Monday, March 13, 2006
The Peter Principle (by Simeon Zahl)
2/12/03 (by Simeon Zahl)
Peter Talk: What does it mean to live a Christian life?
Today I want to take a look at a character in the Bible about whom I think we tend to have some misconceptions. In any case, the inspiration for this talk came from my realizing I had a misconception about him: the Apostle Peter. Good old Peter, the loyal fisherman. Peter the first head of the Christian church, the first Pope. Probably had a beard. Peter about whom Jesus said “On this rock I will build my church.” And yes, Peter who denied Jesus 3 times. Peter, the great disciple who has been described as “refreshingly human.” Perhaps you have heard a sermon or a talk at some point to the effect of, “See, even Peter screwed up, and royally. It’s ok if you mess up, God loves you anyway.” I definitely have. When I would hear stuff like this, then in my mind I used to make this jump: Peter made some mistakes, but that was all before Jesus died and rose again, before Christianity really started. Afterwards-- after the Holy Spirit came down to the apostles-- Peter preached and healed people and was a generally good guy, and lived happily ever after until his noble martyrdom. After all, he is a saint, is he not? Perhaps this is a picture of Peter that you recognize. Like I said, this picture is definitely the one I had of him until pretty recently: as “the great disciple who was refreshingly human.” I want to take a closer look at this picture of Peter. I want to show that Christians very often (and me specifically) have a misconception about who Peter really is, and about how the Bible really portrays him. I want to try and illuminate the misconception we often have about this important biblical figure and show him as he really is.
Furthermore, I want to show that this subject is more than just a vaguely interesting scriptural quibble. The reason it is more than that, more interesting than that, more relevant than that, is because Peter is the prototypical Christian. It is generally accepted that the apostles are for the most part scriptural “stand-ins” for us. Like us, they are Christians trying to grapple with the trials and joys of the Christian life. I believe that Peter is especially “one of us,” for a simple and obvious reason: he made a lot of mistakes. We know that we tend to screw up a fair bit—morally, academically, spiritually, and so on-- and so we relate especially well to Peter. Do you really relate to John, the “beloved” apostle who never seemed to do anything wrong? He was almost perfect, a true saint. I do not relate to John. I relate to Peter, the guy who denied Jesus because he was afraid of what people would think about him. Peter, who doubted when Jesus told him he could walk on water, and sunk as a result. If you are a Christian, and you feel like sometimes you are not a very good one, then Peter is your man. Peter’s life is as prototypical a Christian life as the Bible gives us. So as we start looking at who Peter really is, as we start trying to clear away our misconceptions about him, we are not just making a small point about Bible interpretation. We are clearing away our own illusions about what a Christian life looks like, about what it means to be a Christian. In Peter we begin to see our own life, naked and honest before God. Have you ever heard the words “What Would Jesus Do?” and thought, “I know exactly what he would do. But I don’t want to do that. It’s too boring, too hard, or too soon.” Well if you have ever felt that way, you probably can relate to Peter. In clearing up the common misconception about Peter, this talk will hopefully make it easier for us to be honest about ourselves—about our own Christian lives-- and therefore will make it easier to be honest with God. Honest with the God who said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So then, who is Peter? What are we trying to say about him that we do not already know? In answering that question, I am going to focus on three different incidents in Peter’s life:
a) His first meeting with Jesus in John 1,
b) His experience in the garden of Gethsemane as related in Matthew 26,
c) His confrontation with the Apostle Paul, which is described in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Each incident gives us a new piece of information about Peter, a new way of looking at him. The total picture that will emerge is one I had never heard until I started studying Peter a few months ago. Ultimately it is a picture of us.
