‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’
Luke 22:31-34 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.
Luke 22:54-62 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
It is incredibly brave of Peter to walk into the courtyard where Jesus is being tried, and remain there, hidden in plain sight. Repeatedly threatened with exposure, he stands by his story: I am not with the prisoner. As Jesus predicts, and to Peter’s surprise, Peter denies knowing him. But this is not a failure of faith. It has more in common with the man who befriends SS officers in order to secure freedom for Jews.
The Accuser has demanded to sift Peter and the others like wheat, no doubt hoping to scatter each of them into broken pieces. If Jesus has consented to this demand, it is because he knows that sifting wheat scatters only the chaff – the outward shell - and not the grain itself. Not only that, but Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith may not fail – and Jesus’ expectation is that what is asked for in faith will be received.
Peter’s denial of Jesus is not a failure of faith. It is something very different, something the Accuser never thought of. It is the displacement of his ego – that shrill, insecure voice that tells us we are utterly invincible, or utterly worthless. And it is also the displacement of his superego – the voice of our internal parent, or teacher, or policeman, who is forever telling us off for some misdemeanour or disappointing action.
Peter’s faith does not fail him. But his ego is displaced: he might just about manage to hold his nerve three times, but he knows he can’t hold out forever under such pressure. And his superego is displaced too: that voice that tells him that really he deserves imprisonment and death, for having let Jesus down.
As Richard Rohr points out, only prayer – our choice; though in this case, Jesus’ choice; and the choice of the Holy Spirit within us at all times – and suffering – those circumstances where we do not have agency, or control; by definition, not our choice – are together enough to displace the ego and the superego.
When Jesus turns and looks at Peter, he sees…Peter. The husk has been blown away. The grain, freed from the husk, remains, intact. Intact, but newly exposed, vulnerable.
Peter weeps, bitterly. This necessary process, by which Jesus works to achieve the very opposite of what the Accuser intends, is nonetheless a painful one. The husk may have no nutritional value, but it has served to protect the grain until it is ripe. After all, God made the husk as well as the grain within. When we are sifted, we will grieve the loss of the husk, before we can give our true selves for our brothers and sisters.
So when Jesus next meets Peter, on the beach, it is not to restore what has been lost, but to set him off on a new journey…
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