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The Crucial Encounter: Peter (5)

 

Matthew 16:13-20        2nd Samuel 22:1-4        Psalm 19:7-14       Acts 5:12-16      Mark 14:66-72

First it was Rocky I; then came Rocky II; then III and IV. There appeared to be a limitless market for the Sylvester Stallone movies about the seedy, brutal world of boxing. The boxing scenes in the movies were entirely unrealistic, as phoney as a three-dollar bill. Yet people flocked to the movies, and continue to watch them by means of videos. Plainly people think they can identify with the come-from-behind fighter, almost out on his feet yet managing to stagger through to the end when he wins it all in the last few seconds of the contest. I’m surprised that people identify with a story so very unrealistic. Rocky’s story, frankly, will never be their story.

We ought to identify instead with another story about another “Rocky,” for this story, by God’s grace, is our story. For we, like this “Rocky,” are disciples of Jesus Christ. Peter is his name, or rather his nickname. Petros is Greek for “Peter;” Petra for “rock.” His real name was Symeon. The Gentile children with whom he played in Galilee had trouble with a Hebrew name like Symeon, and so it was shortened to Simon, a name that Greek-speaking Gentiles could readily pronounce.

Next it was Jesus who named him Peter. Was he really a rock, or was Jesus merely joking, the way we joke when we nickname a fat person “Slim?”

Peter’s story is our story. He was neither unusually wealthy nor unusually poor, but rather a middling middle class type like us. He owned a small fishing business in partnership with his brother. He was married; in fact his mother-in-law lived in his home. He wasn’t a clergyman; there’s no evidence he had rabbinical training of any sort. Neither did he belong to any religious special interest group, like the Zealots or the Sadducees or the Scribes. He was ordinary with the ordinariness with which all of us are ordinary.

One day Jesus called him to be a disciple. Thereafter Peter was always depicted as the spokesperson for the group of disciples. He represented them and spoke for them. But to say that he spoke for all disciples then is to say that he speaks for all disciples now. In other words, he speaks for you and me. We are those whom Jesus has called into his company. We can find ourselves mirrored in Peter. Then what is it of ourselves that we see reflected in him?

 

I: — First of all it’s our confession concerning Jesus Christ; it’s our acknowledgement of our Lord’s uniqueness – the very thing that non-disciples find narrow and intolerant and extreme. Having been seized by our Lord, and having confessed to this seizure in public, we cry aloud with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. In you the presence and power and purpose of God are concentrated. You are the beacon to whom we look, the anchor we may move around but away from whom we don’t drift. You are light in the midst of darkness, truth in the midst of falsehood, reality in the midst of illusion.”

Many people tell us that they believe that God is, in some sense. The problem, of course, lies in the “in some sense.” Precisely in what sense? The God they tell us they believe in is vague, fuzzy, unfocussed – and useless. What, after all, does a fuzzy deity do? No answer. What does “it” effect in people? No answer. What does he require of those who call on him? Who says he requires anything?

Such a deity is like a blurred picture on a movie screen. No one doubts that there actually is something on the screen; at the same time what’s there is so very unfocussed that no one can say what it is, and no one can state what is being conveyed. When, however, the lens of the movie projector is turned, the picture suddenly stands out in sharpest detail.

When a youngster wants to burn his initials into a bench the power source readiest-to-hand is the sun even though the sun is 93 million miles away. Still, the sun’s power is too diffuse to be effective. A magnifying glass focuses the sun’s rays at one point. Thereafter someone’s initials will be found on the bench as long as the bench lasts.

In Jesus Christ God has concentrated himself to pinpoint intensity. Now we can perceive what he is doing and how we are to respond. And it is precisely this point that a pluralistic society finds obnoxious. Christians are then accused of a narrowness that ill suits the diversity we are supposed to extol everywhere in life. Surely it’s insufferable arrogance, we are told, to claim that God has concentrated himself precisely in the one Nazarene.

But doesn’t the effectiveness of a knife depend on the narrowness of its cutting edge? Can’t the movie be seen and enjoyed only if the focus is as precise as possible?

