What a scripture reading! There’s a lot of tension in it, a lot of agitation for me. And it made me think this week, how much I love Peter. What a personality.
In this scene, and it’s pretty consistent among all his scenes in Scriptures – Peter is so bold! He is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and he does not shy away one iota from speaking truth to power. Did you notice the line-up that he was speaking to? I mean, this is the line-up of the most powerful temple leaders within the first century. And he’s not intimidated by them! He’s not hesitant, in the least, to name and claim Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
He is not at all timid to say the words that, I’ll be honest, I am timid in saying sometimes, and maybe you are too:
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (v. 12)
Now I’ll be honest–you know me well enough, those of you who have been worshiping here – I kind of get lost and confused by words sometimes (even though I say a lot of them) – and I am not entirely sure what that statement really means. And I’m not completely satisfied with the usual interpretations limiting who gets to get into heaven depending on whether they give the right answer or not. Certainly there are Christians who know precisely what that means but I’m not one of those Christians. And I’m always kind of agitated by any attempt to narrow the Gospel message too narrowly because I think we miss then the explosive power of the Living Word.
But still…but still…Peter’s boldness agitates me to my core on a couple of levels.
What other things must be said but because of timidity we stay hushed? In your own life: what truth do you know, what truth about our culture, this world, do you know at some gut level God has just laid on your heart and you’re just too timid to say it? So Peter’s boldness is a lesson right there.
And then secondly, at a much more personal faith level, is there something in the gospel of Jesus Christ that is so compelling to you that you would share it boldly with someone else? Something that you would share without really caring about the consequences?
You don’t have to say it like Peter. The Bible is full of a variety of ways to talk about your faith and to live your faith. This is one of the great things about Scripture. But speaking with integrity and conviction about your core values, your core beliefs is very compelling to me. And I hope that in your own life you continually think about what is meaningful, that I’m willing to put my life on the line for, and how is that which is meaningful to you connected to the good news of Jesus Christ. I mean, I just think that is a fundamental thing that comes up in this Gospel.
It’s interesting. We are told in verse 13 (the verse after today’s Scripture reading) that Peter was an “uneducated and ordinary man.” Isn’t that fascinating? But he had a spiritual gift of speaking, of proclamation . . . he had the spiritual gift of leadership.
Of course, Peter also had had some kind of transformative experience with Jesus, no doubt. He had had a “make-over” that was not just cosmetic but was deep and wide and a radical change from a fisherman to the first face of the church. And yet, if you read the Gospel stories, if you read the verses about Peter with any kind of care, you will note he had always been complex, had always been gifted, even before Jesus.
The transformative experience didn’t make Peter what he had not always been. It simply and powerfully released more fully what and who he was, all the time. So that’s maybe Lesson #2.
You know, sometimes you think you get deeper and deeper into faith, you think “Oh my goodness, I’m going to go through this big change.” Well, yes indeed you will, but what you’re going to find is that the transformative experience in Jesus Christ just makes you more of who you really are. I believe that to be true. And if you were a good leader before you bumped into Jesus, just think what you’re going to be after Jesus.
Did you that Peter is mentioned 168 times in the New Testament? He was also known as Simon, so add a few more. It is incontestable that he was the first disciple of consequence – he was the first disciple named in the triumvirate of Peter, James and John, And Peter is, of course, the disciple upon whom Jesus built his church.
But Peter wasn’t without rivals. There was Judas, the keeper of the money who had a special relationship with Jesus. There was the so-called “Beloved Disciple” who laid his head upon the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, according to John’s gospel. In fact, if you read the fourth gospel, John’s gospel, with any kind of care you will see that there was quite a competition going on between Peter on the one hand and the “beloved disciple” on the other, and in John’s gospel you get a sense that the beloved disciple wins out. And then of course, there was Paul who eclipsed Peter fairly early and rather quickly.
Now Jesus renamed Peter “Cephas” – which in Aramaic means “rock.” And there is something in a name. As Frederick Buechner writes: “A rock isn’t the prettiest thing in creation or the fanciest or the smartest, and if it gets rolling in the wrong direction, watch out, but there’s no nonsense about a rock, and once it settles down, it’s pretty much there to stay.”
But before the resurrection or after…Peter was Peter. Remember, he’s the first to jump upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee when he sees Jesus walking. And we know what happened, when Peter realized what the hell he was doing on the water. . . he sank like a rock!
He was, along with the other disciples (or as Tim Beal likes to call them: the DUH-ciples), always missing the meaning of the parables.
In a scene that always seems to capture Peter at his best and worst; he is the first to call Jesus the Messiah and then not seconds later is so taken aback by Jesus saying that the Messiah must suffer that Peter actually tries to exorcise a demon out of Jesus – he rebukes Jesus! – and then Jesus calls him “Satan.”
He wants to make three dwelling places for Jesus, Elijah and Moses when Jesus is transfigured – and Matthew is quick to tell us that Peter didn’t know what he was talking about.
When some of Jesus’ early disciples were leaving him, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you want to go away too?” But like Richard Gere’s character in the “An Officer and a Gentleman” movie, a very broken man who has found his way into officer flight training and he’s just not doing really well, and the drill Sergent’s trying to force him to leave and making him do all sorts of horrific work and finally commands him to quit and just go home, replies: “I have no where else to go.” It’s almost as if Peter is so lost and wondering that when he’s up against , said, “Lord, I have no where else to go but to follow you. You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter, like many of us, wants to know the rules: “If a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven?” And we learn that he remained for a while at least a kosher Jew, even as a Christian.
