I am not...

Peter said, ‘I am not.” John 18:25

I learned this week, from a commentary on today’s passage, that in John’s telling of the story Peter does not deny Jesus—not directly, anyway. In Matthew’s gospel a servant girl says to Peter, “You were with him in the garden, weren’t you”. Peter responds with an oath—“I do not know the man”; a clear denial and betrayal of Jesus.

But in John’s gospel the servant asks the question differently: “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” His reply? “I am not”. Peter denies himself; denies he has any relationship to the man on trial. “Are you one of them?" I am not”.

John’s arrangement of the story has a contemporary ring, to my ear. It’s like when we express our respect and appreciation for the teachings of Jesus and our high regard for his moral clarity and courage. But when someone asks, “So, are you one of his followers?” we do this little dance—“Well, I don’t know that I would put that way. I mean, there are many wise teachers in the world. You have to listen to them, too. Truth is where you find it”.

The issue for Peter in this story is survival. If he identifies himself as a follower of Jesus he puts his life on the line. He fears, quite reasonably, that what they are about to do to Jesus they would, without much hesitation, do also to him.

What is the issue for us? Not survival, certainly. Having become pretty much irrelevant and boring to the culture at large we are in no danger from them (as they, unfortunately, face little challenge from us). “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” How should we answer this question?

“Disciple” is an Old English word derived from the Latin “discipulus” and can be translated as “learner” (from another Latin word, “discere”—to learn or to discern). (1) Discipleship is the state of being a learner under a particular teacher (or sometimes a series of teachers). But discipleship, certainly in the Biblical context, implies much more than the simple transfer of knowledge from one brain to another. Discipleship requires an ongoing relationship between teacher and disciple.

Peter understood this. That is why, when Jesus said “Where I am going you can not follow now”, Peter shot back, with some distress in his voice, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Discipleship, you see, is not a matter of picking up helpful, or even true, ideas. Discipleship is the learning of a way of life. If Peter couldn’t “follow” Jesus—walk with him, listen to him, ask questions of him and watch him—hang out with him as much as possible, in other words, he couldn’t be a disciple.

So, “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” If this is a question for us today, how might we answer it? How would one become a disciple—that is to say, how does one follow, words on the pages of an ancient book? Do we need a living teacher to follow? Do we have one? If the church is “the Body of Christ” in the world today, does the church have a role to play in forming disciples? How? In what ways do we follow Peter’s example and deny ourselves?

Expect these questions to show up in Sunday morning’s class :)

In the meantime, meditate on these words from the contemporary prophet, Bob Dylan:

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody (2)

Prayer: We’ve got to serve somebody, Lord. We think we know who. We wonder about how and puzzle over why. Walk with us. Teach us your way. Amen.

(1) Wikipedia definition

(2) Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody”

The texts for this week are: John 13: 33-38 and John 18: 12-27