Were You There sermon series? – Sermon #1: Peter

SCRIPTURE – Mark 14:27-31, 66-72

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him:“Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

SERMON
“Were You There?” Sermon Series
Sermon #1 – Peter
February 17, 2013

How well do you know yourself? Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, a man in my congregation made an appointment to see me. He was obviously agitated and upset greatly by those events, so I expected him to be angry about the suicide bombers or ask deep theological questions about God’s presence in the midst of the attacks. Instead, he sat down and through his tears said, “I don’t know if I could have done it. If I were one of those firefighters, I don’t know if I could have rushed into the buildings to save people. I might have run the other way. I’d like to think I would do the right thing. But when the moment comes, I don’t know if I could do it.”

Could you? How well do we know ourselves? That’s the kind of question we’re called to wrestle with during Lent, to take a deep look at ourselves and acknowledge the difference between who we are and who God calls us to be. Coming to this understanding about ourselves and our need for Christ is a journey, one we are called to walk with Jesus as he prepares to go to the cross. For our sermon series this Lent, we’ll be looking at a number of people who were with Jesus during his final weeks and days on earth. As we hear their stories, I believe we’ll see a little bit of ourselves in them. We’ll be present with Christ vicariously through these people, and we’ll learn about ourselves and our faith as we listen to their triumphs and tragedies.

We start today with Peter, because Peter is the perfect example of the combination of a person who would run into the building one minute and then run away the next. Of all the disciples, Peter stands out for the polarity of his expressions of faith. He would quickly move from moments of magnificent faithfulness to moments of thick-skulled unbelief. When Jesus walks on water toward the disciples’ boat, it is Peter who asks Jesus if he could, too. Peter steps on the waves and takes a few steps of faith until he looks down and loses sight of Jesus. Then he starts to sink, and Jesus saves him from drowning, asking him, “Why did you doubt?”

But this disciple is not done doubting. In another episode, at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” it is Peter who steps forward and answers, “You are the Christ.” Peter’s faith allows him to see Jesus for who he truly is, the son of God. Yay, Peter! And yet, in the next breath, after Jesus predicts his own death, we hear Peter say, “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong, Jesus. It can’t happen that way!” And Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” When Jesus calls you “Satan,” you know you’ve messed up pretty badly. Boo, Peter!

Peter had the honor of being present at the Transfiguration, but ruined the moment when he tried to capture that uncaptureable experience. Peter was also one of the three disciples that Jesus asked to stay alert while he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, but Peter falls asleep while during his watch. When the party comes to arrest Jesus, Peter, probably feeling guilty for snoozing on duty, jumps up to defend him, cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers.

Are you starting to get a picture of Peter? He’s like a puppy dog: one minute he’s the most loyal, loveable sidekick; the next, he’s making a mess on your new carpet or chewing on your favorite shoe. And yet, Peter is loyal, maybe to a fault. Through all of these episodes, he has acted on his faith, which is an amazing feat. Peter deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest disciples.

Until we get to Holy Week. The two accounts we read this morning almost demand that we put an asterisk next to Peter’s name, like a sports hall-of-famer who admits to taking steroids: “Peter was a good disciple, but there was that one thing in the courtyard.” That scene is set up by the first one, in which Jesus predicts his disciples will be scattered, and Peter again, without thinking through the implications, pledges his allegiance to Christ.

I love Peter in this passage, if only for his faith-driven impulsiveness. Jesus has just told him and the other disciples that they would abandon him, but after he had risen, they would see him again. Did you get that? After he had risen? As in from the dead! Peter missed it, as he often does, and instead responds to the prediction of abandonment. In fact, he kind of throws the other disciples under the bus. “All those guys may wimp out on you and run, but not me! I’ll be right here.”

Jesus, who by this point in the story is well aware of Peter’s mercurial faith, tells him that actually, he will commit the most serious of desertions, denying he even knows Jesus. But Peter vehemently argues with Jesus (which should be a sign right there that you’re not on the right track). You can almost see Peter stomp his foot and exclaim, “Nuh-uh!” And, sure enough, Peter will do exactly as Jesus predicted.

