The Gospels reveal two threshold moments of disownment. Everyone is familiar with Judas's betrayal, but we forget about Peter. At one of Jesus’ most desperate hours, during his trial before the Sanhedrin, His crucifixion imminent, Peter denied knowing Christ. Peter. The rock. Three times.
It is one of the most familiar stories from Scripture, but I think we overlook its importance. Not long before the denial, at the Passover, Peter had said, "Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be. . . . Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you" ((Mt 26: 32-35). Of course, just a few hours later, Peter did just that.
But there is something extraordinarily redemptive in this story. As most readers likely know, Peter is Greek for "Kephas," meaning "Rock." In Matthew 16:18, after Peter confessed Christ to be the Son of God, Christ tells Peter: "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it."
So here is what we have: Christ declaring that He will build his Church upon Peter, the "rock," and this Church for which Peter is the foundation will be the bulwark against the gates of hell. And yet what does this rock do at the moment when his faith endures a test, when he’s asked to stand on behalf of the Messiah? He fails. He denies Christ. The apostle who walked on water; the apostle who pledged that his faith would never waiver, refused to admit to knowing Christ.
What is the Gospel telling us? How are we to respond to this apparent contradiction--Christ building his Church upon a "rock" that later shows himself to be as flimsy as paper?
The message, which reaches through centuries and almost brings me to tears, is this: There is redemption. Weakness and sin do not have the final say. Until our death, we can always, always, always return to God, the good, and what we know in our hearts to be true. The most important question for Peter is whether he will persist in his refusal or whether he will return to Christ. On this decision, Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son writes:
Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied him. Both were lost children. Judas, no longer able to hold on to the truth that he remained God's child . . . sold the sword of his sonship. Peter, in the midst of his despair, claimed it and returned with many tears. Judas chose death. Peter chose life. I realize that this choice is always before me. Constantly I am tempted to wallow in my own lostness and lose touch with my original goodness, my God-given humanity, my basic blessedness, and thus allow the powers of death to take charge.
Indeed, says Nouwen, "it is a question of life or death. Do we accept the rejection of the world that imprisons us, or do we claim the freedom of the children of God? We must choose."
The choice is not between sinfulness and perfection. That has already been decided. The choice, on some level, is more difficult: it is whether we will acknowledge our sins, overcome the fear of not being forgiven, and dare to be welcomed back. We know, in the end, which is the better way.