Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Peter the Denier

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 22:31-34, 54-62:

Just about every time we see an interaction between Jesus and Simon Peter, or when we see Peter by himself doing something, I imagine Jesus’ putting his head in his hands and shaking it and saying “Peter, Peter, Peter,” because Peter just never seems to get it.  He wants to get it.  He wants it so badly you can feel for him.  But Peter is the impetuous one.  We could say that he is the extravert’s extravert, but I’m not sure it has anything necessarily to do with extraversion; instead it appears that Peter has no filters in his life.  Whatever he thinks to say immediately comes out of his mouth, and whatever he thinks to do he immediately does.  Most of us know someone like this, and while there is something endearing about it, there is also something totally exasperating, and that is what we see with Peter.

During the Sundays of lent we are looking at the people we find in the passion story.  So far in looking at the people we find at the cross and at the trial, we really know very little about the characters involved.  They have little back-story or little other involvement in the gospel narratives.  Even with people like Mary, Jesus’ mother, we just don’t know very much.  We have her at the beginning, we have her at the cross, but there are few stories of her in between, and where she does have interactions they are very limited.  Peter, on the other hand, is someone who is crucial to the story that is told not only when Jesus is alive, but also post resurrection and in the beginning of the church.  Peter is maybe the most important disciple, and while it has been said that besides for Jesus himself that Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity, it could be argued that Peter comes in third in importance.

Peter according to most gospels is one of the first disciples called by Jesus.  It is said that he and James and John are fishing on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus says, “Come follow me” and they drop everything they are doing and begin to follow Jesus.  John tells a slightly different story, in which it is said that Peter’s brother Andrew, is the first to be a follower, and he invites Peter to become a follower.  But what is also part of these stories is that Peter’s real name is Simon, and his nickname, given to him by Jesus, is Peter, coming from the Greek word Petros, or Cephas, which means rock in Aramiac.  It is not clear why Jesus’ gives him this nickname because in many ways Peter is anything but solid.  But while we think about Peter being the rock, the term here can also have the connotation of that he head is full of rocks, or that he is a blockhead, and so rather than being a statement of solidness, it can also maybe be a term of endearment because of his sort of fecklessness.

We know that Peter was a fisherman, and that he was from a small backwater village in a backwater area of Palestine.  More than likely Peter was illiterate, which would not make him an exception, but instead would include him in the vast majority of people in the ancient world, probably as high as 95% in rural areas.  Now some of you might be asking if Peter was illiterate how we could have two letters in the Bible from him, and that’s a good question. The first point, which we don’t have the time to really cover, is that few scholars believe that Peter is actually responsible for either 1st or 2nd Peter, instead they were written by someone else in his name, which was not uncommon in the ancient world.  But even if Peter is responsible for them, while the ability to read was rare, the ability to write was even rarer, and so Peter probably would have dictated the letters to a scribe who would have written them for him.  This is what Paul did with his own letters, and we know this because Paul will occasionally say that he is writing something with his own hand and remark about how large the letters are.

We know that Peter was married, the only disciple we are told this about, and in this he was probably in the minority of the disciples, if not the only one.  And we know he was married because we are told a story where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians that Peter would travel with his wife.  Along with James and John, Peter is part of an inner circle of disciples who are present for things that the other disciples do not see or participate in.  It is Peter, James and John who go up the mountain and see Jesus transfigured and see him talking with Moses and Elijah, and of course it is Peter about whom we are told says that they should build some tents for the three of them, because he didn’t know what to say.  James and John are smart enough to keep their mouths shut.  It is Peter, James and John who follow Jesus into the garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest, and Jesus tells them three different times to stay awake, and each time they fall asleep.  Some will remember that sleeping is used in the gospels as a term for spiritual weakness or sloth.

Peter is the one who when he sees Jesus walking on the water asks Jesus to have him come out, and when Peter realizes what he is doing he begins to sink and he cries out to Jesus to save have, and Jesus says “oh ye of little faith.”  When Jesus says that he is going to wash the disciples feet, it is Peter who says that he won’t allow Jesus to wash his feet, and when Jesus tells him that unless Peter allows Jesus to wash his feet, that Peter will have no share with Jesus, and so Peter says “Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head.”  When Jesus say that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and then to be raised on the third day, it is Peter who rebukes Jesus, only to hear Jesus say to him “get behind me satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Peter is the totally impetuous one, as I said, if Peter thinks it he says it or does it.  There are no filters

But, Peter is also the first one to make a declaration of faith in who Jesus is.  When Jesus asks who people say that he is, unsurprisingly it is Peter who answers, and when Jesus says who do you say that I am, it is Peter who proclaims “You are the messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Now it is clear that Peter, and the other disciples did not understand what being the messiah truly meant, an issue we will cover next week when we look at Judas, but Peter is still the one, and the only one, to have made this declaration.  And for this Jesus says, “you are Peter,” petros, “and upon this rock,” petra, “I will build my church.” (Matt 16:18)  Now the Roman Catholic church has traditionally interpreted this statement to mean that the church would be built on the work of Peter, that he would be the head of the church, the founder of the church in Rome, and the first bishop of Rome, so that he was the first pope.

Now there are some problems historically with that claim, but as Protestants we have interpreted Jesus’ statement to Peter to mean not that Peter, petros, is the rock on which Jesus would build his church, but instead Peter’s proclamation of Jesus being the messiah that the church will be founded upon.  Of course as Protestants we are a little biased in our own interpretation, but I think Jesus use of two different words here for rock illustrate that while Simon is petros, the rock, he is not petra, the rock, the foundational statement of faith on which the church is built.

