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Of the six men and women whose lives bring us close to Jesus, Peter brings us the closest. There’s far more data in the New Testament about Peter than we can possibly cover in one night, but that isn’t our purpose. We want Peter to lead us to Jesus. In this brief survey of Peter’s life with Jesus, I hope that we will see something of ourselves, because Peter is very much a person like us. And in working with the data on Peter from the four gospels, it strikes me that there is a remarkable circle to Peter’s life as a disciple; a circle in which the grace and the love of God is clearly at work. And our goal is to also see how that same hand is at work in our life of discipleship as well.
I. Peter Recruited
The curtain opens with Jesus calling to Peter who is fishing and inviting him to “Follow me.”
St. Matthew writes, “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20)
As we discussed last week, Matthew places a future event into the record here, before it actually happens. ‘Simon’ is his name, but by the time Matthew writes his gospel, everyone knows him as Peter. St. John, in his gospel, tells us that Peter and Andrew had been disciples of John the Baptist and had followed Jesus at John's urging. John reports that right off the bat, Jesus gives Simon a new name – “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas.” (John 1:42) “Cephas” is an Aramaic word that means 'rock.' As we heard this past Sunday, when God gives men and women names in the Bible, this always means that this person is to play an important role in God's plan of salvation.
There's one more thing that is helpful to recognize in this whole business of giving someone a name. The one who gives you your name is the one who has authority over you. It's the one to whom you belong. For instance, in the beginning, as God creates the universe, He names each part as He creates it. “And God CALLED the light “day” and the darkness He CALLED “night.” That means that the creation belongs to God and He has authority over it.
In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam to name all of the beasts of the field, and whatever Adam named them, that was their name. He had dominion over them. When no suitable helper was found for Adam, God made a woman for him and Adam named her. “She shall be called Eve.” That's where the bible gets its understanding of the 'order of marriage.'
In giving Simon a new name, Jesus is placing him under His authority and making Simon his disciple. This same thing happens for each one of us in our Baptism. Either we or our parents announce the name that we have been given, and then, we are given a new name by God, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God has authority over us and we belong to God. We become His disciples at that point.
II. Peter's Confession
This leads us right to Peter's great Caesarea Philippi confession, which was the focus of our attention on Sunday. Let's listen to this from Matthew's gospel who includes details that Mark does not.
“He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:15-18).
Jesus here reaffirms the name He had given to Simon when He had initially recruited him. Only here, Matthew records it in the Greek and not the Aramaic. 'Petros' is taken from the word 'petra' which means rock. 'Petros' comes out as “Peter” in English.
One thing we notice here is that Peter seems to have emerged as the spokesmen for the 12 disciples. Peter’s a leader. He's not afraid to speak up, not afraid to ‘take charge.’ As we saw on Sunday, Peter is so self-confident and sure of himself, that he is even willing to correct “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” if he feels it necessary. When Jesus announces that He must suffer, be rejected and killed, Peter draws Jesus aside and rebukes Him. And when Jesus saw the other disciples, knowing how influenced by Peter they could be, Jesus straightens Peter out with a rebuke of His own. “Get behind me, Satan.”
III. Peter swears allegiance to Jesus
Let's fast-forward now to holy week. As we have said, by the time we get to this point in the gospels, the tensions in Jerusalem are extremely high for Jesus and His disciples. Jesus is a wanted man and the Sanhedrin have made up their mind to eliminate Him.
We pick it up at the Last Supper. There is a lot of secrecy over where this meal will take place. The disciples are simply told to look for a man with a donkey. Jesus already knows that Judas is looking for a place to betray Him, and Jesus does not want to let him know exactly where this dinner will take place since He wants this time with them to be uninterrupted. The demand for secrecy does not permit a servant to be present.
As they enter the Upper Room, no one is there to wash their feet, and not one of the disciples is willing to stoop so low to take care of this necessary task. Jesus humbles Himself and becomes the servant and washes their feet. When He gets to Peter, Peter once again wants to argue with “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” “Lord, do you wash my feet,” he objects. Peter is having a very difficult time with Jesus' whole approach to things. “You shall not face suffering, rejection or death. This is no way for the Messiah, the Christ to act. You shall not be my servant. This is no way for my Master to act.”
Jesus puts the matter squarely before Peter. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” What Jesus says here is that it is not Peter's service to Jesus that give's Peter a share in Jesus' kingdom. But rather, it is his willingness to be served by Jesus and to let Jesus do for him what He has come to do that defines his place in the Jesus' kingdom.
Us baby boomers can still recall John F. Kennedy’s famous line. Jesus turns that completely around. “Ask not what you can do for your Lord. Rather, ask what your Lord can do for you.” The one who is not willing to first receive from Jesus, cannot be His disciple, he has nothing to give.
You can see how counter-intuitive to our way of thinking about things this is. Especially for big, self-confident, adults who believe that giving is better than receiving. Little children on the other hand have no problem with this. Jesus says, “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think Peter might have argued with Jesus about that one too.
