Heroes of Faith: The Apostle Peter

Following my sermon on Paul, a member of the choir approached me and said, “Don’t forget to preach a sermon on Peter, I can’t always identify with Paul, but I can identify with Peter.”

I knew exactly what he was saying. Paul set a high standard. Paul dedicated his whole life to religion. As a Jew Paul boasted that, “as to the law (he was) a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless,” and as a Messianic Jew and an apostle of Jesus, he called upon people to “be imitators of me, as I am an imitator of Jesus Christ.” Paul, or a close disciple, called Paul, “the chief of sinners.” That, I think, is a reference to his zeal as “a persecutor of the church,” but on the whole, Paul was a squeaky-clean, “holier than thou,” kind of guy.

The man who started life as Simon the Son of Jonah was on a different track. Before he met Jesus he was a fisherman. Fishing was in his blood and in his bones. He never overcame it. According to John, not long after twice standing face to face with the risen Christ, Peter said to the other apostles, “I am going fishing.” According to Mark, when Jesus called Peter and Andrew they were on a beach casting a net from the shore. Jesus used psychology to make Simon Peter his disciple. He knew that fishermen are always after bigger fish. That was true then; it is true today. This spring I joined Steve Jones on a fishing trip to Weldon, North Carolina, the Stripped Bass Capitol of the world. In five hours on the Roanoke River we caught more than 60 large stripped bass. At least they were large by my standards. We caught so many fish I got tired of reeling them in. Yet, we kept fishing, not because we wanted more fish—it was catch and release anyway. We kept fishing because we wanted bigger fish. Jesus snared Peter in his net, because he promised Peter and his brother a chance at bigger fish. He said, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.”

Not only was Peter a fisherman, and not professionally religious, but John tells us that he was originally from Bethsaida. [Note: 1] Bethsaida was one of the places where Jews constantly rubbed shoulders with Gentiles. Each influenced the other. Peter’s brother was named Andrew, and another of their close companions, was named Phillip. Those names are Greek names, not Hebrew Names. Peter’s given name was Simon, but Jesus changed that to “Cephas,” which is the Aramaic form of another Greek name, “Petros,” which in English, means “Peter,” which means, “Rock.

The gospels differ as to when Jesus gave Peter his name. According to John 1:42, the first time Jesus met Peter he said, “You will be called Cephas.” According to Mark 3:16 Jesus gave Simon the surname of Peter when he appointed the twelve to be with him. Matthew calls Simon, “Simon Peter,” from the first mention of him, but he also seems to say that Jesus did not call Simon, “Simon Peter,” until the last week of Jesus’ ministry. This is a dramatic development. Peter receives a new name, and we would do well to pay special attention to this story in the 1st Gospel. Matthew tells it like this…

Jesus said to the twelve, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He then said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him:

“Blessed are you, Simon Son of John, 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 powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19) [Note:2]

The text of Matthew declares that from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, 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 hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

There are two points that ought to be made here.

First, we must not fail to know the awesome authority that Jesus gives to Simon in Matthew’s unique version of this story. He gives him a new name “Rock,” and tells him he is the “Rock” on which he will build his church. He also gives him great confidence and great authority. He tells him that the church that is built upon him will be victorious over even the powers of death, and he says to him:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This represents awesome power and authority. The question is, does Jesus speak to “Peter the individual,” as Catholics say that he does, when they say that Peter was the archetypical Pope. Or, does Jesus speak to “Peter the confessor,” as Protestants say that he does, when we point out that Jesus builds his church upon Peter’s archetypical confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.

I am as Catholic as I can be. I believe in one universal church. The history of the Catholic Church—up to a point, is our history. I take seriously the highly priestly prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 in which he prays that we might all be one. My best friend for 35 years was a lay Franciscan in the Catholic Church. Yet I am as Protestant as I must be, for when it comes to deciding what we bind and loose on earth, I am much more confident in the wisdom of the many, than in the wisdom of One man who sits upon his Chair in Rome.

There is a second point that needs to be made this text. We must not pass lightly over this powerful story without noting that Jesus once called the one who was arguably first among the apostles, “Satan,” and pointed out to him that he was a hindrance to him because he was not on the side of God but of men. This is a caution for us.

I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we picture Satan with horns and a tail, or confine him to his roll as the Great Red Dragon of Revelation. St. Paul says that Satan masquerades as an Angel of light, and that is a proper picture. Jesus himself warned that our foes (Matthew 10:25) are often the people in our own households—whether relatives are friends. Sometimes there is active opposition, but sometimes the opposition comes from those who seek to protect us from risk and sacrifice, even when God calls us to undertake that risk and sacrifice.

When Peter tried to keep Jesus from Jerusalem, and certain death, he had the best of intentions, but he was wrong.

We sometimes make the same mistake. I will give you an example. When a young couple of my acquaintance announced to me that they would be going to a Muslim country to witness to the gospel, taking with them their small children. I cautioned that I wish they would not, because I feared they would be in great danger. The husband answered, “Yes there will be danger, but if we are sure this is where God wants us, and we would be in greater danger if we ignored God’s call. We would be in danger of missing a great blessing!”

Let me give you a little comfort: Most of the time, Jesus wants us to use reason. In Matthew 10:16 he urges his disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless and doves.” In Luke 16:8 he rebukes his disciples because “the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with one another than the children of the light.” Yet, Jesus teaches us by his actions that God sometimes requires the unreasonable of us.