Peter highlights for us an important challenge to belief. It’s easy to affirm your faith when you’re looking Jesus in the eyes, but it becomes a different story when you’re on your own. Many times I have sat in church while the choir was singing or I was listening to a particularly meaningful message. I could almost feel the angels sitting on my shoulders and a ray of God’s sunlight washing over me, and I said, “Yes, I believe. No matter what, I believe.” And then Monday came, with all its trials and moral dilemmas and challenges to my faith. The choir’s voice had faded, the angels were gone, and where was my faith? As I quoted last week, “Faith is what happens in between glimpses of God.”

Not long after Peter makes his bold profession of faith, he finds himself standing squarely in the in-between. While Jesus is on trial, Peter makes his way to the courtyard below the Sanhedrin. We don’t know if any of the other disciples were there, or if they had already fled after Jesus’ arrest. But we do know Peter is there, which is a statement of faith in itself. He’s confronted three times about being in cahoots with this rabble-rouser Jesus, given three chances to take a stand for his faith. Notice the progress of his denials. At first, Peter claims ignorance – “I don’t know what you’re talking about”; then, he denies being a part of Jesus’ followers; and finally, he swears and flatly denies any relationship with Jesus – “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” He declares he doesn’t know the one who healed his mother-in-law, the one who invited him onto the mountain of transfiguration, the one who helped him walk on water and then saved him from drowning. When the moment comes for him to rush back into the burning building, he runs away. Where is his faith?

Why Peter? Why, of all the disciples, did he have to fall the farthest? Because it had to be Peter. He is the most likely culprit because he is the least likely. It could have been any of the others, and may well have been. But it has to have been Peter, because if the one of great faith is capable of a great fall, then anyone of lesser faith is, as well, including each and every one of us.

Do we deny knowing Christ? We may not do it verbally, but our lives are filled with little denials. Each time we choose not to help satisfy someone else’s need, each time we choose to tolerate or participate in gossip or offensive jokes, each time we choose the comfort of convenience over the challenge of living out our faith, each time we give God the blame for things we should be taking care of, we deny knowing Christ. Each time we choose to distort our faith to fit our will instead of molding our will to fit our faith, we deny Christ.

To say Peter could deny Jesus is to say any one of us is capable of doing the same. Peter is each of us; he is all of us. And yet, this story is not the end of Peter’s story. At the end of this episode, he does something which I believe speaks as loudly as his three denials. He breaks down and weeps. He cries because he realizes who he is and what he has done. Psalm 51 says that what God desires from us is honesty, a broken and contrite spirit, and at this moment, that’s all that Peter has to offer. He acknowledges that the person he thinks he is and the person he acts like are two different people, and he recognizes he was work to do to close that chasm.

Or, maybe, he doesn’t have to do anything, but simply to ask for and receive the forgiveness and grace offered to him. At the end of Mark, the angel in the empty tomb says to the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.” In spite of the denials, Jesus still numbers Peter among his followers, still has work for him to do. Peter goes onto to become one of the greatest proclaimers of Christ’s gospel, converting thousands of people to Christianity.

This is a bit of an embarrassing story, isn’t it? If I were Peter, I don’t know that I would be happy with Mark for sharing it. But did you know that Mark, who wasn’t one of the 12 disciples, had one primary source for the writing of his gospel, one person he relied on for the first-hand stories? That source was Peter. That means that Peter made sure that Mark included this story in the gospel. It’s as if Peter is saying, “I want you to know how far I fell, so that you can understand the depth to which Jesus went to forgive and redeem me. If he would do that for me, imagine what Jesus will do for you.”

Like Peter, we will both embrace and deny the awesome presence of God in our lives. We will have moments of great faith and great doubt. Sometimes we will stand up for our faith, and at other times we will remain silent. We will at times choose to run back into the building, and other times choose to run away. That is why we need to recognize our need for God’s grace in our lives. I believe God created us all as good people, but we won’t always live up to the image of God inside of us. Our faith will flow with the abundance of God’s generosity, and it will ebb as life challenges us to remain loyal. And yet, like Peter, we will be given another chance to show our faithfulness, another opportunity to receive the gift of God’s love and mercy.

The apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 10, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful you don’t fall!” Ah, during those mountain-top moments with God, we are standing on the solid rock of our faith, aren’t we? And yet even Peter, who Jesus calls “the rock on which I will build my church,” succumbs to the shifting sands of doubt. If Peter can fall, so can we. If Peter can be humbled by his denials, so can we. If Peter can be forgiven, so can we.

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