Places of the Passion: The Courtyard
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 26:69–75
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2022
“Places of the Passion: The Courtyard”
Noel Coward (1899-1973), a famous twentieth-century British playwright (Noël Coward - Wikipedia), once played a joke on twenty of the most famous men in London. He sent all twenty men an identical note which read: “Everybody has found out what you have done. If I were you, I would get out of town.” And that is exactly what all of those twenty men did: they got out of town. Coward played his joke using what we call snail mail today, but this kind of thing happens all the time today through the internet and email with things like phishing and spoofing. What if you received such an email? Or maybe you have! What would race through your mind? Would you panic? Would you get out of town? Sometimes that’s what guilt can do, causing us to sink into a deep pit of remorse and regret. In each of our lives, we have failings and faults that can make us feel very guilty indeed. How do we handle this? Where do we go? What do we do? Today we hear about one such person, and that is Peter. In our Lenten series, “Places of the Passion,” today we walk to the courtyard of the high priest in Jerusalem. It is here that we see Peter’s guilt as well as our own. Beyond the courtyard, we see grace – grace for Peter and grace for us. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Last week, we were in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus where he prayed that the cup of suffering which he was about to undergo might be removed from him. But in so praying, he submitted his own will to that of the Father: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39b). And then as the mob came with clubs and swords, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested. Last week’s Gospel lesson ended with these words: “Then all the disciples left him and fled” (Matthew 26:56b). In the verses which follow last week’s Gospel lesson and which precede today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was brought before Caiaphas the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council of Jerusalem (Matthew 26:57-68). This trial was actually illegal since it was taking place at night, in violation of rabbinical law, but it happened anyway because it was expedient that this happen as soon as possible. Jesus stands alone before the chief priests, the scribes and the elders who gave the orders for his arrest and who now interrogate him. While all of this is taking place inside the palace of the high priest, another trial of sorts is taking place outside in the courtyard. This is where today’s Gospel lesson picks up.
Perhaps it was Peter’s guilt that got the better of him. Like all the other disciples, he, too, had abandoned Jesus in Gethsemane and run away. But now he’s back, trying to keep a low profile under cover of darkness outside in the courtyard. Jerusalem sits some 2500 feet above sea level and so nights can be pretty chilly in early spring. John’s Gospel tells us that it was cold and that there was a fire there in the courtyard (John 18:15-18), and that Peter was warming himself by the fire along with everyone else gathered there. That actually took courage for Peter to do this. It would have been very easy to stay away. That would have been the safe thing to do because he would have been seen as an accomplice, a collaborator, of Jesus, and as such, he likely would also have been arrested, too. But it doesn’t always work out for a person to remain undetected like Peter was hoping to do. Sometimes that’s how it is with us as Jesus’ disciples today. We, too, want to play it safe; go under the radar and remain undetected. We don’t always want people to know who we really are as Jesus’ followers in case we might be challenged, and things might turn against us and become hostile. We want to be Jesus’ secret agents, but Jesus doesn’t need secret agents.
Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Peter had boldly confessed Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). It had been just Jesus and the disciples when Peter said this. Now, in the courtyard, things were different. All eyes were on Peter as he tried to remain hidden in the shadows. What happened to that boldness? There in the courtyard, at two different times, two different servant girls both say the same thing to Peter: “You were with Jesus” (Matthew 26:69, 71). And Peter denies it twice: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” (Matthew 26:70). When the people there in the courtyard came as group to confront Peter because his Galilean accent gave him away, Peter called down curses and swore: “I don’t know the man” (Matthew 26:74). There is a progression here: first there was Peter’s evasive denial (“I don’t know what you’re talking about”), then there was Peter’s direct denial on oath (“I don’t know the man”), and finally there was the curse which Peter invoked. As with Peter, so with us. Peter is an everyman for every man, woman, and child. How many times have we made clear to others that we don’t know Jesus, either? When the pressure’s on, we don’t want to stand out, and so we are prone to do whatever it takes to fit in, even if it means denying that we know Jesus. Like Peter, we know the pangs of guilt for what we have done and what we have left undone.
For Peter, it all came to a head as the rooster crowed. He remembered Jesus’ words to him that same night, that he would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed (Matthew 26:34; 75). Luke’s Gospel records that after the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter (Luke 22:61). Peter’s overwhelming sense of guilt, both in abandoning Jesus in Gethsemane and in denying him in the courtyard, all came rushing upon him. He went out and wept bitter tears of sorrow. And at times, that’s how it is in our own lives. We collapse under the weight of it all. Our efforts to expunge the guilt don’t really work. We may try to stay busy and so not have to think about it. We may try to self-medicate and numb it with all sorts of things. We may try to bury it and do our best to forget about it. We may try to minimize it, and pretend it’s no big deal. But try as we might, none of our efforts really work. So what does work?
There is another G-word besides guilt, and that is grace: undeserved love and forgiveness. As we teach our Confirmands, grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. As Peter wept outside the courtyard, Jesus prepares to go to the cross to die – to die for Peter and for us. In the courtyard, there is guilt, but at the cross, there is grace. The forgiveness which we so desire, the peace which passes all understanding, the assurance that Jesus has taken the burden of our sin and guilt upon himself – this is God’s gift to you. A gift is not something which is earned, but something that is given out of love. The gift God has given is the life of his only Son, all for you. This is the good news which set us free. This is the good news that moves us from guilt to grace to gratitude. Amen.