Saturday, 26 March 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 12

In place of my usual Saturday poem, a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966). This is mainly because I want to get in the crucificion story before Easter day.

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Triumph of Annas
By G.R. Balleine

THE Upper Room was no longer safe. The traitor was at large.

Events would now move swiftly. But, before they left, Luke makes Jesus say, `If anyone has no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.' This is incomprehensible. Did He want them to cut their way out, if He was arrested? Meeting violence with violence would have contradicted all His teaching. Yet Luke cannot have invented a command that clashed so starkly with all that his contemporaries believed about Jesus. And Peter and one other produced swords from under their cloaks. Peter undoubtedly had a sword in Gethsemane.

Commentators have racked their brains in vain over this problem. Some, like Father Knox, suggest that Jesus spoke in irony. Others take refuge in the thought that `something in the story has been distorted beyond remedy' (Bamforth).

By midnight the little band were back in the shelter of the olives. Jesus knew He was facing death. `Where I am going,' He said, `you cannot come'; and again He quoted Zechariah, `Smite the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.' Peter protested, `If everyone fails you, I never will.' `Simon,' said Jesus, `Satan will winnow you all tonight' (the Greek word for `you' is plural) `to see whether you are wheat or chaff; but I have prayed for thee' (singular), `that thy faith may not fail.' `I am ready,' Peter boasted, `to go with You to prison or death.' Jesus, however, knew him better than he knew himself. `Before cock-crow' (early dawn)' you will deny that you know Me.' But Peter `kept on protesting vehemently, I would rather die than do that.'

At Gethsemane Jesus left eight of them at the gate, and took Peter and James and John further among the olives. `I am sorely troubled,' He said, `My grief is enough to kill Me. Wait here, and keep awake.' Then, a stone's throw away, He flung Himself on the ground to pray; and Peter noticed in the moonlight that sweat was pouring down His face like great drops of blood. Why this agony?

Theologians have propounded dark and intricate reasons; but the circumstances of the hour were enough. He had failed! He had hoped that everyone would accept His message, turn to God with real repentance, and under His leadership establish a Kingdom in which God's Will would be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Now He faced love's labour lost, arrest, and a shameful death, `Father, if it be possible, let Me be spared this.'

Peter, shallow optimist, thought his Master exaggerated the danger. No one had yet surprised their hiding-place. Why should it happen tonight? He rolled his cloak round him, as he had done on the last two evenings, and fell asleep. An hour passed. Jesus prayed Himself into a calm acceptance of God's Will. Then Peter heard a reproachful voice: `Asleep, Simon? Could you not watch even for an hour? Keep awake, all of you, lest you fall into temptation. You mean well, but human nature is weak.'

Weak indeed! for when Jesus returned to His prayers, Peter again fell asleep. Once more Jesus woke him; but he could not keep awake. He did not see the flickering torches coming up the Mount. He did not give the alarm. It was Jesus Who had to wake him a third time: `Still asleep? The hour has come. Up! Let us go to meet them.' He led His friends outside the orchard, where it would be easier for them to escape.

Peter was bewildered. He saw his comrade Judas with a posse of armed men. Had he been recruiting a force to make Jesus King? Judas kissed Jesus on the hand, the usual greeting of a disciple to a Rabbi. Peter could not guess that this was a signal, lest the wrong person should be seized. But Jesus knew. He swept the traitor aside, and asked the Temple police, `Who are you looking for?' `Jesus of Nazareth.' `I am He. If you want Me, let these others go.'

Rough men have often been overawed by the dignity of their intended victim. Fox and Wesley passed unhurt through mobs that gathered to stone them. So now these Levite constables recoiled. Some stumbled backward and fell. The spell was broken by a scuffle. Peter, impetuous as ever, whipped out his sword and rushed to his Master's aid. He slashed at one of the High Priest's slaves, but only sliced an ear. Jesus said: `Sheathe that sword. Shall I not drink the cup My Father has given Me?' If Peter was forbidden to fight, what else could he do? The position seemed hopeless. Sauve qui pent. The Apostles fled through the olives, leaving Jesus a prisoner.

Peter did not fly far. Crouching behind bushes, he watched till Jesus was led away, then `followed afar off'. As he stole cautiously from tree to tree, he saw someone else doing the same. This was a Jerusalem disciple, who was `known to the High Priest', and had the entree to his palace, perhaps one of the `many among the Rulers', who believed on Jesus, but `did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue'. (The idea that he was the Beloved Disciple is only a guess.) He and Peter followed together.

Jesus was taken to the house of Annas, an ex-High Priest, who had been deposed by the Romans fifteen years before; but his influence was still so great that no one could hold the High Priesthood without his support. Four of his sons became High Priests, and at the moment the High Priest was his son-in-law Caiaphas. Annas apparently still lived in part of the High Priest's Palace, and he had been behind most of the intrigues against Jesus.

Peter's companion entered the Palace unchallenged, but Peter was turned back. His friend, however, spoke to the portress, and she let him in. Every large Jewish house was built round a paved courtyard, on to which the rooms opened. Here the servants had lighted a brazier, for the night was cold, and Peter went up to warm himself. He was `without', in the open air, and `beneath', slightly below the surrounding rooms; but he could see what was happening in the audience chamber.

This was no formal trial of Jesus, merely a preliminary inquiry by Annas and a few friends. They were in a fix. The Sanhedrin could not meet legally before sunrise; but the charge against the Prisoner had to be settled, and the chief witness for the prosecution was missing. Annas had relied on the evidence of Judas, and he had disappeared. The Sanhedrists were no murderers, but legalists, who would have to be convinced of a prisoner's guilt before they would vote for his death. So fresh evidence must be found.

