March 20 lesson: Struggling Faith
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Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 1: Tests of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 20, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Mark 14:26-31, 66-72
As a young minister, I attended Pastors’ School when it was held at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. One year the preacher for the occasion was Dr. Hoover Rupert, who at the time was pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I will always remember Dr. Rupert’s sermon on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial and the reality of it (today’s scripture lesson). Dr. Rupert read the words about Peter denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed twice that very night. Then very dramatically he turned his head to the side and said, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered.” Everyone in that assembly remembered, and I couldn’t wait to get home and prepare my own message on that text.
Well, for Mark, this story of the prediction and consequent reality of Peter‘s denial of Jesus is the low point of Mark’s description of the disciples. As the story has moved along, Mark has increasingly portrayed the disciples as misunderstanding the mission of Jesus. The disciples don’t know who Jesus is and misunderstand him so badly that at one point Jesus calls Peter Satan. These disciples can’t get their minds in agreement with him when Jesus tells them he must suffer and die. Consequently, they reject all this and continue to misunderstand his mission. As I mentioned, Peter’s denial is the low point of the disciples’ failure – and their last appearance in Mark.
The Story – Part I
Jesus and his disciples are leaving the Last Supper where Jesus had announced that one of them would betray him. But now, Jesus informs the disciples that all of them will desert him. Note that this is not Jesus and his followers against his opponents. These deserters are to be the Twelve, Jesus’ closest followers.
These followers simply cannot conceive of their desertion of Jesus. You see, they have repeatedly failed to believe that his mission includes dying. And since this thought possesses them, they cannot imagine any scenario in which they would desert him.
Up steps Peter! Peter leads all the disciples in rejecting the idea that they could ever turn their backs on Jesus. It is at this point, however, that Jesus responds to Peter specifically, telling him that he will deny Him three times before sunrise. Then Peter vehemently asserts that he is willing to die for Jesus. It is doubtful however, that Peter ever imagined that his commitment would be put to such a test.
The Story – Part II
Jesus has been arrested, tried before the Sanhedrin, abused and found guilty of blasphemy (14:64). All the disciples have deserted him with the exception of Peter. As we watch Peter fail, we should keep in mind that all the other disciples who affirmed their allegiance to Jesus have left Him at Gethsemane. Peter alone has remained, perhaps hoping for a mighty act of God that would change the mind of the Sanhedrin or possibly lead to the overthrow of the Roman yoke. At any rate, Peter was close enough to the situation to see what Jesus would do.
Three times a servant girl of the high priest identifies Peter as a follower of Jesus. Scholars inform us that the servant girl and identification of Peter as someone who was with Jesus may have been an accusation or just an observation. Whichever it was, it makes Peter uncomfortable enough to say he has no idea what she is talking about. He seems to deny that he knows anything about the trial of a man named Jesus. Then the rooster crowed the first time.
So Peter moves away from the fire, but not far enough. This time the servant girl sees him and says, “This man is one of them.” Peter again denies that he is with Jesus.
Then the servant girl, with other bystanders, accuses Peter a third time of being “one of them; for you are a Galilean.” Peter’s identity as a Galilean confirms the accusation about his association with the person on trial.
Now, in desperation, Peter’s third denial is even more vehement. He swears that he doesn’t know Jesus.
In the space of only a few hours Peter has gone from pledging his ultimate loyalty that he would never desert Jesus to swearing that he doesn’t know him. And we are informed that Peter sinks to this level because he was never able to understand that Jesus’ commission as Messiah meant that Jesus must suffer. Being found guilty and turned over to the Romans for execution was an unthinkable fate for a Messiah. But now Peter sees this happening to Jesus before his very eyes, and he swears he doesn’t know him.
Then it was that when all the evidence suggest that Jesus was not who Peter thought he was and that allegiance to Him was foolish, the rooster crows a second time. As Dr. Rupert put it, “And Peter remembered.”
What did Peter remember? He remembers that things have happened exactly as Jesus said they would. Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crows twice. Thus, Peter again knows that God is with Jesus because Jesus’ prophecy has come true. Suddenly, Peter realizes that he has denied the One who has brought God’s presence to the lives of many, including his own. Peter weeps!
So what do we learn from this story of Peter’s denial of Jesus?
