With the approach of Holy Week and Easter, I was asked by my pastor to provide a response to the account of Christ’s journey to the cross in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 14, verses 66–72 (Peter’s infamous denial of Jesus). I find it nearly impossible to sever my classical training from my personal approach to life; it’s not something I have relegated to my academic pursuits alone. As a teacher of rhetoric and logic, I find myself always weaving together the great tapestry of voices I encounter into the fabric of my writing. In many ways, I too am a classical student despite my nearly twenty years of teaching in the classical tradition. I share here the response I wrote for my congregation.
Quo Vadis? It’s a Latin phrase meaning “Where are you going?” and was popularized in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s award-winning Polish novel by the same name. Years ago, at a local classical school, I had the opportunity to teach this book as part of an Ancient Greek & Roman literature course, due to the story’s being set in Nero’s first-century Rome. Quo Vadis is a “must read,” not only because it’s excellent literature for dialectic and rhetoric students (and adults, for that matter), but also because it raises such a great question: Where are you going?
It’s a question Peter asked Jesus in John 13 and one that really sets up Peter’s denial later.
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” 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? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36–38, emphasis mine)
Peter was perhaps the greatest champion for Christ, repeatedly asserting his faithfulness, his steadfastness of will, his desire, and his intent to follow Jesus. If we recall, in Mark 14:29 we find Peter, again resolved to stand with Christ. He boasts, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” He is so utterly resolved, in fact, that when the Roman soldiers came for Jesus in the garden, Peter rushes to the defense of Jesus with a sword. However, as we later find out in Mark 14:66–72, Peter does not make good on his promise to lay down his life for Jesus. Instead, in the moment of questioning, he denies Christ—three times.
These denials occur a very short time after swinging that sword at the soldiers. We find Peter at his weakest. And to whom do we find him backing down? To Pilot? To more armed men? No. Peter denies Jesus in the face of what would certainly be considered a lesser threat: the pointing finger of a servant girl. It’s to the servant girl that he denies knowing Christ.
It’s in this paradox that I recognize myself—I have been both versions of Peter. I have experienced great moments where the Holy Spirit has emboldened me with wisdom, strength, and faithfulness beyond my humanity in response to tremendous darkness. And I have also experienced many times of completely abandoning my source of strength, compromising my beliefs—becoming intimidated by a servant girl.
But here’s the beauty in Peter’s failure, and it’s the second observation we can note from Peter’s denial in Mark. Listen to Peter’s complete response:
But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:71–72, emphasis mine)
“He broke down and wept.” Friends, in this moment we see Peter’s contrition. “As long as we are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas” (Touchstone). In her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Dorothy Sayers (a contemporary of Lewis and Tolkien, and the only female Inkling), writes: “Then Judas, [who] had betrayed Him, when he saw that He was condemned, . . . cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” Sayers goes on: “All of us, perhaps, are too ready, when our behaviour turns out to have appalling consequences, to rush out and hang ourselves . . . St. Peter, who had a . . . betrayal of his own to weep for, made his act of contrition and waited to see what came next.”
And what did come next for Peter? If we look ahead, we will see that Jesus had plans for Peter—BIG PLANS. In Matthew 16:18, “[Jesus told him], you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
When I remember Peter’s failures (and my own), I must also hear Christ’s forgiveness. Here in these verses, we learn we always have a choice to make in response to the grace being offered. Paul David Trip, author of New Morning Mercies, writes, “[God] takes the disasters in your life and makes them tools of redemption. He takes your failure and employs it as a tool of grace.”
What do we do with our failures and betrayals? Where will we choose to go? Will we follow despair, or will we follow repentance? I’ll ask you here in the midst of Lent, as we are all reminded of His grace freely given, as we stand at the foot of the cross and remember the greatest sacrifice ever made: Quo Vadis? Where are you going?