God of the community well, God of our thirst: having been through this together we will draw from these days for years and years. Yet each of us balances this pandemic’s legacy with hidden struggles and dissimilar circumstances. May we take into account the additional weight that we and our neighbours will carry, so that as we lend and accept support to and from one another we can draw out wisdom from this well of community, and bring home the water we need for these days.
In the Christian tradition, there’s a very tried and tested rule of thumb for reading the Bible, which is especially useful when we encounter more difficult passages. It goes something like this. If a reading seems to present the character of God in a way which contradicts what we already know of God’s character, the character revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we need to look again. It’s a mouthful. But it’s also a helpful approach to keep in mind when we come to some of the harsher sounding teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, like those we read this week: [Jesus said:] Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. It sounds rather terrifyingly straightforward. But what may also almost immediately strike you about these words is that in the most basic sense they appear not to be true. After all, Peter, as we know, denied Jesus before others not once but three times. And yet Peter eventually became in all his flawed glory a rock of the new community of the church. So, it’s not entirely straightforward, then. We need to look again. Well, to acknowledge Jesus before others is surely to associate yourself with him, or to stand with him in a way which implicates you, too. It is to be drawn into this public relationship, and to allow it to change you profoundly, sometimes painfully. It is to make you, at times, the apparent cause of conflict. But it is also to discover, over time, that you have been given a larger and lighter heart. But this is the sort of public acknowledgement that Peter, alone and in the darkness on the night of Jesus’ arrest, was afraid and unready to make. I do not know the man, he said. There was a catch, however. In denying Jesus, Peter soon realised he was also denying himself. No wonder his tears were bitter. For to turn away from the very source of your own life and flourishing in the world is a double betrayal: of the One who gave your life to you in the first place, and of yourself. And so Jesus refuses to allow Peter’s words of denial to be the last word on Peter’s own life. Jesus denies, or repudiates, Peter’s denial. And it is in this same sense, perhaps, that Jesus can sometimes be said to deny those who have denied him before his Father. Not in the sense that it is all over for them. But in the sense that it is not. Not yet. After all, as Jesus has only just reminded us, we are fragile as sparrows, and yet we remain a constant focus of God’s passionately irrational attention. Surely only someone who is taking the most tender and attentive interest in us would even begin to contemplate counting the hairs on our heads. But that tender attention offers time, and time is what Jesus’ denial of our fearful selves suddenly gives to those who hear. Time to learn, as Peter did, to let go and lose the fearful, self-protective lives which diminish us, and which Jesus refuses to enable. They are not the lives for which we were created. And losing them, of course, will be not the end, but the beginning. And to God alone be the glory.