Again Peter denied [he was with Jesus in the garden], and at that moment the cock crowed.
John 18:27 (NRSV)
Of the big four biographies of Jesus, John has always been my favorite. Each one has their own style. I can appreciate Matthew for his accounting of the events. I appreciate Mark for his ability to compact so much information into so concise a retelling. I love Dr. Luke for his thorough, methodical presentation of his investigation and the minute details he includes. I love John most of all because John has a flair for writing. John is right brained. John is an artist. He is thematic in his narrative, and he has a flair for the dramatic.
Four chapters ago, John foreshadowed the events in today’s chapter when he recounts Jesus telling Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
As John picks up the story line in today’s chapter I, as a reader, almost feel like I’m stealing alongside Peter and “the other disciple.” (many scholars think the “other” disciple was John himself) as they covertly infiltrate the courtyard and house of the High Priest where Jesus is being questioned. They are in enemy territory. The High Priest is the one who wants to kill Jesus and squash their uprising like Michael Corleone taking out one of the five families. It did not take a genius to know that this High Priest/Godfather would relish the opportunity to kill Jesus’ followers as well. Peter is on thin ice.
John is careful to describe each denial. We learn where he was and who did the questioning. The other biographers merely relay the facts as though Peter’s denials happened in one short burst of conversation. John lays out the story. It is on their way through the gate into the High Priest’s courtyard that the servant woman checking tickets first asks Peter a question and implies a negative answer. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” The denial is easy and convenient. A little white lie to ensure we get into the courtyard.
John writes out the narrative like a movie script. The scene changes to the questioning of Jesus inside the house. Time is elapsing. Peter’s denial did not come in rapid succession. There was time and space between them.
When the scene shifts back we find ourselves inside the High Priest’s courtyard. We are there warming our hands on the charcoal fire. We feel the chill in the air in the deep watches of the night. There is a crowd around the fire. This is the High Priest’s house and the crowd is full of people who could easily finger us as followers. The situation is tense, to say the least.
A man, an anonymous stranger in the crowd, once again asks Peter if he is a follower of Jesus. Once again the question implies a negative response. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ disciples, are you?” Heads turn. It’s suddenly very quiet around the fire. This is not just a random question. This is a life and death moment. We are about to be found out. Peter, once again, provides a little white lie to shrug off the suspicion.
But, it just may be that the jig is up. Another member of the crowd takes a good look at Peter. This time it is not an anonymous stranger. This is a family member of the man Peter attacked earlier in the evening. When they came for Jesus in the garden, Peter hacked off the ear of this man’s cousin. Now, the question is not just about political loyalty to Jesus. This question is about blood oaths and family and vengeance. You can cut the silence like a knife. Tension hangs in the air before Peter’s denial comes swift and strong. He is preventing a riot. He is saving his own neck. He is making sure we all get out of here alive.
And then, at that very moment, we hear the cock crow.
There is a moment of realization. Peter hears it. We hear it. The words of Jesus come flooding back to mind. “Before the cock crows….” Shame and failure mix in a bitter cup.
What a moment. John is a good writer. He has a flair for the dramatic. This is Jack Nicholson’s “code red” moment in A Few Good Men. This is Michael Corleone’s “I do renounce him” moment in The Godfather. We are there in this moment. We are with Peter. We are Peter. We get it. We understand. There is not one of us who has not had a cock crowing moment in our lives. Our failure and shame crash down on our heads in an instant and we realize just how wretched we are.
Today, I am thinking about my own “cock crowing” moments along life’s journey. It’s not hard to bring them quickly to mind. There are more of them than I care to admit. I am also thinking about John and the way he weaves Peter’s personal story into the Great Story he pens. We are in the darkness before dawn. It will descend to greater darkness before its done. The story is not over, however, for Jesus, for Peter, for you or for me.
It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.