John 18: 12-27
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ 18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’22When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘ 23Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ 24Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ 26One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to sense the under currents and mysteries presented in this short piece of scripture. As early as the late second century the Gospel of John has been ascribed to John, the younger of the sons of Zebedee, and that’s as close as we can get. It’s tough to admit and unpopular to bring it up but we don’t know who wrote ‘The Gospel of John”. It reflects a tradition quite independent to that presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It displays exact knowledge of Palestine and 1st century Judaism. It is different in theological perspectives, in the arrangement of its contents and its distinctive use of imagery and symbols.
The synoptic gospels suggest that Jesus’ ministry lasted only one year and concluded with a single fatal trip to Jerusalem. The Gospel of John includes at least three trips for Jesus to Jerusalem and actually suggests that he spent quite a bit of time in the area and was a well known personality. He was no stranger to Jerusalem and the Temple. It reinforces what Jesus’ said of himself in this passage – ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.’ He was a well known voice that challenged calcified religious tradition and its adherents. It tells me that the Priestly caste’s fear that this popular revolution would topple their rule meant a great deal of planning had gone into bringing the life and ministry of Jesus to an abrupt end. The author wraps up the intent of it being written wit these words “ that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess life by his name”. (20:31)
Our piece of the narrative identifies Peter and this unnamed other disciple who could be the only eye witness to what occurred that night in the courtyard of Annas. Is this the author? We are told that he was known to the high priest. Does it come as a surprise that there was someone known to the high priest among Jesus’ closest followers? He had such freedom of access that he went out and brought Peter back in with him. Who was that masked man? Evidently he went there without fear for his own life and was comfortable enough to invite Peter in as well.
This person has always been connected to the ‘disciple that Jesus’ loved’, again traditionally thought to be Zebedee’s younger son John. But in John 11:5 we are told that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. Before that point the gospel does not mention a ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. That leads me to think that this other disciple of our passage who was known to the high priest and felt confident enough to go in and out of the gates of Annas’ courtyard and to get Peter into the courtyard was Lazarus from Bethany in Judea. Such a stir was made over his being raised from the dead by Jesus that there is little doubt that he would be known to the high priest and no one dare lay a hand on him. Also being a Judean he would be far more likely to move freely in those more sophisticated circles than a rough Galilean fisherman. It confirms our suspicion that Jesus had supporters among very influential people, people like the highly placed Pharisee Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea who had access to Pilate himself. I don’t know what you might think but I think Lazarus a Judean from the Jerusalem suburbs, loved by Jesus and raised from death is the source of the tradition reflected in the Gospel of John.
If you’ve missed the political tension in the story the narrative in the Gospel of John makes it clear that while Son-in-law Caiaphas was officially the High Priest the functional High Priest was Annas. The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that Annas held that office for over 18 years, much longer than his predecessors or successors through appointment of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea under Tiberius. He was replaced by Pontius Pilate. Evidently while Ciaiphas performed the duties of the office the power of high priest officially lay in the hands of Annas. In this instance, after Jesus was arrested, he was brought to Annas who questioned him privately. Well into the story, after Jesus’ retort to Annas’ questioning in his courtyard, one of the Jewish police slaps Jesus in the face saying ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ It’s only after that that Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas “the high priest.” Bringing an end to the public ministry of Jesus was not to be left in the hands of the less experienced. The actual trial took place on the next day, the eve of the Passover, before twenty-three members of the Sanhedrin over whom Caiaphas presided.
Then we have the tiny vignette of the woman gate keeper who, saying nothing to the disciple known to the high priest, outs Peter as one of Jesus’ followers. It’s Peter’s first denial. Hers’ was just a simple question evidently based on her knowledge that the unnamed one was a disciple of Jesus. I guess, to some degree, we are known by the company you keep. The second denial comes out of a context of a group of people warming themselves around a fire in the early morning hours wondering why those around them weren’t still home in bed. Why are you here? Are you another of his disciples? Peter protests that he is not. But he couldn’t get away with it. One of the high priest’s servants who had been along for the arrest of Jesus said “Didn’t I see you in the garden when he was arrested? Wasn’t it you who cut off my cousin’s ear ?” Maybe the lesson there is that our impetuous actions have longer term consequences. “No, not I” was still on Peter’s lips as the clarion cry of a rooster chased the shadows of the long night away.
What does denial of Jesus, or betrayal for that matter, look like today? One preacher moved by alliteration listed seven ways people deny Jesus. You might like the list for reference. By our words, our walk, our works, our wickedness, our witness, our worship and our wealth. I imagine there may be another “w” word that someone might find that could expand the list to eight – or remember there are 26 letters in the English alphabet. I don’t think a list is a bit helpful. I also think that no one but our selves have any business defining what denial of Jesus would mean for us. Judgment can become complex. For instance we have Judas Son of Simon Iscariot or Simon Peter to contrast – one, tradition has it, hung himself and the other is made head of the Church. Close call.
I look for the good news in the narrative. Of course the good news from Peter’s experience is that later he discovered grace at the hands of the one he disowned. But I also see political intrigue, the careful plotting by the powerful to protect their privilege and authority. I come away aware that both these things are true today. Our daily news reports unscrupulous actions in places like the Ukraine and Syria. Yet, good news, grace still abounds, even for those who in their distress deny the one who can offer grace.
What most astounds me in this story of two disciples in Annas’ courtyard is the role played by the disciple who isn’t named. Known by the high priest, known evidently by Jesus, acknowledged by gate keeper and providing access to the seat of the real power, placing Peter in the place where his commitment to Christ is pushed to its limit and witness to what went on behind closed doors reminds me that faithfulness without credit or reward is still the standard for followers of Christ.