From the Gospel this morning:
Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Peter is one of my favorite characters in the Gospel story. I love dear old Peter. And one reason that this is possible is that in all four Gospels his character is more finely drawn and with more detail than any other. Peter stands out. One gets to know Peter. Strangely enough, the only other Apostles who are so uniquely portrayed in the story are Thomas, who doubted . . . and, of course, Judas, who betrayed. The rest are there and they take part in the action, but we don’t know much about them. However, about Peter we are told a lot, and, as I said, one gets to know Peter.
And another thing which make me love Peter is that he gives me encouragement and he gives me hope. For I find that I am very much like Peter. Perhaps we’re all very much like Peter. And it occurs to us, or at least it occurs to me, that if Peter with all his faults can follow the Lord and be a disciple and finally a witness and a Christian, so can I.
When I consider myself, in my mind’s eye I see a man who can be wise – in spite of himself – and I see a man who is a fool – because of himself. I see a man, Allan Warren, who can be brave, and I see a man who sometimes trembles with fear and insecurity at the slightest threat. I see also a man who is loyal and true to those around him, and I see a man who protects himself at every turn. I see a man who is often passionate and carried away with enthusiasm . . . and then drops the ball or gets the whole thing wrong. Those and other things are what I see about myself in my mind‘s eye, and it is for that reason that I find the figure of Peter in the New Testament a great comfort and encouragement.
Most of us do, I think, for all of the inconsistencies and contradictions which are part of every man and every woman were very clearly there in Peter. He, first of the Apostles, was no less human than you and me. And so, again, if the weaknesses and contradictions which were part of Peter can be made right and be made whole by grace, then there is a real hope for the rest of us. Peter, then, as much as he is a character in the Gospel story is also a pattern for subsequent Christians to follow.
But right now, first, some details, and then we’ll consider the pattern.
It appears from the Gospels that Peter was the leader and spokesman of the twelve disciples. He, together with James and John, formed Jesus’ inner circle. His opinion was valued by his master; his support and friendship was important to Jesus. And yet again and again Peter fails to understand what his master is all about and what he means when he teaches. And at the hour of Jesus’ greatest spiritual need, Peter lets his master down. In the garden, while Jesus prays in agony of spirit, Peter, James, and John fall asleep.
He could be brave. In that same garden, when the soldiers approach, Peter alone draws his sword to defend Jesus. Hours later, however, he keeps a cowardly distance and three times denies his Lord.
He is also full of bravado and acts on impulse without thinking. With James and John again, granted a vision of Jesus’ glory with Moses and Elijah, Peter, carried away, wants to do something. “Lord, it is well that we are here. If you wish, I will make three booths.” Blurted out. Missing the point.
He tries to follow Jesus and walk on water, but his faith fails him and he sinks. He objects when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. But when his master explains and insists, Peter goes too far. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” Blurted out. Missing the point.
This morning we celebrate the Confession of Peter: “Thou art the Christ, Son of the Living God.” This is an important event in the first three Gospels. It is a turning point. After Peter’s confession the story of Jesus changes dramatically. He begins to talk about his death and he wanders no more, but heads to Jerusalem. This, his confession, is also a moment at which Peter – uncharacteristically – gets it right.
“Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks his disciples. And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Because of these words Jesus pronounces a blessing upon Peter and declares his confession to be born of divine revelation: “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” And because of these words, Peter is declared to be the rock upon which the church will be built.
Peter’s confession is indeed born of divine revelation. Nothing in the Gospel before this prepares us for Peter getting it right. He’s always getting it wrong. For this brief moment, then, God must have opened his eyes. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s confession is in fact the first creed, for is not Christianity summed up in these words: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Is this not a rock, a foundation stone of doctrine and faith, upon which the Church is built?
I must tell you, though, that I suspect that there is also something of the blurting out, impulsive old Peter in these words, however divine their inspiration. Certainly he meant it when he said it, but when Jesus begins to teach what those words really mean, Peter won’t listen.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things … and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
Peter had his own ideas. However inspired his confession, he wouldn’t listen as Jesus taught. It was, to be sure, impulsive good will that led him to rebuke his teacher. Even so, once again he got it wrong. “God forbid, Lord. This shall never happen to you.” The rock became a stumbling block. A trusted friend who seemed to understand him became Satan, a tempter, a threat to his obedience and the fulfillment of his destiny: “to suffer many things . . . be killed and on the third day be raised.”
“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s confession and a creed of sorts. But there is one thing lacking, for creed and confession must be completed by conversion. Let me say that again. Creed and confession must be completed by conversion. And finally Peter was converted. It happened on Easter Day. The master he knew, the master he loved, the master he had so often misunderstood and at the end had denied. Peter met him again, now risen from the dead, and everything was changed, everything was clear. Peter understood and now he was a different man. Creed and confession were completed by conversion. Peter met Jesus risen from the dead, and now, again, he became a different man.
* * * * *
The longest narrative in the New Testament is that of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Two parts of one book, in fact. One which takes place mainly before the resurrection; the other which recounts the consequences of the resurrection. And in Acts what a change we see in Peter! He is, of course, the same lovable and very human figure we saw in the Gospels, but things have changed. His consistent misunderstanding has become an equally consistent and eloquent preaching of the meaning of Jesus. His impulsive bravado, as we heard in the lesson this morning, has been transformed into boldness, into forceful and truly confident conviction. And he was brave. Really brave. Opposition and threats did not deter him. He was determined to preach and spread the good news of Jesus no matter what, and his determination and his courage and his bravery had their source in his encounter with the risen Christ. If Jesus was risen from the dead, what after all was there to fear?
One last thing. Peter encounters Jesus several times after his resurrection, and at what seems to be the last of these encounters his master asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” This is a recapitulation or, if you will, an undoing of Peter’s threefold denial of his Lord. “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And at each of Peter’s replies, Jesus commands him, “Feed my sheep.” Love of Jesus implies service. “Feed my sheep.” Love of Jesus is inseparable from love and service of those around one. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” Love and service are one movement of the soul converted to the risen Christ.
Creed, confession, conversion, and service. That sounds like Christianity to me. Creed, confession, conversion, service – there’s the pattern for you and me exemplified by Peter. Creed, confession, conversion, service – a rock upon which the Church is built.
And so, good people – Christians – let us praise God for blessed Peter – the rock – whose weakness, now made strong, and whose witness, now made clear, gives us the certain hope that God can work his will in you and me.
Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.