"Peter, While His Conscience Slept"

Text: 1 Peter 3:21
Date: Good Friday St. John Passion + 4/18/14

Our dear fellow Lutheran and world famous musician Johann Sebastian Bach has done a marvelous work of weaving hymnic theological comment into the hearing of the apostolic record of the Lord’s Passion according to St. John. Well-known stanzas of Lenten hymns have us begin, as if announcing a prayer, “Jesus, I will ponder now On your holy Passion” (LSB 440:1). Of the betrayal by Judas Iscariot and the band of soldiers arresting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane Bach has us remember that it was still a result of God’s wondrous love controlling events “That brought Thee here, by foes and thieves surrounded!” (LSB 439:7).

In this first half of Bach’s St. John Passion, so much attention is paid to the role of the apostle Peter. Of his violent reaction to Jesus’ arrest by brandishing his sword Bach mysteriously has us sing the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer according to Martin Luther’s hymn-paraphrase. “Thy will be done”? Maybe it was because of the last two lines that provide commentary on Peter’s wild reaction, “Curb flesh and blood and ev’ry ill That sets itself against Your will.” Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). This was certainly according to God’s divine will.

As Jesus faces Annas and Caiaphas, and Peter begins to deny knowing his Lord, Bach reminds us who really is at fault, having us confess, “I caused Your grief and sighing” (LSB 453:4).

So far very familiar hymns that we still have in our Lutheran hymnals to this day. But then this. It was as if Bach couldn’t find an appropriate hymn stanza to comment on Peter’s denial and the end of Part One of the Passion. So he (apparently) wrote it himself. (We sang it to the tune of “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now,” as we will again to begin Part Two).

He wrote, “Peter, while his conscience slept, Thrice denied his Savior.” He then has us reflect on our many failures praying that God may “Through my conscience reach me.”

What is the conscience? It is interesting that the Old Testament Hebrew never had a word translated “conscience” and the New Testament has a word thus translated but used mainly by the apostle Paul, in the book of Hebrews, and, interestingly enough(!), used by Peter himself. It is as if Peter never forgot his failure and learned a huge lesson, as when he wrote in his first Epistle referring to Christ’s suffering and decent into hell, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

The conscience is an awareness of self with regard to God’s Word and divine Law. The scripture tells us that God has written His law into every human heart, a natural knowledge of the Law. But since the Fall into sin the conscience does not give a fully reliable testimony concerning the will of God. There is such a thing as an erring conscience, as when a person regards certain things as permitted which God in His Word has clearly forbidden, and visa versa. The erring conscience completely disregards or remains ignorant of God’s Word. So is the condition of our current day in our country reminiscent of the open wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and of St. Paul’s list in Romans 1.

Yes, Bach says, Peter’s conscience was asleep as he denied his Lord not just once, not twice but three times, even as Jesus had predicted and told him he would do. It is Matthew who tells us that Peter remembered Jesus words of prediction and that his conscience convicted him and he went out and wept bitterly. Interestingly St. John just lets the fact stand in condemnation of Peter without telling the disciple’s reaction.

So how’s your conscience? To what extent does it bother you when you hear someone or you yourself misuse the name of the Lord your God? How are you at keeping all the vows you have made in the Lord’s name, such as confirmation, marriage, or legal vows? Have you despised God’s Word by neglect or paying little or no attention when it is read or preached? Have you consistently honored and given due respect to those in godly authority over you? And we could go on through the entire Decalogue, God’s Ten Commandments.

Yes, we confess, our conscience has been lulled to sleep just like Peter. May we receive the graceful light of God’s Law and Gospel, especially through our meditation of our Lord’s Passion, to awaken us, to enlighten us anew to His mercy and holy will for us and for the whole world.