One of the most poignant scenes in the Easter narrative was written by someone who was not there, but who investigated the claims of the Christian movement and was able to paint for readers an agonizing scene of shame and betrayal.
Luke, a medical doctor by trade and commissioned to chronicle the Jesus movement, zooms in on the ashen visage of Simon Peter as he utters his final denial of Jesus. Alone among the gospel writers, Luke captures Jesus’ slightly turned face, his eyes catching one of his most loyal lieutenants in his worst moment.
Simon Peter seemed the least likely to feign ignorance of Jesus. After all, he was the leader who spoke up in defense of Jesus’ claims to be God. He was the one who stayed while many others left in response to Jesus’ difficult teachings. He leaped out of a boat in faith and walked on water with the Lord. Yet here, in a shadowy courtyard just steps from Jesus’ trial, he found himself disavowing the one he’d left everything to follow.
Peter’s epic fall gives us a window into what genuine courage — and the absence of it — looks like.
As the showdown with his enemies approached, Peter had pledged his unswerving loyalty. The others in this cohort would surely abandon Jesus, but not Peter. Or so he thought.
Jesus knew better. Beneath Peter’s bravado and luster was a deep insecurity, a weakness that manifested in a kind of projected self-confidence that had never been tested. He thought he was braver than he was.
When asked to muster the self-discipline to stay up and pray, Peter slumped over while Jesus wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. When confronted by the fiercest fighting force in the world, Peter clumsily stole a Roman sword and hacked off a soldier’s ear, helping no one. When attempting to gather intelligence about Jesus’ arrest, he was easily outed as a Galilean. It turns out Peter was a fisherman and not a soldier, a preacher, not a spy.
Humility is key to true courage
But this weakness, this inability to perform in the clutch was actually not a weakness in the long run. For Jesus wasn’t after men who could beat their chests and muster up false bravado, but for humble, surrendered followers who understood their own strengths. Or lack of strength.
Easter, you see, rewrites the definition of courage. In contrast to Peter’s manufactured machismo and in contrast to contemporary notions that measure strength by silly provocations and digital dunks, genuine courage is about putting our faith in the right place.
Peter would one day have an opportunity to demonstrate bravery: At Pentecost before mighty throngs, in a damp Roman jail cell, arrested for preaching the gospel, and, according to church tradition, on a Roman cross of execution.
But these acts were not showy symbols of performative activism, but the actions of a disciple filled with otherworldly power.
In an age where going viral is mistaken for virtue, we could learn from Peter’s experience in the Easter story. Later, as an aging Apostle, he would write that followers of Jesus should be willing to offer an “answer for every person for the hope that lies within us” but to do it with “gentleness and kindness (1 Peter 3:15).”
Choosing civility is courageous
In other words, courage doesn’t mean the absence of civility. It requires it.
Courage isn’t looking in the mirror and seeing the next great hero, but it’s about the willingness to depend on spiritual strength, to listen to the voice of God, and to stand (even while shaking inside) when others so often yield to the temptations of the age.
Bravery sometimes looks like weakness, such as forgiving our enemies, stooping low, like Jesus, to wash feet. Strength sometimes looks like a cup of cold water to someone in need or an open Bible in an age of distraction.
After all, this season brings us back to the greatest act of courage. Jesus, accepting the call of the cross, refusing to summon the armies of Heaven, laying his life down for his people.
It is that kind of power that empowered Peter and has empowered every believer who dares to walk in Jesus’ steps.
Daniel Darling is senior vice president of communications at NRB and a bestselling author of several books, including his latest, “The Characters of Easter.”