69 Peter, meanwhile, was sitting outside in the courtyard; and a maidservant came up to him, and exclaimed: “Why, you were with Jesus the Galilean!” 70 But Peter denied it before them all. “I do not know what you mean,” he replied. 71 When he had gone out into the gateway, another maid saw him, and said to those who were there: “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth!” 72 Again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man!” 73 But soon afterward those who were standing by came up and said to Peter: “You also are certainly one of them; why, even your way of speaking proves it!” 74 Then Peter said: “I swear that I do not know the man! May God punish me if I am lying!” At that moment a cock crowed; 75 and Peter remembered the words which Jesus had said — ‘Before a cock has crowed, you will disown me three times’;and he went outside, and wept bitterly.
Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial. The three denials match the three days of Jesus’ death before his resurrection and their primary significance in Hebrew idion is not as a discrete number of days but as the time before a dramatic deliverance. So even Peter’s denials are linked to a pattern of hope, which is made explicit by the story of Jesus’ threefold forgiveness of Peter in John chapter 21.
For the gospel’s first readers of course Peter was the “rock”, the great leader of the Jesus communities, so the story of his weakness woud have been both a warning and an encouragement. If even Peter could have denied his Lord, how easy it would be for anyone to do so. But if Peter could be forgiven, then there was a way back for all who had failed Jesus in the face of danger. It would appear that that Matthew’s Christian community was under pressure from a renewed and hard-edged Judaism through which those Jews who followed Jesus Messiah were expelled from their synagogues amd perhaps rejected by members of their own families. Peter’s story would have had an especial message for them.
The “myth” of Peter as the typical loyal disciple who nevertheless misundertood Jesus and was ill-prepared for harsh tests of loyalty is part of the constructed memory of the early Christian communities. It may well have had a factual basis but it was incorporated as one of the theological building blocks in the drama of salvation. Peter is first of all typical of disciples who are loyal to a mistaken view of Jesus Messiah as the way to glory. He has to learn painfully through his own shame, that Jesus Messiah is also the servant who suffers rejection and death for the sake of others. Most of all he has to find in the resurrection of the one he has denied, an opportunity for recognising his weakness and making a new start.
Most of us can identify with Peter’s denial. If we were given a week’s notice of some challenge to our faith, we might well find courage. But when as in this story the challenge comes suddenly and unexpectedly, we take the path of safety of least resistance. In a culture where any serious commitent to anything other than our own welfare is increasingly seen as odd, being “not ashamed to own our Lord” is a key challenge for the members of Christian communities,especially those which have not consiered themselves “evangelical”. The simple acknowledgement that we may do or not do certain things because of our allegiance to Jesus, and our willingness to defend the pratices of faith, may be ways in which we can take a stand without making a fuss.