In Jerusalem, just south of the old city walls, overlooking the valley of Gehenna, there is a church. It is the most beautiful church in all of Jerusalem, in my opinion. My friend Ben and I took a walk one afternoon when we had nothing else on our schedule. Our plan was to walk through the valley of Gehenna, because we wanted to be able to say we had, and so we walked through the Armenian quarter, decorated with pomegranates everywhere, and out through the Zion gate. We took a right, and wandered through the cemetery to see Oskar Schindler’s grave, the only grave in the Christian cemetery covered in little stones placed there by visiting Jews. Then, not sure how to get down into the valley, we took a turn down a little lane that we thought would lead us there. Instead it led us to St. Peter in Gallicantu Monastery and church. So we went in.
St. Peter in Gallicantu translates as St. Peter of the cock crow. This beautiful sanctuary, covered in brilliant, intricate mosaics, sits atop the very spot where St. Peter was said to have denied Jesus. If you go down into the ancient foundations of the church, you can see a jail cell, and a bed carved out of the wall, and an anchor in the wall where a chain would have been attached. This is the cell where Jesus is said to have spent the last night of his earthly ministry. And one of the most prominent features of this lower section of the church, an ancient sanctuary that dates back to at least the 3rd or 4th century, is a rock. It is, in fact, the bedrock on which this church is built. It is huge, jutting out of the cliff face, dropping to the valley below. The entire church hangs out over the drop, clinging to the edge of that cliff, clinging to the rock. It should be precarious, it should not be able to cling as it does, it should fall straight down into that valley below, the valley of Gehenna. But it doesn’t. Somehow, it sits on that rock, and it has for centuries.
This church, this amazing, beautiful, ancient church, sits on the exact spot where Peter the rock hit rock bottom. Peter, who just hours before had sworn to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you!” and who just minutes before had tried to prove himself by pulling out a sword to protect Jesus in the garden, had even cut off a man’s ear in an effort to prove himself faithful. And now, in the courtyard of the high priest, on this cliff overlooking the valley, in the shadow of the walls of Jerusalem, Peter fulfills Jesus’ words, “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” There are few stories found in all four of the Gospels, but they all agree on this scene. They all agree that Peter hit rock bottom.
My childhood friend Shannon hit rock bottom about 6 years ago. During several months of open struggle, years of hidden addiction, we all kept thinking, this must be rock bottom. After a public fight in which she punched her own father in front of her own children; after a restraining order and being cast out of the family and losing her job; we all thought she must surely have hit rock bottom by now. But rock bottom is only rock bottom when the addict says it is. For Shannon, that admission finally came when her then 13 year old daughter found her, nearly dead, from an overdose of pills. The ambulance came, the kids went to grandmas, her sister came home from living overseas. Friends and family rallied around her, in spite of all the ways she had damaged those relationships through her years of addiction. And she began to work a program. She found a therapist she trusted, she found a 12-step program, she found joy again in life outside of drugs. She began the slow, difficult, daily climb back up from rock bottom. Back to the light.
Rock bottom comes in all shapes and forms, but for everyone, it is that moment when we are revealed, when it turns out that we are not who we appear to be. Worse, that we are not who we thought we were. Like Peter, who looked to everyone like the rock, the most loyal, most trustworthy, most fervent of all of Jesus’ followers. Peter, who vowed to give his own life for Jesus. Peter, who was ready to take on a whole detachment of soldiers and Temple police. Peter, the rock. And yet, in spite of all of that, when he is questioned, not by the high priest, not by the Romans, but by a mere servant girl, the woman guarding the gate, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Peter turns out in that moment to be not who he appeared to be. To be not who he thought he was. “I am not,” he replies. Not once, not twice, but three times, denying not only his Lord, but his community. Denying not only Jesus but all the disciples with him.
