Dr. Robert R. Ball




                         Sermon first presented

                                 September 6, 1970






Scripture: Matthew 26: 69-75

Sermon by
Dr. Robert R. Ball
Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
Houston, Texas        September 6, 1970

Has your world ever fallen apart?
Someone’s death?
A friend who turned against you?

The failure of some dream on which you had counted so heavily?
An overwhelming sense of personal failure or helplessness?
Waking up to discover that everything in which you believed
has been destroyed?

      That’s what it was like for Jesus’ disciples. Their humdrum, monotonous lives
had begun to have color and hope in the wonder of this marvelous person. He
seemed to provide the answer to all their wants and needs and fears. And then
one horrible night the irrational mob, armed with clubs and swords, backed by the
armor of the Roman soldiers, had come to the garden where Jesus was praying
and they seized him. The one in whom their hopes depended was led away in
chains, apparently a helpless victim of the might of public opinion and political

Jesus was on trial for his life. If he ever needed friends, he needed them now;
but his friends had fled, heartbroken and terrified. Jesus was alone…except for
one man. Peter stayed; Peter followed Jesus to his place of trial; Peter alone was
loyal and courageous enough to stand by his side. Peter was no less afraid than
the others, but commitment meant something to him. He knew that he had tasted
the most exciting life and truth in the presence of Jesus Christ.

Then, as the courageous Peter stood in the courtyard outside the trial, one
person after another began to identify him as one of Jesus’ disciples. The first
two were just silly girls who worked around the palace. Surely it didn’t make any
great difference what they thought of him but Peter buckled. With the kind of
words that only a sailor knows, Peter denied his Lord. Then a larger group
confronted him and by this time his course was set. One lie leads to another,
as they say.

“I do not know him. This Jesus of Nazareth
is a stranger to me.”

For all his good intentions, when the crisis came, Peter failed. Right at the
moment when he should have been strong he was weak and the world has never
forgotten. The incident is recorded in all four of the gospels. Through generations
the story is told. Who denied his Lord? Who collapsed under pressure? Simon
Peter – he is the one!


Ironically, Peter could have avoided all that. The other disciples did. No one
ever thinks of them as failures. They avoided the problem simply by not being
there. They ran away. You will never be a failure if you never try. Students know
this. With all the pressure there is to make good grades, many find it better not
to make the effort. Nothing good is expected of goof-offs. Parents know this. With
all the problems there are trying to raise kids in today’s world, it’s easier to
pretend not to care. Let them raise themselves. Business men know this. The
way to avoid disgracing yourself as a failure is to say that you are not interested
in being a success. Housewives know this. You will never be called a failure if you
never claim to be a good cook, or housekeeper, or conversationalist. Peter could
have avoided being a failure and all the heartache and humiliation that go with it if
he had only done what the others did. He could have stayed away.

Of course, these other chaps had some problems too. They didn’t make a
public spectacle of themselves. They didn’t get stuck with a reputation as failures,
but they didn’t do much of anything else either. When there is nothing in your life
of such overwhelming worth and significance that you would dare to run some
risks for it, then there is really not much of anything in your life. More and more
frequently you find yourself asking, “What difference does it make whether I live
or die?”

There are a lot of people like that. Their lives seem pointless, even to
themselves, perhaps especially to themselves. The psychologist says of such

“If you have nothing for which you would die,
you have nothing for which to live.”

This was not Peter’s problem. He cared. He really cared. When the soldiers
took Jesus off in chains, Peter went along. He dared to “get involved,” as they say.
He put himself “where the action is,” but once he got there he failed.

So what’s the point? Wouldn’t it have been better for him to have stayed home
than to have made a daring effort and fail? Then he would never have known the
great remorse. Then he would not have had his story of failure told through 2,000
years of time. It was a horrible burden to bear. When the cock crowed, the
scripture says that Peter went out and wept bitterly.


What would Peter’s life have been like if he had never known the unspeakable
agony of those bitter tears? What if he had simply gone through the rest of his life
comforting himself with the little reminder that “There was nothing I could do. It
was a hopeless situation. Better I didn’t get all involved and make a fool of myself
and ruin my reputation and lose the few friends I had.” What if Peter had never
known the bitterness of those tears, never bold enough to fail?

Do you think that such a Peter would later have been bold enough to step
forward as the leader of the Christian Church? Do you think that the
excuse-making Peter would have been able to stand before the throngs in
Jerusalem that day when the Church was born and preach the first Christian
sermon? Do you think that a sheltered and protected Peter would have
proclaimed these words?

