March 26, 2000 / Mark 14:27-31
I admire brave people, perhaps because I fear I could not be courageous if put into the fires of real testing. So when I have occasional opportunities to hear such persons speak or actually to meet them, I seldom pass up the chance.
It was my honor to meet Father Vaclav Maly eight years ago last week. In case you don’t know the name, Father Maly is one of the singular heroes of the “velvet revolution” that toppled the Communist government in what is now known as the Czech Republic. Maly had been stripped of his licence to preach years ago because he refused to swear supreme allegiance to the state. So he was assigned the task of cleaning toilets in the subways during the daytime hours — and conducted clandestine religious meetings in the homes of believers at night.
When the 1989 uprising took place, Maly walked through the streets of Prague. A crowd of well over half a million people gathered in Wenceslas Square to hear him preach. Police and soldiers could not disperse the people. The tanks were engulfed and halted by an ocean of humanity. The Communists fled. “Long live Maly!” shouted the crowd.
Vaclav Maly was so popular with the Czech people that Vaclav Havel, after being elected the first president of the democratic country, offered him a position in the government. The two men had met in prison. One was a priest, and one was a playwright. One was a committed believer, and one was an agnostic. Maly turned down the offer, explaining that he had something more important to do than work in the government. He had to preach the gospel.
When an American Christian leader told Maly that he was a great hero for many of us in the West, he was cut off in mid-sentence. “No!” he protested. “A hero is one who does something that he is not required to do. I simply did my duty.” It reminds me of the short parable Jesus taught at Luke 17:7-10, whose punch-line is this: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Given the chance to meet Father Maly in 1992, I accepted it eagerly. Because I was a “visiting American theologian,” I was part of a five-person television program aired in Prague. Chaired by Maly, two Catholic and two Protestant theologians from Prague and their American guest were on during evening prime time for an hour and a half. After some discussion led by Maly, we took telephone calls and answered questions from viewers. The next day, March 25, 1992, I spent an hour with Maly at his home. I will never forget it. And I wondered what I would do if ever I should be presented with a similar situation. Could I put the gospel above personal security? Would I be able to follow Jesus to jail? Or would my safety, freedom, and self-preservation mean more?
Some of us are put in the situation to know for sure whether we have the strength of character to pass such a test. Most of us will never be at such peril for the sake of Jesus. Peter was. He was warned of it in advance. He was sure he could handle it.
Jesus and his apostles were in the early stages of eating the Passover after sundown on Thursday. Out of the blue, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me — one who is eating with me” (14:18). Startled but clearly not comprehending, they engaged is a bit of self-examination. “Surely not I?” each disciple — presumably Judas as well! — protested (14:19). Then they returned to eating.
Jesus then finished the Passover with The Twelve. To be more precise, he completed it with eleven of the group. Judas had been dismissed before the evening ended to his self-chosen task of betrayal. After he had left the upper room, Jesus took bread and wine from the Passover meal and used it to instruct the remaining disciples about a meal Christians still eat with Jesus. The Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist — it is the covenant meal that baptized believers eat in his memory, in anticipation of his return, and in proclamation of his redemptive love.
As they were walking from the upper room toward Gethsemane, Jesus returned to the intermingled themes of faithfulness, testing, and courage. “You will all fall away,” he said. Then he quoted a text from Zechariah 13 about a shepherd being struck and his sheep being scattered.
Brash, cocksure Peter could not let a second accusation of cowardice and mutiny in this select group go unchallenged. “Even if all fall away, I will not,” he said (14:29). What arrogance! He would be strong and courageous, even if John, Andrew, and the others fell away! And what a terrible setup for a ghastly humiliation.
“He who trusts in himself is a fool,” says Proverbs 28:26. Peter had already set himself up to fail, for Jesus had tried to teach him this: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). Peter was too full of himself still. He could not accept his frailty and neediness in spiritual matters. So Jesus rebuked him directly: “I tell you the truth, today — yes, tonight — before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” (14:30).
That humbled him, right? Hardly. “But Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,’ And all the others said the same thing” (14:31). Oh, the prophet was so on-target and right when he wrote: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Satan had him right where he wanted him. And he would soon disgrace him in the hope of destroying him.
Christ’s disciples are not always courageous in the face of danger. Wild animals, fire, a sword against the throat — the threat was sometimes more than later generations of believers could take. And Peter had promised more than he could deliver on that fateful night. Once, twice, three times — somebody said he was a follower of Jesus and Peter denied it. Before that night ended, he had done exactly what his Lord said he would do. He had disowned him three times. The last line of Mark 14 is this sad statement: “And [Peter] broke down and wept.”
Peter had seen the signs of his instability before. He had failed Jesus several times. He had enough faith to step out of the boat and onto the Sea of Galilee and then began to doubt, started to sink, and had to be rescued from drowning (Matt. 14:26-31). Though he was the first of the apostles to confess Jesus as the Christ, he immediately tried to protest Jesus’ revelation that he would die (8:27-33). At the Transfiguration, Peter saw the glory of Jesus but didn’t know what to make of it (9:2-6).
How many times does a person have to see the clay in his feet to get over himself and confess his weakness? How many failures are necessary to humble a proud woman or man? But let me rush forward now to the end of this story. Arrogant Peter embarrassed himself and failed the Lord Jesus, but he was not abandoned, cast away, and lost. The love of his faithful Lord redeemed him, restored him, and gave him a ministry of feeding and strengthening others after the resurrection (cf. John 21:15c, 16c, 17c).
And Peter wrote these words a third of a century later to young Christians about to face persecution from Nero:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble."
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Pet. 5:5b-11).
Do you hear what he has learned? First, humility triumphs over arrogance. Second, self-control and alertness put us on guard against Satan at all times. Third, God will restore and strengthen his saints — even if they have suffered (or failed him!) first.
Do you get the point? Don’t boast. Know that Satan is after you. And believe above all that God is not willing to give up on you — even if you suffer at others’ hands, embarrass yourself by your personal failures, show yourself cowardly and fail your Lord at some critical point.
A U.S. Marine base in Beirut was bombed in October 1983. One of the men who survived was LCpl. Jeffery Nashton. He was evacuated to a hospital in Germany to be treated for his life-threatening wounds. Blinded and unable to speak because he was on a respirator, Nashton had a visitor whom he recognized by feeling the four stars on his uniform. The visitor was Gen. Paul X. Kelly, Commandant of the Marine Corps. He motioned for a pencil and paper and scribbled “semper fi” — semper fidelis. It is the Marine Corps motto, Latin words that mean “always faithful.”
Peter and I aren’t always faithful. You will have to speak for yourself. But the Lord Jesus Christ is semper fidelis, always faithful to his own. He reclaims the fallen. He restores them. Then he turns their experience into counsel, example, and hope for others who are still struggling to find their way. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” said Jesus. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
Are you embarrassed about the current state of your spiritual life? Have you failed your Lord? Did you deny him when Satan assaulted your faith? Take heart! The Lord is seeking you and is eager to rescue you from the stigma of your failure, set your feet back on solid ground, and let you feed his little lambs that are still struggling. That can be your ministry — just as it was to become Peter’s ministry.
So be humble enough to know that you are vulnerable, always helpless against Satan and your own weaknesses except for Christ’s presence as your defender. Stay awake and alert against the Prince of Darkness, for his goal is to destroy your faith, your joy, your prospects for the future. When you fail, know for certain that the Lord is semper fidelis, always faithful to his straying, wounded, wobbly-on-their-legs sheep. Even when you have not been faithful, he will be. He is always faithful to those who have put their trust in him.
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