The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11
He was at times impulsive, affectionate, slow to catch on, the first to understand; he was courageous, and at other times cowardly. His roughly hewn mannerisms and thick provincial accent gave him the ability to relate to the people. He was one of them. You and I see him as one of us. Full of all the noble good things that are a gift from God but also burdened by his own weaknesses, his doubts, and selfish fears which all too often overwhelmed his best intentions.
As the book Who's Who in the New Testament notes, Peter represented shifting sand more than the rock as Jesus saw him. Peter, the blue-collar fishermen of Galilee, an unlikely hero for the church. But, as author Ronald Brownrigg says, "The language of the church is not the jargon of fanatics but the simple speech of fishermen, like Peter."
Peter perhaps began his journey to God by the river Jordan hearing John the Baptist wail over the decrepit state of the world. Then Jesus came and called his name and Peter went. He saw Jesus turn water into wine; He walked on water with the Lord; He proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. He had a privileged place among the disciples. He, along with James & John, was allowed to witness the transfiguration, to be present at the raising of Jairus' daughter, and to be with Jesus as He prayed for strength at Gethsemane. He was entrusted to prepare the Last Supper and he boldly defended Jesus at His arrest drawing a sword in an attempt to thwart the Romans – an impressive list.
Yet, each item listed here could be considered more of a failure than a success. He sank for lack of faith on the water; right after he proclaimed Jesus was the Messiah, he was rebuked for his lack of understanding. In his privileged positions he constantly fouled up: he attempted to build a shrine at the transfiguration; he fell asleep at Gethsemane. Jesus reprimanded Peter for drawing the sword in the garden.
A mixed bag of a man. At one moment he shines forth as an example to all Christians and at another he epitomizes the weak and self-absorbed, too concerned with his own agenda ever to learn anything about God. It seems chance more than anything else determined whether Peter would shine or fall flat on his face.
Yet, despite Peter's own wavering waffling ways, Jesus called him "the rock" upon which He would found His church. But before he would become a granite stalwart for God, he had to experience his own epic melt down, his greatest failure-denying Jesus.
Peter’s denial gets to the root of our stumbling block. He believes that he is invincible; that his will can overcome his weakness. He tells Jesus “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Peter could accept it in others but not in himself.
Peter’s denial shows that our greatest problem is not the weaknesses but our stubborn refusal to admit them. In fact, after Jesus reaffirms Peter’s weakness he redoubles his denial, “Even though, I must die with you I will not deny you.” We all know that did not turn out too well for Peter.
The first denial occurs between Peter and someone of a so-called lower status in his world – a woman and a maid. In this case the detail from Matthew’s gospel is especially pertinent. Rather than quietly responding only to her we are told that he denies “before all of them” essentially saying, “I don't know what you are talking about.”
In his next encounter, another woman accuses Peter and rather than speaking to him directly as the first woman did, she speaks to “all those who were there.” This time rather than a casual denial we are told he swears and oath “I do not know the man!”
In the final encounter the bystanders accost him, “Certainly you are one of them. We can tell by your accent.” Peter’s denial becomes even more vehement. This time he utters a curse and then swears an oath once more, “I do not know the man!”
We can feel the pressure building within Peter at each successive denial. One scholar observed, “The denial is exposed to a gradually expanding circle; it becomes more and more public. Its seriousness increases in order that the demand for "confession before [all]" might be made all the more urgent.” (Birger Gerhardsson, University of Lund, Lund, Sweden.)
Then the cock crows. Peter remembers Jesus’ words, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”
It is then that Peter has his meltdown.
“And he went out and wept bitterly.”
He finally sees himself clearly. When the chips are down, he’s not one of those people who takes a bullet but runs and hides behind someone else.
But Jesus has a plan. And the tears were the first step.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.” Washington Irving
That is where these tears would lead Peter – to unspeakable love.
Last week we found that having a friend and looking to God were essential to making it through meltdowns. This week we see that coming to the truth is another key step.
It may be the discovery there are others with keener financial minds, greater musical talent, better grasp of educational practices, or more adept at navigating office politics.
The truth that we are not perfect or the best; and we will falter and fail.
Too often this is where people stop in the midst of meltdowns – their own failures – and they are left forlorn. But Jesus would not allow Peter to stay stuck.
In the gospel of John, after the resurrection, He asks Peter, "Do you love me more than these other disciples"? Peter answers this question without hesitation, “You know I love You.” Then
Jesus asks again, and Peter says, "Yes Lord You know that I do." And then Jesus asks one last time, "Do you love me"? By this time Peter suspects Jesus in fact may believe that Peter doesn't love Him. It’s like in Math Class when the teacher asks for the fifth time, "Is everyone sure that the fifth derivation of motion is constant?" Peter is hurt that his loyalty has been questioned. Peter responds in desperation, “Lord You know everything, You know that I love You."
Jesus asks the question three times to remind Peter of his three-fold denial. Why ask? Because Jesus needed assurance? Hardly. Jesus kept asking Peter so that Peter would know down in his heart he loved Jesus. Jesus had no doubts, He knows our heart. He wanted him to stop simply saying the words as a reaction or rote. By forcing him to say it several times Peter had to truly evaluate their truth. Upon doing so he would realize that he did in fact love Jesus.
“Yes, I do I really do.”
Buechner’s keen insight in his book Telling the Truth tells us, “There is no place here for either saccharine, happy endings, or soft-boiled hope.”
Truth: we are not invincible. Until we face this we cannot move beyond our weakness. Peter was forced to face it and wept bitterly.
Truth: when Jesus spoke to him privately and forcefully, he found that Jesus truly did love him. Despite his denial and failures, Jesus did not give up on him.
Truth: Even in the face of confronting our own weakness, we can also see that there is indeed true love in our heart. For God and for others.
It is at this point Peter, shifting sand, becomes the rock of faith.
He preached a sermon converting thousands, thousands. He led the Jerusalem Church in its mission to the Jews. He raised Dorcas, a woman of many good works, from the dead. And decades later he died for the sake of the gospel, crucified, head downwards because he did not feel worthy of the same death as Jesus, and most tenderly he powerfully channels God’s loving power to bring hope to others.
On the way to temple, he encounters a familiar sight around our city. A man begging. This man cannot walk and relies on the largess of strangers. But Peter is an itinerant preacher and part-time fisherman. He turns out his pockets so to speak, “Look at us, do we look like we have money!”
That is where most of us would then be on our way. But Peter’s heart was filled with God’s love and God’s power, and he could not move on. And then he offers a line of powerful hope, “Silver and gold have I none but I give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk!”
Have you ever seen someone walk for the first time after a long period of disability? It is sheer joy. And this man was no different. He not only rose up, he danced the jig. “He was walking and leaping and praising God!!”
Peter had a meltdown. But strangely, he needed that meltdown. Because he finally faced the hard truth. On his own he was weak, ill-tempered and at times foolish. But he also discovered, no matter, God loved him…and he found out he did in fact love God and his friend Jesus. And so, this man of sinking sand became the Rock! And used this for others and so they too came to know God’s love. Amen.