By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 18:25-27
I realize that I have previously shared the story I’m about to tell; but I hope you will indulge me in sharing it again. When I was in the eighth grade I had an experience that I have never forgotten. I was – and still am – pretty clumsy. As a youth, my short stature and clumsiness made life in gym class miserable. On the day this event occurred I had had a particularly bad day in gym and had been harassed, as I frequently was, by Kelly, a popular and athletic young lady. So I entered my English literature class that day already feeling embarrassed and wanting to simply be invisible. Now I was a good student in English; I enjoyed all the reading and I really liked my teacher. There was another student in my class, Donald, who was equally bookish and equally awkward. That day in class, the teacher asked a question. When no one volunteered a response, he called on me by name. And, much to my dismay, I did not know the answer. My classmates, including Kelly, began to snicker and whisper. And out of my mouth flew these words in a terribly catty tone: “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Donald? He knows everything.” The classroom erupted in laughter and they were laughing with me, not at me.
Yet immediately, I felt my conscience panged by my cruel words. I glanced at Donald. It was like I’d kicked the dog. His expression registered shock and pain. I left school that day feeling about as low as I could. I don’t think I ever told my mom what happened that day. Now, I had a great mom; I’m sure she would have understood. But I felt so ashamed. I had behaved in a way that violated our family norms and values. I had behaved dishonorably. When I left school that day, I carried a belly full of secret shame.
This morning I continue my current sermon series Tell Me a Secret. As I’ve mentioned, it was inspired when I heard an interview with Frank Warren, founder of the community mail art project, “Post Secret.” What I heard in that interview and what I’ve heard in my church offices over the years as I’ve met with parishioners and strangers impresses on me the reality that we all carry secrets. Down deep, we want to share them; but we are afraid that, in doing so, we will be judged and rejected by others.
Yet as Christians, we need to experience honest, authentic community in order to become the people Christ has called us to be. Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes that it is crucial to allow God and others to see us in our nakedness and imperfections. Otherwise, we will never know the transforming and mysterious power of God’s grace.[i] Our Methodist denomination began when two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, began to meet with a group of young men of faith to talk openly about their lives as Christian disciples. They formed what we today would label as “life groups” where people were asked questions like “What good did you do this week? What evil did you avoid?” And they were expected to give an honest answer because they knew that the people they shared their life with wanted to help them grow as a disciple of Jesus. It was a church renewal movement of honesty for the purpose of accountability, encouragement, prayer and – ultimately – Christian growth. But today, in so many churches, when people ask us how our week went or how things are going in our life, we say “Oh, I’m good” and that’s it. So, I hope – I pray – through this sermon series that Trinity, as a church, will be a community where all of us find a few friends with whom we can share our secrets so that, together, we can experience support, encouragement, prayer and – ultimately – Christian growth.
Today, we’re looking at the secret of shame. That day in the 8th grade, I shamed myself by engaging in dishonorable behavior. Now it’s important for us to know, as I’ve mentioned before, that honor and shame were huge things in the ancient Mediterranean world. Nothing was as valuable to someone as their honor. “Success” in the Mediterranean world was, and still is, about maintaining honor. And honor is a social concept. Honor is achieved through socially appropriate attitudes and behaviors; respect for rules of human interaction and social boundaries. Honor is about my personal claim to worth being publically acknowledged by others. When I claim to be someone others know I am not; when I behavior inappropriately in my interactions with others, I shame myself.
Now shame is different from failure as we often define it in America. Here’s a simple example. When an Olympic athlete tries their best and doesn’t medal; they have failed but they have no reason for shame. Admittedly, our post-modern western world is very focused on success (that is, personal achievement) versus failure. And, while that kind of perspective certainly influences all of us, I think – at least, I hope – that, as Christian disciples we are more likely to feel ashamed when we interpret something we’ve said or done as being a disappointment to ourselves, those we love, or God. And, in that sense, it brings us closer to the biblical world.
Let me provide an illustration. A mother’s oldest daughter is a junior in high school. At work, mom has an opportunity to interview for a job that would involve an increase in compensation. So, she seeks the promotion; but doesn’t get the position. By purely secular standards, mom might be deemed a “failure” because she didn’t beat out the competition, her co-workers. But from her perspective, she may feel shame because she’d mentally equated that compensation increase with the opportunity to better provide for their child’s college education. Do you see the subtle distinction there?
So, for our purposes this morning, as we examine the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, we’re going to talk about shame as it relates to a real or perceived sense of disappointing ourselves, those we love, or God. In other words, we’re going to talk about shame as a real or perceived sense of letting someone down. I say real or perceived because – in the example I just gave – mom has no reason to feel shame. But, we feel what we feel; feelings simply are what they are.
The story of Peter denying Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest is a well-known story. It is told to us by all four of our gospel writers; though there are distinctions within each account. This morning I shared the account from John’s gospel and I want to back up and put that story in context within John’s gospel because it has a great deal to teach us.
Only John gives us an enormously lengthy account of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. During the meal, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples;[ii] a service so humiliating, it was not even consistently required of slaves. Often people simply washed their own feet and certainly no one of an honorable status, like a Jewish rabbi, would have ever been expected to wash anyone’s feet. But Jesus does so as an example lesson in humble, sacrificial love. Jesus gives his disciples the love command saying, “as I have loved you, you also should love one another”[iii] and within the next couple of verses, Peter pipes up and claims that his loyalty to Jesus – and by the way, love was defined or expressed as loyalty in the ancient Mediterranean world – Peter claims he is so loyal to Jesus that he will lay down his life for him. And that is when Jesus tells him that, in fact, before the cock crows, Peter will deny Jesus three times.[iv] Jesus continues through the next four chapters of John to teach his disciples, to assure them of his love, to clarify what love looks like, to pray for them, to assure them of his ongoing presence with them through the Holy Spirit.