Christians are faulted because the confession they make concerning Jesus Christ is deemed to render them exclusive. But when we say with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” we are not saying that God acts only here; we are saying, rather, that God is known to act here for sure. We aren’t saying that we alone are the beneficiaries of God’s care; we are saying, rather, that we know here precisely how God cares for us and to what end. We aren’t saying we have all the answers; we are saying, rather, that here we can distinguish life’s genuine questions from pseudo-questions. We aren’t saying that God hasn’t communicated himself anywhere else; we are saying, rather, that in Jesus of Nazareth God has given us himself and illumined us concerning the truth and meaning and force of his self-giving.

Knowing Jesus to be the cosmic creator’s pinpoint self-concentration won’t tell us whether we should be accountant or teacher or nurse; i.e., it won’t settle the matter of career. But it will settle the matter of vocation. Career is how we happen to earn a living; vocation is our summons to reflect the discernment, compassion, and triumph of our risen Lord wherever we happen to earn a living.

Evil is relentless. It surges everywhere, molesting God’s creation in all its dimensions at once. How can evil be recognized? Don’t say, “People recognize it as soon as they see it.” My experience is that most people have a very anaemic understanding of evil and a very poor apparatus for discerning it and very little desire to do anything about it. To know Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is to find deficits in our approach to evil on the way to being remedied. Those whose recognition of Jesus mirrors Peter’s recognition – “You are the Christ” – know that their ignorance concerning evil is overcome and their paralysis before it is undone even as they know they are summoned to render visible their Lord’s victory over evil in the midst of its refusal to give up.

To cry with Peter, “You are the Christ, and you alone,” isn’t to parade ourselves as having “arrived.” It is, however, to rejoice that we are no longer groping for the road.

 

II: — We find ourselves mirrored in Peter, in the second place, as we look at Peter’s treachery. Peter, spokesperson for all disciples in all eras, is depicted in the written gospels as weak, faltering, fumbling, stumbling, falling down. And we’ve all been there. Peter, impulsive, impetuous, mouth moving lightning-fast; Peter says to Jesus on the eve of the betrayal, “Everyone else may let you down. But me? Never. You can always count on me. I don’t lack the fortitude of these weak-kneed followers who fail again and again.”

“Peter,” Jesus cautions, “before that old rooster crows twice tomorrow morning you will be falling all over yourself to convince those who frighten you that you have never so much as laid eyes on me.” Next morning it takes only a fifteen-year old servant girl to crumble a mature, successful businessman. “Your accent,” she says; “for someone who says he’s never met the man from Galilee – your accent has a Galilean flavour to it. You must be from Galilee yourself. Then you must know the fellow who’s about to be executed.” Peter begins to swear. All my life I’ve wondered what swear words he used. What kind of swear words do fishermen use? In any case swearing comes easy to explosive, impulsive people. The oaths and obscenities spew out of him as he tells the fifteen year old twerp where to go. Then the rooster is heard to crow again, and the tears stream down Peter’s face like – like what? – like water pouring down the side of a rock.

I have heard the rooster crow. So have you. We have made public profession of our loyalty to Jesus Christ (as we should.) And then we have contradicted it all in thirty minutes. “I’ll never deny you,” exclaimed Peter. The gospel writer adds, “And all the other disciples said the same.” The picture is almost laughable: little boys in their cardboard carton clubhouse promising great promises and boasting great boasts when little boys don’t know what lies around the corner.

We remember the time we erupted with a put-down so savage that we shocked ourselves even as we whipped the skin off someone else. It came out of us so fast it seemed natural. Yet it isn’t supposed to be natural to disciples.

We recall the time someone found us out concerning something we didn’t want publicized. Desperate, we lied, only to have to lie again.

And then there’s that business trip where something besides business was carried on, and only two days later a church meeting had to be addressed. You felt as if someone had taken a pneumatic drill to your stomach.