I hope your rock bottom story is not as drastic as Peter’s or Shannon’s. But I know that, for some of you, it is. I know that some of your stories include addiction; betrayals; lies; broken hearts; broken relationships; broken bodies. And I know that for most of us, rock bottom is not just a one-time thing. It’s not the thing that happens once, and then we climb back up and live the rest of our lives in perfection and bliss. For most of us, the climb happens over and and over again. Rock bottom happens on a regular basis. It is the realization that happens weekly, or daily, or hourly; the growing awareness that what I look like on the outside doesn’t match what I look like on the inside. There’s that joke prayer that says, “Lord, make me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” It’s a joke, but there’s truth in it. We are, none of us, who we appear to be. The face we wear for the world is a mask that combines who we want to be with who we are expected to be, and rock bottom comes when that mask drops for a moment, when we just can’t maintain it any longer, and our true selves break through, and we share a glimpse of the broken-hearted person that walks around inside our skin. We don’t step up as we ought; we tell a lie; we keep the wrong change; we let the bullies win; we find ourselves talking behind a friend’s back; we give in to our fear; we discover that we are as human as the next guy. And at that moment, we hear the cock crow.
But let’s go back for a moment. Last week, we read the story of Mary washing and anointing Jesus’ feet. It was the moment in John’s Gospel when the narrative slows down and turns toward Jerusalem. 21 chapters in the Book of John, spanning 3 years of Jesus’ ministry. But those 3 years take up the first 11 chapters, while the last week of his life drags through the last 10. We will come back to chapter 12 on Palm Sunday, when we hear about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And we will come back to chapter 13 on Maundy Thursday when we hear the story of the foot-washing. At the beginning of the night, 5 chapters ago, John introduces the Last Supper with these words: “Having loved them, he loved them to the end.” And as Peter stands in the courtyard, after the arrest, it has only been a few hours since that Last Supper, since Jesus washed Peter’s feet. Having loved them, he loved them to the end.
Jesus knew Peter. Jesus is the good shepherd, as we will hear on Wednesday, and he knows his sheep. Jesus knew Peter, inside and out. He knew the Peter behind the mask, the Peter that not even Peter knew completely. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. He knew that Peter allow his fear to rule him, drawing his sword one minute, and then in the next pretending to have nothing to do with Jesus and his crew. Jesus knew this man Peter, better than Peter knew himself. And having loved him, he loved him to the end.
Knowing that he would deny him, Jesus washed Peter’s feet anyway. Knowing that Peter had denied him, Jesus went to the cross for Peter anyway. And knowing that Peter hit rock bottom, knowing that Peter was weak and broken and an imperfect witness, Jesus sought Peter out after the resurrection. On a beach by a fire, 3 days and 8 chapters from now, the resurrected Christ gave Peter a different identity. For each denial, for each of Peter’s “I am nots,” Jesus puts new words in Peter’s mouth. “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.” And Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” And now this is who Peter is. This is who Jesus knows and this is who Peter is. The mask is down, and Peter is revealed, and he is broken and fearful and imperfect, and he is one whom Jesus has sought out and he is one who loves Jesus and he is the one whom Jesus sends to bear witness to the world. The rock on whom the church is built.
It happens to all of us. Some of us daily. We feel like that church, sitting on the cliff above the valley of Gehenna, clinging to the bedrock, because we have hit rock bottom and there is nothing left to cling to except that rock. We have been exposed, the mask has dropped, and we cannot pretend any longer. We are not the people everyone thought we were. We are not even the person we thought we were. And it seems like this feeling must be all that we can be. That this rock bottom must become our identity, all that we are from here on out. To be known from now to eternity as the one who couldn’t hack it; the failure; the addict; the liar; the betrayed; the betrayer; the broken-hearted; the broken-bodied; the broken. But our rock bottom is the rock on which Jesus builds his church. It is our very brokenness that Jesus finds and names and turns into declarations of love. It is the barren rock that we cling to that Jesus turns into the basis for our witness. And we are no longer identified by all the ways we have failed. Instead we are identified by nothing more or less than the Resurrected Christ, who seeks us out, and builds the most beautiful church on the site of our betrayal, and fills it with brilliant and dazzling displays, so that we become a witness to the world, the church built on the rock, a testament to the love that loves us to the end.