Two men are facing each other. One is only 10 hours away from death; the other just told a group gathered around a fire that he did not know the man who was going to His death. No, no, he protested, I do not know Him; I have never been with Him; I swear I have not.

The prisoner passed through the yard where the fire and the denial still burned. The prisoner looked at the man who stood there, just a look. Suddenly the gate slammed shut, and out into the cold dawn fled the denier. He fled, ran away into the silent streets to hide himself in a corner of the great city. And as he ran, tears flowed down his face. They were hot and bitter, washing away something that was like dirt on his face and blood on his soul.

This scene frames a profound question. Just what is this religion we call Christianity?
It has fascinated the world for the past 2,000 years and still, battered and torn today, commands the allegiance of so many.

Some over the course of history have said that it is essentially a vast system of doctrines. If you know the doctrine and believe, then you are a Christian. Others have said, no, Christianity is a way of life, like a philosophy. It is living in a Christian culture. Both these definitions are incomplete: that scene of the two men in silent confrontation in the palace courtyard tells us the real meaning of Christianity.

When you come right down to it, Christianity is a living relationship with the person of Jesus. In this context we can understand what happened in the courtyard. Peter, standing by the fire, lying for the sake of safety and human respect, swearing falsely in order to capture a moment of warmth and acceptance from the world. He had broken his relationship with his Lord. He had thrown it away. He had turned against his friend.

And when the friend turned and looked at Peter, he suddenly realized what he had done. He saw what he had denied, what he had betrayed. He had not denied a doctrine. He had not embarrassed his culture. He had hurt a relationship. There was nothing else to do but to stumble out into the dark, blinded by burning tears, afraid and alone.

Peter was never to forget his moment of shame. Yet a few weeks later he was destined to hear the voice of that friend again speaking with compelling warmth and healing, saying to him by the lake, Simon, son of John, do you love Me?

What are we to do with this whole incident but apply it to ourselves? We have not denied any doctrine, or offended any philosophy, or embarrassed the culture. But have we ever broken the bond of personal friendship between Jesus and ourselves? Have we ever stood by the fire, so eager for the world’s approval we bought it at the price of denying that we even know our friend, Jesus?

Jesus looks at all of us in the midst of our business, our activity, our money-making, our careers, our traveling. If we heed that look and it leads us to open our eyes, to shed tears of regret and shame and repentance for the times we have denied Him by what we have said and done, then we are on our way to a closer relationship with Him. Then He is with us no longer as a betrayed friend, but as a close friend, Lord and liberator. For the look of Christ, as Peter found out, is one of understanding love.

Flannery O’Connor is a well-known author who wrote a short story called, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The central character is an escaped convict who calls himself The Misfit, “Because I cannot make what all I have done wrong fit what all I have gone through in punishment.” His grandmother begs him to pray to Jesus for help. The Misfit utters a swift sentence, unaware of how profoundly Christian it is. He says, “Jesus threw everything off balance, everything.” Perhaps for the first time in his life The Misfit is right.

Jesus let Himself be sold for silver by one of His closest friends. Condemned on false charges, lashed with whips and crowned with thorns, nailed to a bloody cross, He died. He died murmuring God’s mercy on His enemies, and love on all of us. Yes, Jesus had thrown everything off balance, all right. A cross of death is the tree of life! In the words of scripture, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men and women to Myself.” All people. No matter who they are or what they have done, He will still look on them with love and forgiveness

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