Then, at the start of John, chapter 18, Jesus goes with his disciples to a garden. In John, Jesus does not engage in prayer there. In fact, he barely seems to have entered the garden when Temple guards arrive, led by Judas, to place Jesus under arrest; and there is a very interesting exchange between them. Jesus, wanting to protect his disciples, steps forward and asks the guards, “Who are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.”[v] And Jesus responds, “I am.”
Now, if you were in church for the last sermon series, Who I Am, you might remember that Jesus, in the gospel of John, makes a series of “I am” statements in order to clearly reveal his identity. When Moses asked God at the burning bush for his name, God replied, “I am.” “I am” is the expression God uses to identify himself.[vi] And, “I am” is the expression Jesus uses to identify himself and to make clear that his identity and the identity of God the Father are one in the same. And so, in that garden on the night of his arrest, Jesus asks quite directly who it is that the guards have come for and to affirm in their presence also, “I am.” When the guards hesitate – perhaps they weren’t prepared for such honesty – Jesus repeats his question, “Who are you looking for?” The guards reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus responds, “I told you that I am.” But before the guards can place Jesus under arrest, Peter grabs a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave.
The arrival of Jesus, Peter and an unnamed disciple at the home of the high priest is the setting for the bible verses I shared this morning. Peter has sworn to lay down his life for Jesus. But so far, all he’s managed to do was cut off the ear of an innocent slave. Jesus has offered himself up to the authorities, while still affirming his divine identity as the great “I am.” Peter stands out in the temple courtyard trying – like me in 8th grade – to blend in and be unnoticed. But he doesn’t succeed. He is questioned by a woman who asks Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter is quick to reply in the negative, “I am… not.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inside being questioned by the high priest. He doesn’t miss a beat. He is ready and willing to admit who he is and what his ministry has consisted of. Jesus says, “I have said nothing in secret.”[vii] Our narrator returns us to the courtyard where Peter still stands, trying to stay warm and blend in. He’s asked a second time if he is one of Jesus’ disciples.
Disciple, by the way, is a relational term. You can’t be a disciple unless you have a teacher, a rabbi. And you can’t claim to be a teacher, a rabbi, unless you have disciples. And so, when again Peter denies and says, “I am not,” he also undermines the honor of Jesus as a teacher. Peter is questioned a third time and this time he is questioned by a relative of the slave whose ear Peter cut off. You’re not going to forget something like that. But even with that added bit of info, Peter persists in denying his relationship to Jesus. Jesus is the great “I am”; Peter is the frightened “I am… not.”
And so we learn a lot from this story of Peter; a story about shame. Peter does more than fail to tell the truth; he denies his relationship to Jesus and, in doing so, robs Jesus of honor. Peter has let down his Rabbi, his Jesus.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, he is not divine; he is not the “I am;” he is the “I am not.” And so are we. Friends, there will inevitably be times when we feel a sense of shame because we have let down ourselves, God and those we love. We are human creatures; it is inevitable. “I am not.” “You am not.” “We am not.” Jesus is the “I am.”
But there is good news and hope within this story. Remember, I chose John’s account for a reason. After Jesus is resurrected, he will still entrust the work of shepherding his people to Peter. They’ll be eating breakfast on the beach one morning after Jesus has risen but before he’s returned to heaven, and Jesus will ask him, “do you love me?” When Peter responds affirmatively, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” In other words, do all of the things that you saw me, the Good Shepherd, doing. That’s what I taught you as my disciple. So be my disciple. Peter denied that identity of disciple that dark night in the cold courtyard outside the priest’s home. But, at dawn on a beach, Peter gets another chance to say, “Yes;” because that is how the grace of God works. We are called to be disciples, students, who learn from Jesus what to say and do. Yet sometimes, inevitably, we will screw it up because Jesus is the “I am” and we are the “I am not”s. And when we screw things up, we are likely to feel a sense of shame because we’ve disrespected our relationship with Jesus or with someone else. We know that and we’re embarrassed by that. But it’s not the end of the story because Jesus will show up again to ask us the question and give us another chance to be his disciples.
Every one of us carries shame for times when we have said or done things that have let someone down. We weren’t the people we know we should be; we weren’t the people our friends and families expected us to be; we certainly weren’t true disciples. And, when that happens, we need to acknowledge it; not try to hide it from ourselves or anyone else. We need to confess it and then we need to embrace the good news, the gospel story: that Jesus will show up and offer us another chance cause that’s just what Jesus does; that’s just who Jesus is. And that is very good news.
[i] Richard Rohr Daily Meditation: The Meaning of Spiritual Love (posted on August 19, 2016)
[ii] John 13:1-11
[iii] John 13:34
[iv] John 13:38
[v] 3 times between John 18:5-8, we read the Greek phrase ego eimi, meaning “I am.” It is not so clear in our English bibles which add the pronoun “he” (as in “I am he”), though the pronoun is missing from the original biblical text.
[vi] See Exodus 3:13-15
[vii] John 18:20
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