 13:9.

[5] Jn 13:36-38.

[6] Jn 18:10.

[7] Barbara J. Essex. “John 18:25-27 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 263.

[8] Essex, 265.

[9] Jn 18:19-23.

[10] Essex, 265.

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