Friday, March 12, 2010
Simon Peter: The Saint We All Love ... And Can Identify With
There is an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I believe most sitting here are, if not outright smiling and nodding their heads in agreement, are inwardly saying: ‘Ain’t that the truth!’
From a young age, all of us have carefully planned out our lives. There might be a few who could say their lives have pretty much stayed on course, But much to the chagrin, amazement and befuddlement of most of us here, very few could say that our lives have gone according to plan.
Five years ago [now more like 16 years ago!], my life went careening off the little road trip I had planned. Trying to get back on course has been an adventure, too. I have met with some difficult and sorrowful times, but I’m happy to report that I have survived, grown a lot and become a better person. There are several of you here who know of my spiritual struggles, and I have occasionally talked about them in Bible study. So, when our pastor called me in to his office a few weeks ago, asking if I would be one of the presenters for Lent, I immediately thought to myself:
“What?!? He knows about my spiritual malaise. What on earth could I possibly say?”
Then, when Pastor said my topic would be about Simon Peter, I had to laugh. That is the perfect topic for me!!!
I always take some solace in the persons of the Bible. My solace comes from the fact that these spiritual “Heavy Weights” always started out as a bunch of narrow-minded, mean-spirited, very ungodly misfits. Of all of the Misfits of God’s kingdom, I love Simon Peter the best. I picture him to be a lot like the mobster character Robert DeNiro plays in the popular movie “Analyze This.” Not that Simon Peter was a mobster, but I think about how perhaps many of the conversations between Peter and Jesus were a lot like the ones between DeNiro and Billy Crystal, his therapist -- 21st century, civilized man trying to help a CroMagnon deal with his “issues.” Peter, with that rough and gruff exterior struggling so hard to change, with Jesus lovingly and patientlcy calling him to new life.
Simon Peter, I am sure, had his life planned out as well. His occupation as a fisherman was likely inherited from his father. He knew his life would be a simple one in his hometown. But, one day, his life went careening off course. He was called by Jesus to a new life -- a drastic, life-altering call to a new purpose and mission. His life was to soon be filled with confusion, fear, and conflict on the one hand, and yet on the other hand would be love and forgiveness -- GOD!
I, too, received a fateful call, but it was not a calling from Jesus. Mine was a call from a woman informing me of the affair she was having with my husband. That call was also for me drastic and life-altering, to say the least. It was a call that turned my world upside down, ushering in that same confusion, fear and conflict. But I have also experienced God’s love and forgiveness.
Peter, being strong-willed (or a “control freak” as we would say nowadays), had a pretty rough go fitting into God’s plan. He had his ideas of what the Messiah should be. It’s a fascinating scene in Matthew when Peter is the only one of the Disciples to get the answer right:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Did you know it is Peter’s words we frequently sing in our liturgy:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Shortly after Jesus blesses Peter for his spirit-inspired insight, He harshly rebukes Peter for wanting to control things rather than let things happen according to God’s plan. When Jesus predicted His death, Peter blurted:
“Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus wheeled about and replied:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Peter wanted to protect Jesus from the humiliation, torture and execution Jesus would surely face in Jerusalem. Jesus was not doing God’s work according to Peter’s plan.
I, too, am guilty of wanting things to go according to my plans. I had been wracking my brains for such a long time, wondering why my faith was in such miserable shape. I had weathered the storm. I had made it to the beach, so to speak, but was like a shipwreck victim, spiritually collapsed on life’s beach. I was having trouble picking myself back up -- and still do. I kept asking myself so many questions:
“What’s wrong with me? Do I have no faith left? Am I maybe mad at God that my marriage went down the tubes? I mean, didn’t I keep my end of the bargain?”
I then realized my problem -- I was so busy trying to get my life back under control, that I was wanting to control EVERYTHING -- even God. I found that a great source of stress from separation and divorce was suddenly being responsible for everything. If something needed to be done, I had to do it. If I was going to make my way back from this lifewreck I’d had, I would have to be the one to pull myself along. I had to do it. I had to do everything. In this control mode, I had slid myself up on the thrown, trying to scoot God off, saying:
“Now, hold on God. I can do this. Watch! I think things should go this way. I’m going to be OK. Just you see. I am woman, hear me roar!”
But, my wanting to control things only takes my eyes off of God, and I begin to sink. Just like Peter, when he asked Jesus if he could step out on the water with Him. When Peter stepped out, he was fine until he focused too hard on the water around him and took his eyes off of Jesus. He started sinking. But, Jesus stretched out His hand to him. Peter took hold, and Jesus lifted him up. How often do we get distracted by the stormy seas, losing our focus on Jesus?
Peter could be so hot-headed and impetuous. Remember when the High Priest’s guards came to arrest Jesus? What did Peter do? He drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the guards. Without a doubt, Peter fiercely loved Jesus, and was reacting like, I believe, many of us would have. His first instinct was to protect Jesus. Again, Peter was stepping in the middle and interfering with God’s plan. Although Peter had spent some three years with Jesus, living by his side all that time, Peter still had a long way to go until he was “Saint Peter.”