First, let’s take a look at Peter’s meeting with Jesus at the beginning of the gospel of John. Remember, his original name was Simon, not Peter:
[John 1:40-43 “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother was one of the two who had heard what John [the Baptist] had said, and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought [Simon] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Peter.’” (emphasis added)]
There are two things that happen here that I think are worth mentioning. First, before Simon says or does anything at all, Jesus renames him “Peter.” In Christianity, as many of you will be able to relate, when we have our first experience of Jesus, we realize that we are being given a whole new identity. Paul talks a lot about “putting off the old self, and putting on the new self.” We are redeemed by God, and as a result we become his servants for the rest of our lives, and we are no longer bound to serve only ourselves. This is what happened to Simon, a fact made abundantly clear by Jesus actually renaming him. For the rest of the book, he is referred to as Simon Peter or just Peter. He is a new man, just like Saul when he was renamed Paul. The other three gospels refer to him as Peter from the very start. They mention that it was Jesus who gave him the name, but they do not describe the incident. So he is Peter, for all intents and purposes, from the moment he meets Jesus until the day he dies.
The second point about this renaming passage from John is that Peter is not just a new name; it is a new name with a meaning. As you may know, the new name comes from the Greek for “Rock.” We learn later on why Jesus names him “the Rock.” Peter is called the Rock because Jesus says to him in Matthew 16:18 “I tell you that you are Peter [i.e. the Rock], and on this rock I will build my church.” Basically, Jesus is saying “buddy, you’re going to be in charge when I’m gone.” We know this is what he meant because after his death, in the book of Acts, the disciples all accept Peter as their leader without any question. They knew beforehand that he was the Rock, the man in charge of the church.
I used to think, “Sure, Peter made a lot of mistakes while he was still learning the ropes, while Jesus was still alive. But things changed after Jesus left and the Holy Spirit came, and Peter became the leader of the Christians, a super-apostle who healed people and preached everywhere, and was generally awesome.” The point is, instead, that Peter was the Rock-- the head of the church and Jesus’ Number 1 Man-- from Day 1, from the moment Jesus met him and changed his name. This means that all the rest of the stuff he did in the gospels—his mistakes, mainly—were done by a full-fledged, prototypical Christian. In a sense, he had already been instated as Pope long before Jesus died. It was the Leader of the Church to whom Jesus said “Get behind me, Satan!” and who didn’t have enough faith to walk on water. For me, this was a new and unsettling insight. I hope that it unsettles you a little bit. Peter was living a prototypical “Christian life” from the minute of his first encounter with Jesus, and the rest of the things he does must therefore be interpreted in this light. We will come back to this point in a moment.
The next passage I want to look at is one that I always sort of skimmed until recently:
[Matthew 26: 36-45: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.’ And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again, for a second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.’ And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.’” (emphasis added)]
Let’s unpack this a little bit. Picture this: Jesus tells you to stay awake three times; you promptly fall asleep three times. This is the big night, the night of his arrest. You have been following Jesus day-in, day-out for 3 or so years, and you believe he is the Son of God and the Savior of the World. And you cannot even keep awake when he asks you to. He is sweating blood; you are taking a nap. -- Obviously, Peter and co. are pretty miserable here at doing what Jesus asks them. They do what they want to do, not what he wants them to do…. 3 times. Peter was supposed to be in charge: How do you think he felt? I think he was perfectly aware of what a failure he was proving to be. I bet he felt deeply, deeply ashamed. He must have been asking himself, “Why the heck did he choose me? I’m terrible at this. I have no self-control, and I keep choosing myself over my Lord. How on earth am I supposed to be the Rock on which he will build his church?” This passage to me is just so stark in its opposition between what Jesus wants the disciples to do and what they actually do. Peter and Co. come across so clearly as a bunch of failures. I think this passage often doesn’t get enough attention.