Annas questioned Jesus about `His disciples and His doctrine.' `Why have You gathered followers? What have You been teaching?' Jesus replied, `I taught openly in synagogues and Temple. Ask those who heard Me.' A rough hand slapped His face, as one of the police barked, `Is that the way to answer the High Priest?' And Peter stood watching. In his Epistle he calls himself `a witness of the sufferings of Christ'.

As he watched, the firelight shone on his bronzed face. He was clearly no city-dweller. A saucy slave-girl asked, `Are you a Nazarene?' He replied, `I don't understand you," and drew back into the shadow of the porch. But his tormentress found him again and shouted, `Here's one of them.' This time he lied, `I am not'; and gained an hour's respite.

From the porch he could still see all that happened to Jesus. When Annas failed to trap Him into any dangerous admissions, he withdrew, leaving the Prisoner in the hands of the police and the slaves, who amused themselves by bullying. They jeered at Him. They spat in His face. They played Greek blind-man's-buff, blindfolding Him, striking Him and bidding Him name the striker.

Later Peter described the scene: `When He was reviled, He made no retort. When He suffered, He threatened not.' At last this horseplay stopped. Dawn was breaking. The Sanhedrin could meet. Jesus must be marched across the court-yard to Caiaphas's quarters, for the High Priest, not an ex-High-Priest, must preside at the legal trial. Meanwhile Peter was in trouble again. Some bystanders, hearing his north-country burr, said, `You are a Galilean,' and, according to `John', a kinsman of the slave he had wounded cried, `I saw you in the orchard with Him.' From evasion he had stooped to lying. Now he sank to perjury. `He began to curse and to swear,' calling on God to strike him dead, if he had ever known Jesus.

And just then Jesus crossed the courtyard on His way to Caiaphas. `And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.' Shame-stricken, Peter rushed away, weeping bitterly. In the east the sky was reddening over the mountains of Moab. Cocks were beginning to crow.

[All four Gospels record Peter's threefold denial; but details vary. In Mark his challengers are (1) a girl at the fire, (2) the same girl in the porch, (3) bystanders; in `Matthew', (1) a girl in the courtyard, (2) another girl in the porch, (3) bystanders; in Luke, (1) a girl at the fire, (2) a man, (3) another man; in `John' (1) the portress at the door, (2) bystanders round the fire, (3) Malchus's kinsman. In the story above, we have followed Mark, who gives probably Peter's own version. ]

From this moment Peter fades out of the story of that day. Where he went, we are not told. He dared not go to Bethany, for the sisters there were known to be friends of Jesus. His comrades were probably somewhere on the Mount; but he could not get in touch with them, and perhaps he felt ashamed to do so. He must have found a shelter somewhere.

One guess is possible. Two days later Mary of Magdala knew where he was. Possibly he asked her for help. She was one of a group of ladies who `ministered unto Jesus of their substance'. She may have found him a refuge.

For two days he lay low; but whoever was hiding him would have told him what happened. If it was Mary of Magdala, we know that towards the end she ventured to the foot of the cross. He heard how the Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy; but, when they took Him to Pilate (for only the Governor could order an execution), they substituted a political charge, forbidding the payment of tribute and claiming to be a King.

But Pilate was no fool. He must for months have been keeping an eye on Jesus. He realized that Caesar had nothing to fear from this Peasant Preacher. So he tried hard to liberate Him. But the rumour that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple roused the mob to such fury that Pilate found himself faced with the ugly possibility of a Passover riot. He chose the easy way out. Better let this unpopular Carpenter die than have to slay scores of pilgrims in furious street fighting.

Peter heard what had followed: the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion between two brigands. The excruciating torture of this form of death has often been described; but perhaps for Peter there was something even more awful.

Folk-lore teemed with queer superstitions about death. One was that to die safely one must die on mother earth. If you hanged or crucified your foe, you lifted him up a defenceless victim to the fury of fiends and ghouls. This odd idea had found its way even into Deuteronomy, `He that is hanged is accursed'; and, since to a Jew anything in the Law was indisputable, the cross was always `to the Jews a stumbling-block'. Paul wrote with a shudder that Jesus was `made a curse for us'.

Peter heard, too, how Jesus had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a Sanhedrist who was a secret sympathizer. Burial of the dead was with the Jews an obligatory act of mercy. `Wherever thou findest the dead,' said Esdras, `commit them to the grave.' And this applied to criminals. `If a man commit sin worthy of death, and thou hang him,' said Deuteronomy, `his body shall not remain all night on the tree; thou shalt bury him the same day.'

The Sanhedrin had to see that all crucified bodies were buried before sunset. So Joseph offered to see to the burial of Jesus. It had to be done quickly. Soon six blasts of the Sabbath trumpet would make all work illegal. Joseph only had time to buy a sheet to wrap round the body (the soldiers had carried off the clothes), and to lay it in a tomb close at hand. `And Mary Magdalene beheld where He was laid.'

That Saturday-Sabbath was the darkest Peter ever spent. He had failed. His friends had failed. Jesus had failed. And God Himself had failed to intervene to prevent their failure. The loveliest life ever lived had come to a shameful end. The most hopeful effort ever made to save the world had been hideously defeated. Jesus had died the death of the damned; and Heaven had remained silent! In the age long duel between Priest and Prophet once more the Priest had won.

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