In Mark 14: 66 – 72 Peter denies Jesus, and breaks a promise made to Jesus made earlier in the chapter. Peter had boldly proclaimed that he loved Jesus more than any of these other disciples and Jesus replied that before dawn he would deny that he even knew Him.
Our identities are formed by the promises we keep. Without promises there is no lasting sense of identity and no sense of community. This is why Peter is so destroyed by this betrayal: he has lost his identity. Who is he really? Is he the Peter of v. 29 and 31 who will die with Jesus or is he the Peter of v. 71 who curses Jesus and claims to not even know him. Peter is devastated by this failure and is a broken man because in failing like this he has lost his identity.
People today like to define their identities not by their commitments but by their passions, and their feelings. What do people say when facing a challenge to their identity? “I want to go find myself.” How do they do that? By releasing themselves of every obligation, every commitment and chasing a vivid and intense emotional experience.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. I have never heard of a person returning from one of these personal odysseys with a clear sense of self and a plan for going forward. The reason it doesn’t work is that you are basing your identity on your feelings which are both constantly changing and contradictory. How can you define yourself by an emotional response when that response could change by tomorrow? Instead, your identity needs to be centered in something that doesn’t change.
A great place where this is seen is in A Man For All Seasons. (Who says I wasn’t listening in Gr. 12 English??). Thomas More refused to recognize King Henry VIII’s second marriage and his claim as supreme head of the church and was told that he will burn at the stake unless he recants. His daughter Megan begs him, “Oh Father please. Can’t you please go back on your word so that we can have you.” More responds, “When a man makes an oath Meg, he holds his own self in his hands like water. If he opens is fingers to look, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Peter is weeping in v. 74 because he opened his hand and now he is gone. How is it that just a few weeks later Peter is restored to a place of leadership in the Christian Community after such a spectacular failure? Peter needs to place his identity in something that doesn’t change.
In John 21 we read of this beautiful exchange between Peter and Jesus. Jesus asks three times, “Peter do you love me?” and Peter is no longer boasting of exceeding the love or commitment of the other disciples. He replies simply, “You know I love you” The difference in Peter is that he is building his identity, not on his commitment to follow Jesus, but on Jesus commitment to faithfully love us. Putting our trust in our own compliance is sure to end in disaster but trusting God to be faithful will always succeed. I am not defined by my compliance, I am the one whom Jesus loves.