Now I want to put this evening of weakness in Gethsemane in the context of everything else Peter does in the gospels. If you go through an exhaustive concordance looking for every reference to “Simon” and “Peter” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you will be led to the following events:
a) Peter is afraid and sinks into the water (Matt. 14:27-31).
b) Peter tries to persuade Jesus that he will not have to die, and gets the following reply: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men” (Matt. 16:23, etc.).
c) He denies Jesus three times! (Matt. 26: 69-75, etc.).
d) He draws his sword in Gethsemane and is rebuked for it (John 16:10-11, etc.).
e) He gets rebuked for asking—out of jealousy-- about John, the beloved disciple: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:22).
f) He falls asleep in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:40-46, etc.).
g) He even loses the race to the empty tomb! (John 20:3-4).
In all of this, Peter only does a single good thing: he acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and is the first of the disciples to do so (Matt. 16:13-19, etc.). A wonderful, central, important moment, to be sure. But it stands alone in Peter’s gospel story. Otherwise, everything he does in the gospels ends in a correction, a rebuke, or just simple failure. He seems to be pretty useless. This point makes us wonder exactly what kind of a Christian life this is that Peter is leading. Definitely not one of someone who is generally good, but screws up sometimes. Not messing up is the exception. Failure and rebuke is the rule. Are you surprised? I certainly was. It became almost comical going through the concordance references. Like it was a joke. But it is not a joke. Instead, the large-scale ineffectiveness of Peter in terms of his behavior, his actions, points, I believe, to a widespread misconception about who he is, and therefore about how the Bible depicts the Christian life. But before we get to the Heart of the Matter, let’s look at one more relevant passage. At this point, I thought, “Well, maybe Peter is not a very good Christian early on, but he gets better, right? Doesn’t he do all that cool stuff in Acts? Doesn’t it say that people would lay the sick on the side of the road in the hope that even Peter’s shadow would touch them and heal them?” The answer is: Yes, he is used powerfully throughout the book of Acts. But does he really make “progress” as a Christian, in the sense of becoming less prone to failure in Christ’s service? The answer, I believe, is no. To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to look at a passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The context of Paul’s words is this: he is recounting a meeting he had recently had with Peter. Peter, and most of the leaders of the early church, had been persuaded by the arguments of “the circumcision party,” the group who believed that for Gentiles to become Christians, they had to get circumcised and follow certain dietary rules and other precepts of the Jewish faith.
[Galatians 2:11-14: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group [“party”]. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’”]
Peter was “clearly in the wrong,” had fallen into “hypocrisy,” and was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel,” for he believed that people had to follow certain laws and rules in order to attain the salvation Christ offers us. He had forgotten that Jesus’ message was for all mankind, and that, thanks to his perfect sacrifice, we are no longer bound to fulfill the Law. And Peter, the Father of the Church and original disciple of Jesus, was publicly rebuked by some upstart who had not even met Jesus before he died, much less been one of his trusted followers and disciples from the beginning. And yet Peter accepted the rebuke and changed his mind on the subject. -- In other words, the Father of the Church had fallen into heresy! He completely misunderstood the entire relationship of Grace and Law that Jesus died to make clear to us; he showed himself to have profoundly misunderstood Jesus’ whole message! I wonder, is there any way he could have screwed up more royally? Not really… Again, let’s think about how he must have felt: humbled, ashamed… Again he must have asked God, “Why me? I’m no good at this. I seem to get everything wrong. You chose the wrong guy for the job.”
So we see, the idea that Peter, despite making a lot of mistakes early on, “improved” and became a “good Christian” does not hold water. Instead, every phase of his Christian life was characterized by a colossal failure or rebuke. It is hard to imagine how to be a WORSE Christian than Peter, short of rejecting the faith entirely, once and for all. The great misconception I alluded to at the beginning is thinking that Peter was basically a good Christian who messed up once or twice. Rather, he could be relied upon to fail at doing God’s bidding, with one or two salient exceptions. And he must have spent much of his life full of shame, guilt, and questions about why God called him in the first place. In the same way, it is a misconception to think that the Christian life is basically successful service to the Lord with a few exceptions. In my experience, I do not seem to be much better than Peter at serving my Lord.