But even with that, Peter clearly plays a significant role after Easter, and is crucial in the spread of the gospel message, but then we have his role in the passage we heard from today.  At the last supper Peter, of course as impetuous as ever, tells Jesus he will follow him even to death, and then Jesus tells him that not only won’t he follow, but that he will deny Jesus three times before the night is through, and of course that is exactly what happens.  Peter follows Jesus after he is arrested, but not before, according to John’s gospel, Peter slices off the ear of one of the guards.  I think this again highlights that Peter does not understand Jesus’ understanding of what being the messiah means, and thinking back to last week he wants to follow Jesus Barabbas, the violent revolutionary, rather than Jesus the Christ, who goes to the cross.  But Peter does follow Jesus and goes into the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest, where Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin, and while he is there, three different people accuse Peter of being a disciple of Christ, and each time he denies that he is.  After the third time, Jesus looks at Peter out a window, and Peter remembering what he had been told leaves the courtyard and weeps bitterly.

Every time I hear of Peter’s denial I wonder why we have made Judas such the enemy for his betrayal, but Peter doesn’t get similar treatment for his denial of Jesus.  This is one of those stories you wonder why it was included in the gospel accounts, and all four gospels tell this story, because it makes Peter, such a key figure in the church look bad. Some commentators have said that Peter was really being a spy and so it’s not really that he denied Jesus, but instead that he couldn’t be honest because that would cause him to break cover, just like a spy is not going to truly admit who he really is if asked.  It’s an interesting interpretation, and at least it gives Peter some cover, or at least we think it does.  But it’s not an interpretation that holds much true meaning for me because I think we probably know this story because it was a story that Peter told himself numerous times, and he told this story because of its meanings about forgiveness and about grace.

Woody Allen says that 80% of success is simply showing up, and I think we have to remember that Peter showed up.  None of the other disciples were there, they had all fled, but Peter was there.  He showed up, his faith did not hold up, but who among us has always been entirely faithful to each other and our loved ones let alone to God?  I’m sure we have all at one time or another denied Jesus or denied our faith in some way.  It might just be as simple as scheduling in choosing to do one thing over another.  And therefore I think we can all have some sympathy with Peter, after all even though he said he would follow Jesus to death, saying that and doing it are two different things, and this time Peter found his conviction lacking, although we also have to admit that it took Peter enormous strength to be in the courtyard in the first place.

But something else to consider is can we ever become better at anything without failing first?  The only way we can learn anything is by working at it and working at it and working at it, and that will require that we try and fail, often many, many times.  The only way we can get better, the only way we can excel, the only way we can reach our highest potential is not only by taking the risks that might cause us to fail, but even to fail.  It’s said that it took Thomas Edison 1000 attempts to perfect the light bulb, and when he was asked what it was like to fail a thousand times, he is reported either to have said “I didn’t fail, I simply found 1000 ways not to do it,” or perhaps “the light bulb simply had 1000 steps.”  Peter learned about his faith, and where he had room to improve and grow, through painful experience, but his failure didn’t end him, instead it made him a better disciple, it made him more faithful.

And that stands out to me because of what Jesus says to Peter before telling Peter that he will deny him.  “I have prayed for you that you faith may not fail,” Jesus says, “and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  We have a word for turning back, it’s repentance.  That’s what it means, to turn around.  But, there is  a difference between apologizing and truly seeking repentance.  I had a teacher who used to say, “are you sorry you did it or are you sorry you got caught.”  If we are merely sorry that we got caught, then nothing can be learned and we are prone to make the same mistakes over and over again. When we are sorry we did it, then we can learn our lesson, we can recognize our failure, we can repent and go down a different path so that we can move on to something better.  But it’s not enough to just go back to where we were before, but instead to recognize that we need to go back to a different path.  Once you have turned back, Jesus says, once you have repented, strengthen your brothers.

Peter is a model of discipleship here not because he failed, because we all fail.  Peter is a model of discipleship because he turned back, he repented which made his way for restoration not only with his community, but most importantly with Jesus.  I think we know this story of Peter, because Peter told this story.  I think Peter talked not just about denying Jesus, but about denying his true self, and about faithfulness and about failure, about repentance and forgiveness, and how Christ could forgive him even for this, and if Peter could be forgiven for denying Christ in his time of need, certainly we too can be forgiven for the times we fall short.  And in the end Peter does remain faithful to what he says to Jesus, that he will follow him even unto his death as tradition holds that Peter was executed by Emperor Nero by being crucified upside down.  One tradition holds Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same way that Jesus was, but another tradition says it was because Peter wanted to make a symbolic message that Christ turns the world upside-down, that we need to look past the way things appear to the way things truly are.

We should not see Peter’s denial ultimately as a failure, although at the time it was, but instead we should see it as an example of true discipleship.  We will all fail.  We will fail each other, we will fail those we love, and we will fail God, and yet grace, and mercy, and forgiveness and redemption are there for us.  I don’t imagine that Jesus’ look at Peter in the courtyard was one of contempt, or him saying “see I told you so,” but instead one of love, of saying to Peter, “yes I know what you did, and I love you anyway, now turn back and go strengthen the brothers.”  Peter’s denial is an example of failure, of remorse, of repentance, of forgiveness, of restoration and in the end of success.  Like Peter we will sometimes fall short, but in spite of it all, God still loves us, and God offers us unconditionally and without price, mercy, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, and God says it’s okay to fail, because if you’re not failing at anything then you’re not trying. And failure will make you better as long as you are willing to learn from it, get up, dust yourself off, and move on to something bigger and better, to turn back and strengthen your brothers and sisters.  I pray that it will be so.  Amen.

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