Denial seems at first glance to be less than betrayal. In the context of the Passion of the Christ this is understandable, for Simon Peter is restored and becomes a model of discipleship; with his belief in Jesus, as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, gradually evolving; whereas Judas has been simply labelled as beyond the pale. Denial has become something palatable. It does not even rank as betrayal lite.
The denial by the rock, the one upon whom the Messiah will fashion his church, by refusing to acknowledge Jesus to a servant girl and others in the high priest’s courtyard is passed over, except perhaps as part of the story of Peter’s restoration. In a sense there is absolutely no problem with this; repentance needs to be appropriately noted and celebrated. In another sense, though, it is passed over because Peter has become a more likeable character than Judas. This is intriguing in and of itself for this is more to do with what they have become rather than any firm intimation as to their characters from the Gospels themselves.
Denial is though (for Christians) the opposite of making the good confession. The term good confession is one of the phrases used by the Apostle Paul. He employs it to describe the witness offered by Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate. Confession and witness are theologically loaded terms, for both are related to the word ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’.
In the New Testament, confession, witness and martyrdom come together around the figure of John the Baptist. Those of you familiar with the New Testament stories will remember him as the preacher of repentance, with an unfamiliar set of dietary habits and unfashionable set of clothing. He was Jesus’ cousin, baptised Jesus, and the person who announced who Jesus was at the beginning of his public ministry. His confession (his call to repentance) led to his arrest when those with power were uncomfortable with what such repentance would cost them, and his continued witness led to his death.
The Baptist also made the good confession by declaring that Jesus must increase, whilst he (John) must decrease. Such an attitude, however admirable, serves as a deep and profound challenge to many of us. If having Jesus as the Messiah at the centre of our lives is making the good confession, then many of us, myself included, do not make such a witness.
Speaking personally, it might be that I come closer to denial in terms of my public witness than I do to confession. It is not that I often sit by firesides in the courtyards of high priests, and deny I know Jesus; but I do have to hold up my hands and say sometimes I declare all too often how much I am willing to do for my Lord, and then fail often times to reach the first hurdle.
Denial, confession and witness are public acts. I am too often beguiled into believing that firstly, religion is a private matter with no right to infringe beyond my own pattern of life or that witness, martyrdom and confession are worthy artefacts from the past.
Faith in Christ has never been a private matter. It transcends boundaries and involves calling others to leave their nets, tax collectors booths, and even families to follow one who had no place to lay his head.
Archbishop Justin Welby in his enthronement sermon noted
I look at the Anglican leaders here and remember that in many cases round the world their people are scattered to the four winds or driven underground: by persecution, by storms of all sorts, even by cultural change. Many Christians are martyred now as in the past.
Every Christian is called to make the good confession, regardless of where they are from and who they are. Many of us though live with the shadow of denial.
We are in a good company, with Peter and the other disciples, both men and women, who fled.
We can though, like Peter be restored. To that we need though to seek God’s forgiveness for the times the way we live our lives amounts to us declaring, with oaths, that we do not know the man.
The Shadow of Denial has fallen.