And of course, it is Peter who declares with great boldness, “I will never deny you.” Well, you and I know how dependable he turned out to be. . . he really had Jesus’ back, didn’t he? And I have always thought that Peter’s denial and Judas’ betrayal are really two sins of the same kind. But there was something about Peter’s faith that allowed him to see beyond the horror and grasp at life in the future, while Judas killed himself. I am not judging Judas, he was a complex character too – I’m just describing what happened.
It was to Peter to whom the women ran on the first Easter morning. And even after, it was Peter, who distraught at Jesus’ death and his own actions, jumped into the sea and swam ashore when he saw the risen Christ, and in one of the most poignant scene in all of scripture was reconciled to his Lord: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Peter responded: “Lord, I love you. You know I love you.”
And so now Peter stands, amidst the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and is all bold, proclaiming the kingdom. This rock has turned into a rock star – even his shadow will heal now and the crowds flock to him like he is LeBron!
But even then, his story doesn’t end. You would think that once you have a definitive encounter with Jesus, you would have all your stuff together. But in Acts 10, we read about the Gentile Cornelius turning Peter’s world upside down, all of a sudden declaring this radical, radical inclusive vision of the church – nothing was unclean anymore. So you see, ever after you bump into Jesus, our vision can be limited and needs to be expanded.
And actually, the end of Peter’s story is rather sad. He disappears from the scene in Acts 15 and Paul takes over. Peter is never mentioned again. Peter disappears and it is even implied in Acts that Peter looked the other way and allowed Paul to be captured and sent to Rome…. perhaps a second denial and betrayal?
Paul in Galatians speaks of an open rift between himself and Peter. Paul writes: “I opposed Peter to his face because he stood self-condemned.” Even after his experience with Cornelius, Peter still put all his eggs in the Jewish-Christian basket.
He becomes a diminished character; two letters in the New Testament bear his name, but they almost certainly are not from him. (He didn’t have the gift of writing.) He died, as tradition has it, in Rome during the reign of Nero, and tradition has it that he requested to be crucified head downwards because he didn’t think he was worthy to suffer the same kind of death as Jesus.
History has treated him well, certainly. There is a rather large basilica in Rome that bears his name and a fairly powerful institution that has done quite well, thank you very much, that looks to Peter as its founder.
Peter was loyal, passionate, impetuous, bold, a good speaker, but also a doubter, a denier, a betrayer, limited, and yet not constrained. Maybe that is why God called him, and Jesus picked him; not because he was perfect, or saintly, or even right most of the time, or even understood what he was part of. But just because Peter kept at it – offered what he had in faith and in doubt, in betrayal and denial, in exuberance and in humiliation. He kept squinting and squirming towards the light of the love that would not let him go, looking through the glass dimly (to borrow words of his rival Paul) and laying it all out there.
And all of this spiritual biography of Peter makes me think, “What is my spiritual biography? And what is yours? What are my gifts and what are yours? Who am I to the Lord, and who is the Lord to me? How am I putting it out there for the kingdom and how are you? How do I, how do you, live your life with such a rich integrity that it causes folks to notice and ask: “By what power or by what name do you do this?”
Are you like Peter – bold and impetuous, a speaker, a teacher, someone who can stand before others and not get too flustered? Or not like Peter – it’s okay – because Jesus didn’t call only Peters. God called Moses, and Miriams, and Samuels and Pauls, and Judases and Philips, and Deborahs, and Tabbithas, and Pricillas to name just a few.
Not one better than the other. Not only one prototype – “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of our faces.” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that verse – and it speaks to the unique preciousness and precociousness in each of you, that is lovely to the Lord – even the bits that aren’t lovely to you.
As I consider the character of Peter in all its complexity, I wonder in my own life, which John do I bring to the communion table today, and which YOU do you bring? The bold one? The meek one? The one heavy with betrayal or burdened with doubt of the one so full of energy that you would leap over the boat into the watery chaos? The one so confident that you could speak your truth to anyone, anytime, or the one who’s feeling rather depressed and left out and feeling horrible today- you can’t even fish anymore. Perhaps it’s the you have nothing to say. Is there someone else stealing your thunder, like Paul did to Peter, making you feel diminished and empty? Do you feel like a rock, an unpretty rock or like a rock, steady, secure, ready to be built upon rock?
I guess all I’m trying to say in this sermon is that the kingdom needs you at this time of crisis, of change, of hope, of despair and of great possibilities. The kingdom needs its Peters but it also requires the contemplatives, the writers, the thinkers, the prayers, the activists, the followers, and even the gardeners.
So come to this table today – take and receive – and be at peace – just let your life speak. Let your life speaks its truth, like Peter did. If you speak your truth,which is the truth of God in you, blessed and precious and good and powerful. Don’t be scared to let it out and take that risk. Sometimes I think that is all God ever really wants, the faithful attempt, the personal risk more than success, more than victory, more than a hitch on a belt, or the perfect theological answer.
As the great old spiritual sings: “If you cannot preach like Peter, If you cannot pray like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus” . . . and say and act and play and work that . . . “he died for all. . .”