THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.
“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway
He became the poster child for defeat. The five seconds it took for him to become the icon of downfall wiped out the hard work that had gone into learning to “ski fly” and for many years, the film clip of Vinko Bogataj falling off Heini Klopfer Hill in West Germany accompanied host Jim MacKay’s voiceover on Wide World of Sports. The “thrill of victory montage” changed with the sports’ seasons, but the “agony of defeat” was always Vinko, losing control before he even left the ski jump, veering off to one side and bouncing wildly into the crowd.
It was an epic fail. Onlookers feared he would not survive the crash.
And don’t we all feel that way when we mess up? We assume the world is pointing fingers at us, exploiting our faults and snickering behind their hands. Worse even, we have a hard time forgiving ourselves and so we figure that God cannot forgive us.
It happens to us all.
Even to those who walked with Jesus. Mark 14:66-68 tells the story of the downfall of the disciple Peter. Often referred to as the “Big Fisherman”, Peter was known for his loud and brash ways. In Matthew 26:33-35, Peter hotly declares that he will never desert Jesus; he will not run away when push comes to shove and he says, and I quote, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!”
Big words from a big man. Easy to say, hard to do.
When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken to the house of Caiaphas the priest, Peter and John are the only disciples who do not run away. Points for that. But later on, one of the servant girls sees the Big Fisherman in the courtyard and says, “Hey, you! You were with Jesus!”
Peter brashly denies it, using legalese to say, in effect, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
A short while later, another servant girl says, “Wait a darn minute. I know this man here was with Jesus.”
And Peter continues with his slide into the agony of defeat by uttering an oath that basically says, “I don’t know who that blasted fellow is!”
By now, everyone who is hanging around the courtyard has heard Peter speak and they know he is from Galilee. Someone puts two and two together and shouts out, “Yo, dude! You talk just like Jesus! You must be one of them!”
And this time Peter begins to curse.
Then, as we all know, that rooster crows to herald the coming of the dawn and Jesus, just yards away from Peter in the courtyard, turns and looks at His disciple and Peter leaves the courtyard and goes to cry his eyes out in privacy (Luke 22: 60-61).
And Peter’s story could have ended there. He could have crawled off and licked his wounds, spent his life on his boat in the Sea of Galilee, and faded into a cautionary tale.
But God had other plans for Peter.
The angel who greets the women who come to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath specifically says to them, “Go and tell Peter and the disciples” (Luke 24:9). And Peter, wild with excitement and disbelief, pushes his way in front of John, and runs as quickly as his sandals will allow to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. It’s not much later when Jesus turns Peter’s “agony of defeat” into the “thrill of victory.” Appearing to the fisherman on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus says to Peter, three times, “Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep.” And while it saddens Peter to know he’s messed up before, he now embraces a chance to do the right thing.
As Pastor Tim pointed out on Sunday, we are all prone to failure. But wiping out, be it on a mountaintop or in a courtyard, need not dog our steps. Here are three lessons Pastor Tim pointed out:
- Wiping out is never the end of the road. Peter went onto become “the rock” upon which the church was built (Matthew 16:18) That’s turning a defeat into a victory!
- Jesus prioritizes those who have fallen. The angel made a point of telling the women at the empty tomb to “Call Peter.” And later, when Jesus met Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He had a special message for him.
- Church is a hospital for the broken, not a museum for the perfect. Many of our Old Testament forebearers messed up in Biblical proportions: Abraham, David, and Saul just to name a few.
But whatever happened to Vinko Bogataj, the very face of failure? To him, it wasn’t the big deal Wide World of Sports made it out to be. He made a call from the hospital that he wanted to have a “do-over” but his doctors wouldn’t allow it. After recovering from a concussion and a few bruised ribs, he went back to his quiet live in Slavia. He married, raised two daughters, and became a painter famous enough to be awarded the Golden Palette in 2002, the highest honor Slavia can give to a painter. He was largely unaware of his iconic role on a television show in the United States. It was just a tiny sliver of his life.
In 1981, ABC hosted an event to celebrate 20 years of Wide World of Sports and invited Bogataj to attend. He accepted and was surprised to find that many of the famous athletes at the event –including Nadia Comaneci and Muhammad Ali—wanted his autograph.
Not because he failed.
But because he didn’t let it stop him.
Just like Peter did.
Just like everyone of us can, too.
In an interview Bogataj gave shortly after the 1981 event, he was asked, “What is the difference between defeat and success?”
“Milliseconds,” he said. “Falling down isn’t the thing. It’s getting back up.”