Or we fell down badly in front of our children. Stupidly thinking it virtuous to save face, and still more stupidly thinking we could save face, we tried to excuse the inexcusable and succeeded only in making dishonest fools of ourselves before our children.

Stunned at any of this we said to ourselves, “But I’m supposed to be a disciple.” And like Peter we wept bitterly. (If we didn’t, then we have turned a deaf ear to the rooster’s cry.

It is surely a sign of our Lord’s patience and mercy that he continues to count us disciples. As we find our compromised discipleship mirrored in Peter’s we know that it is by grace, only by grace, that we are Christ’s forever.

 

III: — Finally we see reflected in Peter the use that our Lord makes of us and will always make of us. Following the crucifixion the risen one appears to Peter and asks him three times, once for each denial, “Do you love me – more than these other disciples love me?” Now Peter isn’t impetuous or impulsive. He doesn’t blurt out, “Of course I do; I love you more than all of these put together.” He can’t say this in the wake of his denial. What disciple with even a smidgen of self-perception would claim to be a better disciple than someone else? Peter can barely say anything, but he does manage to croak out, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And then for the third time Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

Our Lord is entrusting Peter with the task of nurturing others in the Christian community. Peter’s stumble hasn’t disqualified him. To be sure it has sobered him, and rightly so. Never again will he shoot his mouth off as he did in the courtyard. But neither is he going to wallow in what he did, for he has been set on his feet. “Feed my sheep.” He has been commissioned to nurture and guide and edify other disciples and soon-to-be-disciples.

In order to be used of God we don’t have to be faultless. Because we don’t have to be perfect we can stop thinking that we have to be perfect. We don’t have to impress anyone, especially ourselves, with extraordinary anything. Our Lord commissions us to a task on behalf of his people and promises to honour and use any effort we make in his name. Please note: he promises to honour and use the effort we make, not the success we achieve.

He never asks us what qualifications we have for the work we undertake. He asks us one question only: “Do you love me?” Our earnest reply, even if we can barely whisper it, “You know that I love you;” our reply is the qualification. His commission, “Feed my sheep,” is the guarantee of usefulness, for what our Lord commissions us to do he unfailingly blesses himself.

To be sure, all Christians have heightened hearing. Because we have heightened hearing we hear several sounds at once. Yes, we do hear the raucous crow of the rooster; but we hear even more loudly, more distinctly, his gentle question to us: “Do you love me?” And then we hear ourselves answer, “You know that I love you.” Ultimately we hear most loudly of all, and most compellingly, “Feed my sheep.” Our Lord’s definitive word to all of us is his commission and promise that he deems us fit to feed his sheep and promises to render it effective.

Luke tells us that in the early days of the church people in Jerusalem laid their sick friends in the street so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them. What did they expect from a shadow, even if it was Peter’s shadow? Mightn’t there have been an element of superstition here? There might have been. The point is this: everyone in Jerusalem knew Peter’s history, yet so very esteemed is Peter in the wake of Christ’s commission, so highly trusted is he as someone through whom the bread of life has been brought to others, that Peter is now deemed exemplary. And if those who love him throng him so that the sick can’t touch him as he passes by, then the next best thing, they insist, is having his shadow fall on them. All the Christians in Jerusalem know that Peter’s unrestrained love for his Lord eclipses everything in his past.

 

IV: — We must conclude by answering the question we didn’t answer twenty minutes ago. Was Jesus joking when he called Peter “rocky?” Was Jesus speaking ironically? The truth is, naming was such an important matter to Jewish people that they never joked about it. Jesus meant exactly what he said: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. And the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”

The rock is Peter himself together with his confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The rock is Peter himself together with his penitent reply to the Master’s question, “You know that I love you.”

At the beginning of the sermon I said that the Sylvester Stallone movies, “Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky on-and-on,” told a story that was never going to be our story. The story of Peter, however, is a story that Jesus intends to be our story. We, together with our confession of our Lord and our love for him; we are that rock on which the church is built as it continues to gather people to it, even as the powers of death shall never be able to undo it.

 

                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                                                    

June 2004