The Lenten season is a march toward the cross; a time of introspection, of asking, “Is it I, Lord?” If you turn to the Gospel of John, to chapter 18 where we are told of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, his interrogation by the high priest, the flight of the disciples and the denials of Simon Peter, you will perhaps notice a striking situation.
Notice that the writer emphasizes the disciples in this chapter. They are mentioned twice in the first verse. Judas comes with the soldiers to arrest Jesus—indeed, we are told that “Judas was standing with them”— in more ways than one. When Jesus is arrested, he asks that his disciples be allowed to go free. Yet Simon slashes a servant’s ear.
Next, the soldiers take Jesus to the high priest, or rather to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the high priest that year. After setting the scene in the high priest’s house, the writer takes us outside into the courtyard, where Peter and another disciple have gained entrance. Peter is recognized by a servant girl and denies any knowledge of Jesus. We are told it is cold and he stands around a fire warming himself.
Punch pause on the video in your mind, and realize that the writer of this Gospel now takes us back inside where the questioning of Jesus is taking place. Verse 19 tells us that the high priest “questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.” Oddly, Jesus does not respond to the question about his disciples, but speaks of his doctrine. His answer is not pleasing, a soldier slaps him, and the writer takes us back outside.
Verse 25 picks up the thread of Peter’s denials. The same phrase ending verse 18 is picked up here: Peter stood warming himself at the fire. Is the Gospel writer simply moving back and forth between the interrogation of Jesus and the denials of Peter in a random fashion, or is he telling us something. (Don’t get sidetracked here; the Holy Spirit inspired the writers, yet allowed their own thoughts to be a part of the divine narrative).
Imagine the scene inside the high priest’s home: the high priest is pleased to get what is perhaps his first actual sight of Jesus, the troublemaker from Galilee. He’s heard of some of Jesus’ teaching— “Blessed are the meek, etc. etc.”
The high priest must be thinking, “Not bad stuff; but what about these disciples? Are they just good ol’ boys, well-meaning but misled, or are they genuine troublemakers for Rome? After all, didn’t one of your men, Peter they call him, cut off one of my servants’ ear this very night?”
Now look at the text again and you will see that Jesus didn’t respond to the question about his disciples. He doesn’t need to, because the Gospel writer answers the question for Jesus! The writer breaks into the description of Peter’s denials and inserts this question and the lack of an answer on Jesus’ part—answering the question in the very writing of the Gospel account!
Reflection on this scripture will likely lead us to conclude that Jesus said nothing to Annas about his disciples for two reasons: first, in order to protect them. If the high priest were to dwell on the Twelve (eleven now), he might well decide that it is as easy to nail up eleven as it is to nail up one. Second, there wasn’t a great deal Jesus could say about them at that moment, was there?
But let us not be too hard on Peter at this point. Sure, he did deny Christ. But exactly what did he deny? Not the virgin birth, not the divinity of Jesus, not the miracles, not the second coming. He denied none of the things that divide churches and denominations. He simply said he didn’t know the man.
Now there’s where the water hits the wheel. Who isn’t guilty of living in ways that deny we ever knew Jesus! “He asked him about his disciples.”
I sure hope nobody is down at the corner cafe asking about me; about whether I am a disciple of Jesus. Maybe these days when we are relentlessly marching toward the cross and the resurrection it ought to truly be a time of soul-searching.