After the Supper is concluded, Jesus leads the eleven to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. As they walk, Jesus says, "You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee."
And once again, Peter argues with Jesus. "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!" And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:30-35).
You'd have to admire Peter's bravado if this were any other story than the story of the life of a disciple of Jesus. But in this story, there is just something that sounds wrong about what Peter is offering. Peter is offering to lay down his life for Jesus. He is willing to die for Jesus. What's wrong with this picture?
Peter doesn't yet understand what discipleship means. Unlike Mary of Bethany who accepted the fact that Jesus must suffer and die, Peter cannot. He thinks he must do his part to save Jesus from such an unacceptable outcome. Maybe, he even thinks, that this is why Jesus called me to 'follow him.'
In the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas arrives and the soldiers, armed with swords and clubs move in to arrest Jesus, sure enough, it's Peter who draws the sword to defend His Lord. He was willing to hold them off long enough for Jesus to escape, even though it would mean he would be killed. But Jesus will not escape. And so, if Jesus refuses to let Peter save Him, so be it. And he and all the other disciples flee.
IV. Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane
As Jesus is brought from the Mount of Olives to the High Priest in Jerusalem, Peter follows from a distance. He is in the courtyard outside the High Priest's house while Jesus is inside.
All four gospels include the account of Peter's three-time denial in the courtyard. St. John includes this interesting little detail. “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire because it was cold.” (John 18:18). The New Testament word is “anthrakia.” In English we call it 'anthracite,' charcoal.
As Peter huddles around this charcoal fire to keep warm, he is asked if he is one of Jesus' disciples. He replies, 'I am not.' And when the question is repeated a second time, Peter answers the same way. And then a third time, and this time it's the fellow whose ear he had cut off at Gethsemane. And Peter, the rock man, raises his voice and gives his final answer, “I don't know the man.”
“And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of he Lord, how he had said to him,' Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.' And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:60-62)
Peter does not strike me as the kind of guy who cries a lot, or very easily. So, when Peter “wept bitterly,” something in him broke. Big, strong, brave Peter failed. His fear overcame his faith. He is not the man he honestly thought he was.
Peter is not only disappointed with himself. In fact, I’m not so sure that that isn’t the least of the reasons for why Peter wept bitterly. For Peter, this was not about a movement or a cause. This was about Jesus. He loved this man. When the roster crows and Peter sees Jesus through the window of the Chief Priest’s house, and Jesus is looking right at him, Peter suddenly realizes that Jesus had known him all along. Jesus had known him better than he knew himself. And he realizes what a fool he has been. But he realizes that despite the fact that Jesus had seen through him all along, Jesus had continued to love him.
Each of the four gospel writers writes to a different audience. Interestingly, all four gospel writers include this account of Peter’s denial. This is something that every audience needs to see.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians writes, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1Cor.10:12). If Peter can fall, so can we. If Peter could have his own agenda and goals for how God should act and respond to our prayers, so can we. If Peter can be such a fool before Jesus, so can we.
V. Peter Restored
Sometime after Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Peter decided to go fishing, and six of the disciples went with him. It was still dark, the sun was just beginning to rise. As they are throwing their nets, suddenly they hear a voice from someone on the shore. “Children, do you have any fish?” “No,” they answered. And the voice answered back. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” “So they cast, and now they were not able to haul the net in, because of the quantity of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!' When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, and threw himself into the sea.” “When they got out on land, there was a CHARCOAL FIRE with fish already laid out on it and bread.”
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' pointing to the fish. Three times Jesus asked the same question, addressing Peter in the same way. Not Cephas, not Peter, but now, Simon, son of John. He is no longer the 'rock man.' He is the fisherman whom Jesus called to three years ago.
Three times, Simon answers Jesus, confessing what he now knows more clearly than he has ever known before. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Three times, Jesus commissions this fisherman, “feed my sheep.” And John writes, “And after saying his he said to him, 'Follow me.'” (John 21:15-19).
And we have come full circle. Now, Peter is ready to be the disciple that Jesus would have him be. He has been confronted by the cross of Christ and radically changed by it. No longer trusting in himself and his abilities and faith, he is ready to rely entirely upon Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Paul puts it right when he writes, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor. 12:10). In his weakness, Peter was finally ready to be the disciple whom Jesus had recruited him to be.
This is how the cross of Christ confronts us all. Maybe it’s not the dramatic failures like Peter's, although maybe it is. But certainly it’s the little, everyday failures that add up to the depressing conclusion that we are not the super Christians that we think we are. We’re not ‘God’s gift to the Church’ that we claim to be. In fact, we are poor, miserable sinners, totally dependant on the mercy and grace of God.
The cross confronts us just as it did Peter. From the cross, Jesus looks down on us just as He looked down on Peter in courtyard. And we realize that He sees right through us and He has seen right through us all along. Seen through our prayers where we basically tell Him what we expect Him to do for us. Seen through our vows where we swear we’ll never do that again. He looks down on us and we realize that He has seen all along what fools we really are.
And the thing that brings us to ‘bitter weeping’ is that He has loved us nonetheless.