12th Sunday after Pentecost Year A
In the Gospel today, we have one of the pinnacle moments in the story of Jesus. Peter is the first of the disciples to declare that Jesus is the messiah, the promised one sent from God. Never before has Peter spoken in this way. Never before has any disciple spoken in this way. Here is how Peter offers his confession of faith: he says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The remainder of Peter’s life can be seen in the light of this confession. In all we know about him, from this point on, he is either falling short of this bold confession of faith or he is living out its implications. What awaits Peter is no straight, flat road, but a journey into the unknown, with many twists and turns, a dead end here and there, and plenty of peaks and valleys.
The rough ride starts immediately after Peter’s confession of faith. Apparently that confession was not everything it could have been! Peter indicates that the messiah he expects Jesus to be is very different from the messiah Jesus knows he must be. Peter wants a messiah who conquers without getting his hands dirty. Jesus knows he is headed toward a cross before he ascends a thrown.
And so, directly after Peter’s confession, Jesus is forced to rebuke him in the strongest, most cutting language that we ever hear from the lips of our Lord. But Jesus does not discard Peter. And Peter continues following Jesus, learning what kind of Messiah Jesus must be.
Some time later, Jesus enters Jerusalem for what becomes the final week before his death. His enemies move against him and apprehend him — not in broad daylight, there in the city streets, but at night, in the quiet of a garden. Peter swings a sword against one member of this posse, but Jesus orders him to stop. The kingdom Jesus embodies is a kingdom of non-violence. Again, Peter does not quite get it. But Jesus does not reject him. And Peter continues to learn what kind of Messiah Jesus must be.
Peter ends up in the courtyard of the high priest’s house sitting by the fire with assorted voyeurs and hangers-on. Jesus is being held as a prisoner inside. Peter’s accent makes him stand out there in the big city, and on three separate occasions people say that he must be connected with this notorious Jesus from Nazareth. And three separate times, Peter, afraid for himself, denies that he knows Jesus.
“One of his disciples?” Peter says. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong guy!” It’s as though he wants to erase that confession of faith he spoke so boldly back in Caesarea Philippi. Peter denies Jesus, and does it three times, but Jesus does not deny him. And Peter continues to learn what kind of Messiah Jesus must be.
Soon Peter’s world is turned upside down - twice. First, when Jesus goes to the cross to die there, Peter’s hope for a new world dies on that cross as well. Second, when Jesus does not stay dead, but comes out of his tomb more alive than ever to console and challenge his bewildered disciples.
The risen Christ turns up in unexpected places. Early one morning, when some disciples are out in a boat fishing, he appears on the shore. He’s got a fire going, and they have broiled fish for breakfast. After that, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him — and he asks this three times. Each time Peter says yes, and Jesus tells him to feed his flock. Peter’s denials are canceled out by this new confession. His track record has been far from flawless, but Jesus does not give up on him. And Peter is now seeing what kind of Messiah Jesus truly is.
Let’s go ahead now several years, the Christian Church is taking shape. The burning issue of the day is whether Gentiles must become Jews if they are also to become Christians. The leaders, Peter and Paul, know what’s right — that Gentiles do not have to become Jews before they become Christians, that all who believe in Christ are free to enter the Church on an equal basis. Paul stands firm on this important truth, but in at least one instance Peter waffles, and Paul is left to correct him. Peter slips and falls, and he is helped to his feet, but for all his clumsiness, Jesus is not ashamed of him. And Peter sees what kind of church God is creating with this new community of Jesus followers.
The final episode about Peter that I want to mention does not appear in the Bible, but is preserved in an early Christian document. The Acts of Peter, which dates from the second half of the second century. Peter’s preaching puts his life in danger. He is warned of the plot against him and persuaded to leave Rome. On his way out of the city, there on the road called the Appian Way, he encounters Jesus heading in the other direction, and asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answers, “I am coming to be crucified again.”
Peter takes this to mean that Christ is to suffer again in his disciple, and he turns back and returns to Rome, where he is martyred. So then, at the end of his life, Peter finds new courage to live out his confession of faith — all because Jesus does not abandon him.
The Christian life of each of us resembles that of Peter. There’s a confession of faith, which we make at our baptism or at our confirmation. In fact, we make that confession of faith at every Eucharist when we re-affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. Every day of our lives, we are living out its implications. What we experience is no straight, flat road, but a journey into the unknown with many twists and turns, a dead end here and there, and plenty of peaks and valleys.
Each of us are somewhere on that journey. Perhaps it has been many years, perhaps few, since your first confession of faith. You may be in one of those low places that Peter came to. You may feel you are past the point of getting up again, but here’s good news for you: each of us is like Peter in some way. We make mistakes, we miss opportunities, we wonder where God is in the midst of our struggles. Whatever we do, God does not leave us, reject us, deny us, or give up on us. God is not ashamed of us. God does not abandon us. God is with us no matter what! And with Peter, we are learning what kind of Messiah Jesus truly is, “the son of the living God.”