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth,
a man attested to you by God with mighty works and
wonders and signs which God did through him in your
midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered
up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of
God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless
men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs
of death, because it was not possible for him to be held
by it. (Acts 2:22-24)

Peter failed but his failure was not the last word. His failure did not destroy his
life. The last word is not failure but forgiveness. God’s forgiveness overcomes
all human failure.

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. He tried to tell Peter, but Peter
refused to listen. Jesus told Peter that he would pray for him, and you might be
thinking, “A fat lot of good that did!” But Jesus didn’t say that he would pray for
Peter to be spared the pain and frustration of growing up. Jesus’ prayer for Peter
was that he might grow up, and Peter did.

Peter had made a sincere commitment. It led him into a situation in which failure
was a possibility and it became an actuality; but that’s the only situation where life
is a possibility. Peter grew up. He grew up as those who take no chances and run
no risks can never grow up. It’s the same reason that educators tell us that we
should fear more for the child who shows no aggressiveness than for the one who
shows too much. From his very moment of weakness, honestly faced and
agonizingly confessed, Peter emerged as a man of enormous courage and
usefulness. Through commitment, failure, and forgiveness, Peter became the man
he really was.


There are many similarities between our world and the world of the disciples.
Most of our old securities are fallen or are in the process of tumbling. There is
danger and threat surrounding us on every side. The old formulas for happiness
and success no longer work. The new formulas are as strange to us as the new

What are parents to do in the face of a generation of youth who refuse to
respect established authority, write their own morality, treat drugs as a toy? What
are young people to do with an adult world whose actions contradict their
convictions, an adult world that ignores their cries to be heard? What is the
Church to do when attacked by the right for being too liberal and attacked by the
left for being hopelessly irrelevant? Sometimes it all seems so hopelessly
impossible. What’s the use of trying?

We can do what the disciples did when their neat little world collapsed. We
can run away. Today it is called a “cop out.” we can find plenty of rationalizations
for saying, “It’s beyond me. It’s not my responsibility,” Or we can do what Peter
did. We can care enough to try. We can commit ourselves to the highest and
finest that we have ever known. We can commit ourselves to Christ. That’s what
Peter did; and when the hard times came, Peter was right there where the angry
mobs were milling and the hard questions were being asked.

Peter was there because of his commitment; and even after he failed, he was
still committed. That’s why he wept so bitterly. He did not lower his commitment
in order to make it match his behavior. He measured his behavior by his
commitment, and he knew he had failed. But his recognized failure became the
basis for a new beginning. In Christ’s forgiveness, he found new strength and a
new usefulness.

Commitment or cop out? These are our choices. We can either react to the
personal and public crises of our day by running away or by being bold enough to
get involved. What does commitment to Christ mean in an unhappy family
situation? What would it mean to run the risk of love? Are we bold enough to fail?
What does commitment to Christ mean in a community and country that is being
torn apart by the generation gap, by racial and political conflict? What does
commitment to Christ mean as we live and work with people who doubt their
own freedom and try to deny the freedom of others? If we try to do something,
we very well may fail; but the gospel says that failure is not the worst thing that
can happen to us. In fact, a confessed failure can be very beneficial. Failure will
not destroy us but weak resignation will.

Peter’s real failure was a failure of identification. Human acceptance was so
important to him that he denied his whole relationship to Jesus Christ rather than
to accept the taunts of a servant girl whom he didn’t even know. The question of
identification is really the crucial question for each one of us. With whom or what
do we choose to identify ourselves? What persons or things do we consider the
most crucial to our being who we really are?

Peter failed in the crisis because he denied the best thing that had ever
happened to him, the best friend he had ever had. That means that he denied his
own best self in exchange for a weak and phony substitute. In the bitter tears that
followed, Peter recognized all that he had denied and thrown away, but in his
confession and Christ’s forgiveness he got it all back again – stronger than ever
before. In the power of the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ, Peter was able
to step forward and reclaim his own real self.

Christ asks us to identify with him, to be his disciples, to trust his love and
serve his purposes. He promises he will make us all that we really are. It is in
our identification with Christ that we find our lives and their meaning.

“He who saves his life will lose it, but he who
loses his life for my sake will find it.”

It is in that identification that our lives make sense and give service. It is our
commitment to Christ that makes us bold enough to fail, knowing that no failure
can ever destroy us. It is in that boldness that we find the fullness of life and
success and meaning.



Photos of Joyful Noise/Joyful Echo Reunion, August 6-9, 2010

Allen Pote and Robert R. Ball

The instigators.