We know of only one perfect person, Jesus, the Son of the living God; and his complete perfection didn’t save him from the rest of us. In fact, it might just have been his undoing…
I find today’s gospel reading interesting, and as is usually the case, if I really look at a passage of scripture carefully, even if I’ve read it countless times before, sometimes there’s something new and different that I hear. Peter, champion of those with foot in mouth disease, once again gets really pretty upset with Jesus after Jesus tells the disciples about the future that awaits him in Jerusalem. I imagine that Peter is not only shocked and afraid, but may also be thrown into a state of grief. He doesn’t hide his emotions; instead he confronts Jesus with what I imagine is some pretty sharply worded language. Of course, Jesus turns on him and offers his own sharply worded criticism, comparing Peter to Satan and telling him he’s too focused on earthly things. What I find interesting is the concept of denial that is at play here… First, Peter denies Jesus, something that Peter gets even better at as they get closer to Jerusalem; he denies Jesus by his inability to accept what Jesus is telling him; Peter is denying Jesus and he is denying the cross; and then, after Peter gets a stern talking to, Jesus turns around and says that his followers must deny THEMSELVES… and take up THEIR crosses and follow him. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to be a follower of Jesus; his followers have to be willing to walk to the same dark places that Jesus will walk, and they have to be willing to carry their own cross… crosses, that aren’t about them, but are about the lives and hurts of others, because the cross that Jesus carried, was carried on behalf of humanity… So Peter had the identity of Jesus right. He just didn’t get the denial or cross part right; he let his fear and his concern for himself get the best of him; and if cross bearing is about anything, it’s about loving others without fear or self concern…
What we don’t hear in Mark’s version of the story, is the part of the story that is in Matthew’s gospel, where after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus tells him that he, Peter, once known as Simon, is the rock upon whom the church shall be built. So there he is, Peter, a name that comes from the Greek for rock; he is the one on whom the church shall be built, and in just a few sentences, we see that this rock really isn’t as strong as we might like. Peter becomes humanity personified… not strong and resilient, but rather someone who makes mistakes, someone who fears, someone who denies Jesus… and yet, this one, this imperfect human is whom Jesus chooses to build the church… and we know that after the resurrection, Peter travels to Antioch and Rome and other places preaching about Jesus and helping the early church settle matters about which they disagreed.
Peter is far from a perfect person, and while we don’t have accounts of all of his conversations with Jesus, the ones we do have, always seem to show how much Peter gets wrong. But here’s what he gets right… he keeps showing up; he stays in relationship with the other disciples and with Jesus; even when things go horribly wrong, Peter always manages to turn himself and his will back toward Jesus and the gospel. That’s really great news for you and me; at least I think it is… Like my pal Bill would say, we’re all God’s got to work with; we are the ones who are given the gift of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we are the imperfect people that have been called to take up our crosses, follow Jesus, and become living temples of the Holy Spirit. Yikes. That’s a lot of pressure. Yet even when Peter got it horribly wrong, Jesus never said, “Nevermind dude, I was wrong about you”. Rather, Jesus kept calling Peter to be more than Peter thought he could be, and even though he didn’t always do the right thing, he loved Jesus and tried so very hard to live his life as a faithful disciple.
Being a disciple is hard work, especially when we take the cross of Jesus seriously. You and I have denied him before, and we all will do it again; we will long to take the easy way out and run from the hard stuff; we will call Jesus Messiah and Lord in one breath, and say, “Oh no, you have the wrong guy, I’m not doing that!” with the next. It’s who we are as humans. Self preservation is always at the heart of what we desire; sometimes, we are able to rise above that desire and do the right thing, regardless of the consequences to ourselves…Because, like Peter, Jesus calls us to be more than we think we can be.
And here’s the thing; we are all broken in some fashion, and probably in more than one; some of us are battling physical issues that make it harder for us to do some of the physical work of ministry that Jesus asks of us; some of us are battling mental illness or addiction that makes it difficult to see beyond ourselves; some of us are too busy trying to support families; and of course, some of us are just plain stubborn or too afraid to get involved, or we get tired of the grind. I get it. I have fallen into all of those categories at some point in my life; but the life of Peter, the life of my cantankerous buddy Bill, the lives of all of you tell me this; Jesus loves us… and, Jesus can use even us to advance the kingdom, because, as my friend Bill said, “we’re all he’s got”. And there’s a certain peace and celebration in that, because there’s always SOMETHING that we can do, no matter what the obstacles are in our lives. Like Peter, we can just keep at it, knowing that the Spirit lives within us, helping us to move forward towards the kingdom; all of us can do something to help others realize the gospel of Jesus. We sometimes think praying isn’t enough; but as someone who has been lifted by the prayers of others, I know how important it is; take your weekly service bulletins home and pray for the people and places on the list; we all need to make the work of the kingdom a priority, no matter what we place in our way to stop us. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, whatever ways we have denied Jesus, those are not what defines who we are; it is Jesus who defines us, because he loves us enough to stay by our sides no matter how many times we deny him. And that is why Jesus is God and we are not; his radical love and forgiveness is just not something you or I are capable of… but like Peter, we can learn from our mistakes, and keep on going, acting like the disciples that we are. Today, may we discover some of the obvious and perhaps not so obvious ways that we deny Jesus… and may we know that with his love and acceptance, we can overcome the obstacles we place in the way of our relationship with him, and move toward realizing the kingdom without shame or fear or lack of confidence. Our opening collect for today I think sums this up well:
Let us pray:
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.