I can also identify with that. I recall a couple of years ago I went with a few kids from church to a youth retreat. I was a small-group leader. The atmosphere is amazing there -- so stirring to be surrounded by God’s people, talking about Jesus all week long, meeting new and fascinating people -- all within the context of God. On the final day, as we are leaving to head home, we had all stopped at a corner gas station to fill up before heading out in convoy-fashion. One of the teenage girls was filling her car’s tank, when a carload of teenage boys pulled up along side and began verbally harassing her. Now, here I had been in this wonderful, loving Christian environment all week. Did I react as Jesus would have wanted me to? Nope! I got so mad seeing these boys bothering one of “my kids.” I strode over to Pastor's car to inform him of the situation, adding that I might have to go over and pound those boys if they didn’t stop soon. I am still occasionally reminded of this episode by some of those kids whenever they return from college. It’s a great source of amusement for some of them and one of embarassment for me.
Many times during Jesus’ ministry, it seemed like the Disciples just didn’t “get it.” Peter, too, seemed frequently puzzled. I picture Peter usually not understanding or agreeing with Jesus, but obediently going along for the ride, because that is what is expected of him. It’s what he’s supposed to do, because Jesus said so. It makes me think of when it’s my turn to help serve communion. When that time comes, as I walk up to the altar, I frequently feel so unworthy to serve communion, especially when it comes to serving the bread. Serving the bread seems more difficult for me, although I am fully aware that neither element is more “special” than the other. It’s just that with serving wine, you can hide behind the chalis, not making any physical contact with people, But when you serve bread, for me it’s a different experience. It’s much more tactile -- you break off a piece of bread, look at the person, say the words “This is the Body of Christ broken for you”, and place it in their hand, feeling that connection between the two of you.
At the start of serving communion, I dwell on how unworthy I feel to be up there. But, I am always amazed at what happens as I serve communion. I quit worrying about my unworthiness, realizing that we are all unworthy. I quit focusing on myself, and instead make a connection with God’s people -- my brothers and sisters. I notice after a few minutes that familiar tightness in my cheeks caused by my smiling. I feel joy. And, it’s no longer about me, it’s about Jesus. The other tactile element to serving bread is when a young child comes forward. We are to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and give them a blessing. The kids frequently look to the side with this expression of “I don’t know what this lady is doing. What’s going on? Oh, well, I’ve been brought up here again, so I guess it’s OK.”
I wonder how many times God sees me with that same expression on my face thinking those same thoughts.
“What’s going on? Why am I here? Well, but it’s OK. This is what I’m supposed to do.” I figure I will understand it all someday.
Luckily for us and for the world, Peter did eventually start getting it right. He is one of the great evangelists responsible for spreading the Gospel throughout the Middle East. He was there at Pentecost when the Disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit -- their initiation into active duty, so to speak. He is a crucial member of the team in the Book of Acts, as well as having written two of our letters in the New Testament. And, let us not forget about him being the rock of Christ’s Church.
Although Peter failed miserably, Jesus never quit believing in and praying for him. Jesus knew that all the disciples would fall away when he was arrested. In fact, he said to Peter;
“Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
There have been times for all of us when we, too, were being “sifted as wheat.” I know I am in that sifting process now; but, I am comforted by knowing that Jesus is praying for me. And I pray to Him that my faith will not fail and that when I come out of this tailspin, I will have a renewed spirit and wisdom with which I can strengthen my brothers and sisters.
We all know how Peter three times denied Jesus. And, yet, the book of John ends with, what is for me, a very emotional scene where Jesus reinstates Peter. Peter is out fishing, back to his former life. It is early morning. Jesus, unrecognized by the Disciples, is fixing them breakfast on the beach. He asks the men how their fishing is going. I’m sure Peter gave a pleasant reply. Jesus suggests they try fishing from the other side of the boat. I hate to think how that friendly tip was received by Peter.
They followed Jesus’ advice and tried fishing from the other side of the boat. They caught so many fish they couldn’t haul the net in. Suddenly, John recognizes him: “It is the Lord!” Peter goes berserk, wraps his outer garment around him and jumps into the water. (I’ve always wondered about that -- how come the other guys took the boats back to shore and Peter jumped in the water? Hmm ... maybe Peter could swim there faster than the men could haul the full nets back in and return to shore.)
In Jesus’ grace, he reinstates Peter. For each of the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, Jesus asks him three times “Do you love me?” And, all three times, Peter answers: “Lord, you know that I love you.”
I know that I have denied Jesus many times, so much so, that I am uncomfortable standing here talking to you tonight. But I do take great comfort in Peter’s story. Jesus entered Peter’s life and made him a new person, although Peter did not become a perfect person, nor stopped being Simon Peter. But maybe Jesus wasn’t looking for model citizens -- maybe he was looking for real people. He chose people who could be changed by His love and then sent them out to communicate that God’s love was available to anyone -- even those who often fail. I don’t know what God sees in me, but I am comforted when I hear in church that God cannot love me more and He will not love me less. I am comforted by Peter’s tenacity -- he failed many times in his following of Jesus, but he never failed to follow. I pray that I may have that courage, as well.