First Lesson: John 18:15-18 and 25-27
Children: John 21:1-14
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Now I have been pretty much living with Peter for the past week or so, and I will tell you that he is a strong, complicated, dedicated, unpredictable sort of guy. He’s not easy to classify and he’s not at all consistent.
For example: the first we hear of Peter is that he and his brother Andrew are fishing up in Lake Galilee. And a man whom apparently they have never seen before walks by and says to both of them, “Follow me.” and they do. According to the story in the book of Matthew, they actually dropped their fishing nets right where they were on the beach and walked with Jesus down the lakeshore. And they walked with him and behind him for the next three years from the northern part of the country where they lived, all the way to the south.
Eventually there were ten other men who followed him, and Peter seems to have been their leader. They traveled to pretty much all the small villages and cities all over the country and they did astonishing miracles in Jesus’ name. They healed people who were sick and even brought people back to life again who had died. They traveled from place to place without an extra penny in their pockets and without an extra change of clothing and they slept and ate wherever and however they could. Peter’s the one who said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you.” And it was true. Peter was chosen by Jesus to witness some of the most important moments of Jesus’ life – things that the others weren’t invited into. He was there on the mountain when Moses and Elijah appeared from hundreds of years earlier and when a voice came from heaven announced “This is my Son, whom I love.” It was a frightening moment, with bright shiny lights and dark scary clouds, and mysterious things happening to Jesus. And it was Peter, you remember who had his wits about him and wanted to prolong the glory of it all. Peter was in the room when Jesus took a twelve year old dead girl by the hand and raised her up off her bed to life. There was that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on stormy water to meet him, Peter hiked up his clothes, climbed out of the boat and came walking through the waves to Jesus. And when he started to sink into the waves, he grabbed onto Jesus’ hand. Peter is strong, deeply committed to Jesus and entirely unafraid.
Of all Jesus’s disciples, Peter “got” Jesus. They had all heard him speak. They had all seen him cure people with serious mental and physical illness. They were all there when he fed fifteen or so thousand men, women and children with a little bit of bread and a few fish. They had all listened in while he had loud confrontations with the religious leaders and they had heard him talk constantly about the kingdom of God. But Peter was the only one who could say, with great conviction, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
When Jesus wanted to eat his last Passover supper with his disciples he chose Peter and one other person find a place for them to do that and to prepare the meal. As they were eating around the table, Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. They were all astonished, Peter maybe more so than the others, and he declared loudly that he would never deny Jesus, even to the point of death. And few minutes later during the supper, you remember how Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and took a basin of water. He knelt on the floor in front of all the men, one by one, and washed their feet. It was his last act of humble service to each of them, and though they didn’t know it, it was also his silent, loving farewell to them. But Peter wouldn’t have it. He couldn’t see the deep affection and the beauty of the moment and he couldn’t accept Jesus’ humble, loving service to him. He protested loudly that he didn’t want Jesus on the floor mucking about with his filthy, smelly, misshapen feet and his grimy, broken toenails. And after supper, when Jesus went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, it was Peter and two others whom Jesus chose to watch and wait nearby for hours while he prayed his passionate, end of life prayer. And it was also Peter who fell asleep while he waited – who couldn’t manage to keep his eyes open long enough at a critical moment to offer some small support. And a few minutes later, when a crowd of priests and elders with clubs and swords came for Jesus, Peter stepped in. He had a sword himself, you recall, though I don’t know where in the world he would have gotten it. He must have had some reason to expect trouble. And Peter whipped out his sword and slashed it at the closest person and chopped off his ear. In passionate defense of Jesus. Useless. But passionate. And very misplaced. And Jesus told him sternly, “Put your sword away!” And a few hours after that, when all the other male disciples had abandoned Jesus and had gone into hiding for fear of what would happen to them, Peter stayed nearby. He was there and stayed within sight of Jesus in the middle of the night when the soldiers and the priests and the elders were hauling him from court to court to court and trying him again and again. Perhaps he was hoping to catch glimpse of Jesus as he went from court to court. To say a supportive, loving word to him in the darkness. But it never happened. Peter was sitting beside the fire warming himself and that’s where he denied three times that he ever knew Jesus. .
So are you getting the picture here? Sometimes we are in awe of this man Peter and the fact that Jesus chose him to be his special companion over and over. We honor him for his deep devotion to Jesus and for the ways that understood Jesus’ mission better than the others and for the ways that he sacrificed a great deal and expressed his devotion so devotedly. And in the next second we want to say to him, “Peter, what were you thinking? Peter, how could you have? Peter, what has gotten into you?” For missing the point so completely and for saying all the wrong things and doing all the wrong things and forgetting his very firm promises and disappointing Jesus so tragically so often.
And after all that, Jesus reaches out to Peter in love.
It was a poignant moment, there on the beach. Three times Peter had vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus. And now Jesus gives him the chance to re-affirm his love. Three times.
But did you notice the words we spoke this morning in our Statement of Faith? Now you know I am no great student of Greek. I learned Greek and also Hebrew in seminary about thirty-five years ago, and I’ve pretty much lost it all. But this I do know. There are different words in Greek for our word “love.” Jesus says to Peter, twice, ”Do you love me with all your heart and soul?” And twice, Peter responds, “You know that I am very fond of you.” Did you catch that? “You know I am very fond of you.” The third time Jesus asks Peter, “Are you even very fond of me, Peter?” Peter answers “I am truly very fond of you, Jesus.” Peter cannot bring himself to say that he loves Jesus with all his heart. And I cannot begin to imagine how that hurt Jesus’ heart. But even so, he says to Peter, “Well then, even if that’s the best you can do, tend my sheep. Care for the people I love. Do for them what I would do if I were here.”
And here’s the truth, my beloved. Sometimes we go through our closets and we find a lot of very nice clothing and belts and shoes and we pack them up and we bring them to church. And we are happy that we have done what Jesus would have wanted us to do for the people he loves. But here’s the other piece of truth: it is very hard for us to consider sharing our schools and our neighborhoods with refugees from other countries who may have a different way of worshipping God.
A good many of us in this congregation do a great deal of caring for our spouses and our parents and our children and our grandchildren. And sometimes – often – we do that graciously and in good spirits and with genuine love for them and concern for their needs. And Jesus is pleased that we have tended his sheep. And at other times, horrible words come out of our mouths that we have not planned and that we are immediately sorry. Sometimes we have the most selfish feelings in our hearts. And we are utterly ashamed.
Sometimes we really do get it. We really do understand that we are hands and feet and minds and voices of Jesus in this world. We understand that Jesus has no hands and feet in this world these days but ours. He has only us to tend to the needs of world as he would. And some days we really do fulfill that mission well. But the truth is that there are too many hungry people and it’s going to take a whole lot more than a few boxes of Cheerios to feed them, and a couple of Band-aids for their pain. And our political system is too complex and the forces against us are too strong and in the end, Jesus’ lambs are still going to be hungry and poor and sick and we will have failed miserably.
And I think to myself, “Paula, what were you thinking? How could you have? What has gotten into you?” And we are ashamed and sad and full of regret. Like Peter was.
But here’s the real truth. And here’s the wonder and beauty of Jesus. He knows all that. He knows who we are and how we are. He knows that even our best is sometimes not very good. He understands that we love him very imperfectly. He knows the days we shine and the days we fail miserably and he loves us anyway. And forgives us. And offers us another chance. And another and another. And he wraps us up in the warm blanket of his love.
And all we can be is grateful.