The Walking Contradiction: A Good Friday Meditation

[Author Note: This is audio and transcript of the short homily I gave at Christ Presbyterian Church during our Good Friday Service.]

Peter blustered in protest, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.” All the others said the same.[1]

I say the same too. Perhaps you do as well.

Peter was so certain that he would never collapse. He was so certain that his resolve to follow Jesus could bear up under any weight. He was one of Jesus’ inner three—present at the transfiguration,[2] in the room when Jesus raised little Talitha from the dead,[3] the first to confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, [4] and the only disciple to actually walk on water with his Lord on the choppy surface of the Sea of Galilee.[5]

He was so certain. Even if he had to die with Jesus, he would never deny him. Never.

And yet, by the time the rooster crowed the following morning, Peter stood in the rubble of his own buckled self-image.[6]

Peter is not a character in a novel—a work of fiction. He was a real person, as real as any of us. He had moments of profound spiritual awareness, and he had moments of unimaginable spiritual collapse. He was a walking contradiction—a man of duplicity and faith. He really loved and believed in Jesus, and he really failed and denied Jesus.

For anyone in this room who professes faith in Jesus, we are the same. Every single follower of Christ, from the beginning, until now, and continuing on until He returns, is a living contradiction—we love him and believe in him, and we fail him and deny him.

What is the specific temptation or failure you look at and say, “Even if I have to die, I would never deny you by doing that”? What is the thing you believe you are incapable of doing? The transgression you would never commit? It is important for us to be honest about this question, because that inconceivable offense—that “low” to which we know we would never stoop— has the power to lure us into an even deeper denial— the self-confidence that there are some areas of our lives that did not require the events of this day.

When we start saying to Jesus, “I need you to inspire me. I need you to teach me. I need you to correct me in some areas, and show me how to live” but do not say, “and I need you to die for me, to deal not only with the sins I commit, but also with that part of me that so willingly permits my rebellion against you,” we empty Good Friday of its meaning. We render this day a tragedy, but not a victory. When Peter said, “I will never deny you. That’s not in me to do,” he was saying, in part, “I don’t need what you are about to do—at least not as much as others might.”

We’re not sinners because we commit sins. We commit sins because we are sinners. Sin is a condition of the heart before it is an act of the will. Those years Jesus had with Peter were not spent in order to teach Peter how to stay strong in the face of fear—how to commit fewer sins. They were given so that Jesus could be the sacrifice that would atone for Peter’s sin condition—which included both his pride and his duplicity.

This shines light on two beautiful truths.

First, Jesus knew the measure of Peter’s pride, as he does of yours and mine, and he laid down his life for his proud friend. Peter’s swagger and bravado—his self-assurance that he would never deny Jesus—was one aspect of Peter’s sinfulness for which Christ came to atone. Pride: it was the first sin humanity every committed, and as Augustine said, it is also the last to fall in each one of us. We kick habits and implement self-disciplined new ones, and pride says, “See, look at how good you are. You’ve got this.” Jesus went to the cross for those of us whose sin is the proud self-confidence that we didn’t need him to. Disciples are not people who would never deny Jesus. They are people who come to believe they would, and have—and if Christ doesn’t keep them, they will be lost.

Second, Jesus knew the measure of Peter’s duplicity, as he does of yours and mine, and laid down his life for his fearful friend. The fact that Jesus named Peter’s betrayal before it happened is a mercy. Jesus saw through his friend, as he does with all of us. He knows where we are prone to wander away. He knows the situations that are fertile soil for our hypocrisy. He knows we are deniers. He is faithful to deniers. Paul wrote to Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny who he is.”[7] Christians are walking contradictions—believers and deniers at the same time. Peter denied being a denier before he denied knowing Jesus. All the others did the same.

And yet, Jesus walked on past his disciples’ fears and failures to the place where he would atone for them. They followed as we often do—from a distance, afraid of getting too close. But he went on. Tonight we remember what he went on to do.

Conclusion:

When this Good Friday service is over we will all leave in silence. We will have walked through the events of this good, dark day. We will hear about Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane,[8] his betrayal and arrest,[9] Peter’s denial,[10] Pontius Pilate’s decision to crucify the Lord,[11] Jesus’ crucifixion and his death.[12]

And although in a few days we will celebrate Easter, tonight we will leave the story with a dead Christ. We will not resolve the tension. It is good for us, on this night to remember the weight of the sacrifice of our Lord for the walking contradictions he loves. We will leave here feeling as though, like Jesus’s body in the tomb, our own hearts are buried.

Why? Because the events we are talking about tonight really happened. Really. Before night set in on that first Good Friday, soldiers would thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead. Then they would permit Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body down from the cross and bury him in a nearby grave.[13] They would seal the grave with a large round stone built to roll like a giant wheel into place, covering the mouth of the tomb. That night it would seat with a heavy thump.

And everyone, EVERYONE, expected that he would remain in that tomb, because that’s what happens with those who are dead and buried. They stay dead and they stay buried.

[1] Mark 14:31

[2] Matthew 17:1-13

[3] Mark 5:21-43

[4] Luke 9:18-22

[5] Matthew 14:22-33

[6] Matthew 26:69-75

[7] 2 Timothy 2:13

[8] Matthew 26:36-44

[9] Matthew 26:45-50, 55-56

[10] Matthew 26:69-75

[11] Matthew 27:1-2, 24-26

[12] John 19:17-18, 25-27, Matthew 27:45-50

[13] John 19:31-42

© 2017 Christ Presbyterian Church. All Rights Reserved.

Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.