We can overestimate our strength
In this unfolding story, we see that Peter and the other disciples are overestimating their own faithfulness. They are determined to be by Jesus’ side “come blank or high water,” but they are in denial that the worst could happen. They think they can stand beside a powerful Jesus and face any and every enemy that may come. But their reliance on themselves is an illusion. An illusion is something that appears to be true but is actually false. Thus, when the disciples’ faith is put to the test, they do not persevere.
So we wonder why the disciples’ faith failed. They have been with Jesus three years, and they have seen his power and glory. Still, they fail!
According to Mark, much of the reason that the disciples fail is that they misunderstand the mission and ministry of Jesus. Like many moderns, they see power and expect Jesus to exercise that power in ways that compel obedience. They expect mighty acts that attest to Jesus in power. And that is something they can support and even die for, if necessary.
But shockingly, for them, everything changes! Rather than conquering, Jesus submits to arrest, then to trial, which will soon lead to execution.
Scholars tell us that the disciples’ denials are all linked directly to their misunderstanding of how God is present in Jesus. God’s love is shown in His willingness to suffer for those He loves. The depth of God’s love is demonstrated in the willingness of Christ to give his life for those who desert him.
Admittedly, giving in to arrest and crucifixion certainly doesn’t sound like strength, but that is what Jesus has been telling his disciples since Chapter 8, when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. While acknowledging that he is the Messiah, Jesus has been seeking to redefine what Messiah means in terms of his suffering and death. The disciples simply cannot accept Jesus’ redefinition and their faith fails. In reality, these disciples have trusted their own definitions of how God’s power is wielded and their faith fails. And it will be no less true of our faith.
We can recognize God’s unfailing love
Even though Jesus knows the failings of his disciples, he loves them anyway. Scholars remind us that before he tells them that they will deny him, Jesus has eaten his last meal with them and included them in his institution of a new covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper. Thus, immediately after the purification of their denials, He asks them to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane. Even the disciples’ weaknesses of failure cannot block God’s love.
Right here, we see a desperate moment in the ministry of Jesus, perhaps the worst moment in his ministry and the disciples are of no help. Their denials have only added to Jesus’ burdens and yet he continues to love them anyway.
Surely, one of the most important points of this story is that Jesus can know our weaknesses and failures, but still love us. What comfort this is for those who deny Christ in times of great difficulty.
We can benefit from knowing about weak disciples
As we know, Mark presents a rather dismal picture of the disciples. Their misunderstanding of Jesus begins in Chapter 4 and continues to get worse as they journey with him. At last, they desert and deny him.
Scholars point out that Mark doesn’t even have any appearances of the disciples with the risen Christ in which he forgives them. After the denial of Peter, they never again appear in the story (though they are mentioned in 16:7).
Why does Mark leave the disciples in such a bad light? Mark knows that his readers are already aware as to how these disciples turned apostles became the interpreters of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and whose testimony has become the foundation of their church’s beliefs.
So the answer as to why Mark leaves the disciples in such bad light has to do with the situation the Gospel of Mark addresses. Scholars explain that Mark’s church seems to have experienced persecution. And the persecution was severe enough that some members of this church capitulated. Some denied their faith. Now, we don’t know if it was a direct denial, like Peter, or simply a disassociation from the church like the other disciples. But, whatever they did it caused everybody to recognize their denial of faith.
Moving forward, the persecution has now passed. However, some of those who have capitulated at this point want to be part of the church again. They want to be received back into the fellowship of those who believe in Christ.
But here’s the issue! The church is unsure about what they should do. If they allow those who denied the faith back in, it seems to be a slap in the face to those who endured the suffering. Would this be an example of cheap grace which allows questionable loyalty and makes no real demands?
Mark’s way of addressing the issue is with his picture of the disciples. Here are people who lived in the presence of Jesus and who were witnesses to his miracles. Yet their faith utterly fails – they desert and deny Jesus.
But what becomes of them? Are they excluded from the love of God or the fellowship of the church? Certainly they are not! After their miserable failings their testimony becomes the foundation of the church’s beliefs.
There is simply no more powerful story of the unfailing love of God than this one before us today. This story is a sign that those who have faltered are loved by God and need to be received by the church.
- Discuss how the class understands the concept of Jesus as Messiah.
- In what kinds of situations might contemporary Christians deny Jesus?