To the Jews of Jesus’ day, it was unreasonable for the Messiah to suffer and die upon a cross. The law declared, “cursed be he who hangs upon a tree.”(Deuteronomy 21:23) St. Paul said that the cross was “a stumbling block to the Jews.” (1st Corinthians 1:23) But Jesus came into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28) Jesus came for the cross.

In order for Jesus to do what God sent him to do he had to face cross. He says that if we are to follow him, there is a cross for us to take up, too.

In 1st Peter 4:1, the apostle warns that we who follow Jesus must remember that Christ suffered in the flesh, and arm ourselves with the same thought. In 1st Peter 4:12 he warns we ought not to be surprised when we must go through some fiery ordeal as if something strange were happening to us. Look around you! Many have already passed through such on ordeal. Thankfully, even before he hands out these warning, he fills us with hope, and tells us that no suffering is without purpose. In 1st Peter 1:3 and following we read:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. 9 As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.

Though some doubt the apostle’s authorship of 1st Peter, I believe this passage to be the Big Fisherman’s best sermon! So, what else must we say about Peter? I would briefly add just three things.

First, I would have you to recall the question that Peter put to Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22. He asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Seventy times seven is 490 times. Jesus is not suggesting that we keep count. He is using a huge number to teach us that we human beings are to forgive one another as often as we find it necessary. I like that—not just because I am big on forgiving others, and big on having others forgive me, but because I cannot imagine that Jesus would ever require more of us than God would require of Himself. God is capable of infinite forgiveness. William Jennings Bryant put it like this:

“When a man repents to himself, he repents up a slippery slope. When a man repents toward his brother, he repents into the mouth of a raging lion. When a man repents toward God, he repents to the source of all love and forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world, and Peter wants us to know that God’s forgiveness has been won for us when “Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree.” 1st Peter 2:24

Second, I would have you to recall that, in Matthew 26:34, on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock welcomed the morning sun. Then, in John chapter 21, Jesus allows Peter to affirm his love for him, three times, as if to wipe out the memory of this failure. (Note:3) There in we read:

John 21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter did indeed, “feed Christ’s sheep.” First, along with James the Brother of the Lord, and John the son of Zebedee, he was the head of the church in Jerusalem. Paul called him, “the Apostle to the Jews.” Then, according to tradition, when the church in Jerusalem was scattered, he took the gospel to Rome. Peter did not write a gospel; but Papias, writing in the mid 2nd Century, says that Peter is the authority behind the gospel of Mark, and that Mark handed on what Peter taught. Some find this hard to believe because Mark is not nearly as adoring of Peter as is Matthew, or Luke for that matter. I think that the gospels are a community exercise, but I think it is likely that Peter may have influenced Mark. Mark is certainly the earliest gospel, and it is fitting that the 1st Apostle should have had a say in the earliest gospel. If Mark did not show proper deference to Peter, it may be because, unlike Paul, Peter seldom boasted of his own achievements. Tradition says that Peter asked to be crucified upside down so that he would not be crucified in the same manner of his Lord. This modesty is not all that rare. I knew David Dease for more than forty years. For ten years I have been telling him he was my hero, for what he did during his Viet Nam service. Not once in all those years did David tell me that he received the Distinguish Flying Cross, a fact that I learned only after his death. David, like Peter, was a modest man.

There is one more incident in the life of Peter I think we should remember. It also occurs in John 21. When Peter said, “I am going fishing,” six of his friends went with him. They toiled all night and took nothing. Then as morning filled the skies, a stranger on the beach told them to cast their nets on the other side, and they did, and they took in a great haul of fish. And one of the others said, “It is the Lord!” And Peter did not wait to see. He left the other to bring in the great catch of fish. He immediately dived into the ocean, and swam for the shore. When he reached the beach, he found Jesus, the Risen Christ, waiting for him there.

I like Peter because he is bold, and brash, and impetuous. I like that he is ready to risk deep water to get to Jesus. I like that he quickly goes where more cautious people fear to go at all. I think that if Peter is a man of action, and if he were here this morning he would call us to action. He would tell us that it is always better to do something, in Christ name, than to do nothing. He would remind us that God is not only the source of infinite forgiveness, and but also the source of infinite power, and that if we have acted in good faith and fail him, God will forgive us, and help us to set things aright. How have you been bold or impetuous? How have you jumped out of your comfortable surroundings to wildly seek the Risen Lord? Have you ever done it?

Finis

Note 1: We know from the synoptic gospels that Peter later lived in Capernaum, and that Jesus visited him there, and may even have lived with him for a time.

Note 2: In Mark’s account, Jesus does bless Simon, and call him Peter, and tell him that he is the Rock on which he will build his church. Quite the contrary! Mark jumps right into Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, after which, Jesus calls Peter, Satan.

Note 3: In this passage Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves him using the Greek word for passionate love. He then asks him if he loves him a third time using the Greek word for the love of friendship. Some make much of the fact, saying that Jesus settles for a lesser love from Peter. I think this is too fine a distinction. The variation is merely stylistic, as is the way that Jesus varies his charge to Peter by saying, “Feed my Lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” The important thing is that Jesus allows Peter to affirm his love for him three times, once for each of the three times he denied him.

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