I believe that a lot of Christians question their faith sometimes because they misunderstand what Christian life is meant to be. Just as we misunderstand Peter, so we misunderstand who God expects us, his followers, to be. Like Peter, many of us are full of shame deep down because of our private failures and our private fears. Like Peter, we question whether God would love us and care for us if He really knew what went on, and how we really feel, if He really knew how little we think about Him some days, and how often we choose our own desires over his commands.
Let me be more concrete for a moment: many of us are weighed down by the expectations we perceive others to have about us. These expectations may be in school, in our families, at our jobs; if we are “good” at something, we are expected never to fail at it. At college, most people I know (myself included) struggle with the high academic expectations they feel their parents, their friends, and the world lay on them. People respond to this pressure, these expectations, in two different ways: some feel incredibly guilty about how little work they do, and how last-minute they are, and how much class they miss. They live in fear that people will discover that they are not living up to the potential they were always told they had. They do not think they are meeting the expectations the world has for them, and they feel ashamed, and try to hide their failure. Others deal with the same problem in the opposite way: they feel the same expectations, so they work night-and-day to meet them. This group’s great fear is that they might not do well, and that people will think they are not the successful person they were cracked up to be. Both groups believe they have the world fooled; both are afraid deep down that they might be failures. I think these characteristic ways of dealing with expectations apply to many more situations than just the predicament of the student who feels pressure to excel. All of us have areas where people rely on us, and expect us to come through and succeed. And most of us, to one degree or another, live in fear that the world will realize that we do not meet its expectations, and that we are in bondage to guilt and fear and shame in that area, whatever it may be. And we think, “I shouldn’t be in bondage to this, to these expectations. I’m a Christian, after all. Why won’t God take this problem away from me? Maybe I’m not a good Christian…” And we assume no one else really has the same problem. Like Peter, perhaps, we wonder why God chose us to follow Him if we are so bad at giving up control to Him like we know we are supposed to.
-- Maybe your hidden struggle is a different one: maybe it revolves around some secret sexual sin or bondage. Again, maybe you feel you can’t help yourself—you’ve been struggling against it for years and years with no success-- and deep down you think you must not be a good Christian.
-- Maybe instead your issue has to do with Body Image. You know God loves you the way you are, but sometimes you don’t feel like anyone else will, and you just can’t give it up to God.
Especially with these last two, some of you may have experienced the blinding, paralyzing shame that comes with being “discovered” in your sin, especially by another Christian. It feels like the world is going to end. More importantly, it might make you feel like a failure as a Christian. God doesn’t want us to do these things, to be in bondage to them, and yet we do them, and we feel we cannot help ourselves. Does that mean God doesn’t want us? Are we really failures as Christians?
In order to answer that question, let’s look at what happened to Peter when he was “found out” and forced to face his failures as a follower of Christ. The scene is this: Peter has denied Christ three times—for him probably the worst sin imaginable-- then watched his Lord die. There is starting to be evidence that Christ has been resurrected… but Peter still has the denials on his conscience. Christ meets him on the beach, and the two of them go for a walk, just Jesus and his Number 1 Guy:
[John 21:15-17: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,” he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again, Jesus said, ‘ Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’”]
This passage is usually interpreted as Jesus’ response to Peter’s 3 denials. Notice first that Jesus calls him “Simon,” not Peter. Perhaps Jesus is using his old, pre-Christian name as a way of acknowledging Peter’s continuing sin. In any case, the upshot of this exchange is essentially that Jesus comes to Peter in all his guilt-stricken pain, and instead of saying, “Sorry man, you blew it, I’ll have to find another Rock,” he says instead, “Not only do I know what you did, and forgive you, but I’m leaving you in charge. Feed my sheep when I’m gone. I’m relying on you.” Jesus’ response to Peter’s most devastating sin is to give him even more responsibility and trust. He gives Peter the opposite of what he deserves. That, my friends, is grace.
So it is with us. God loves us despite our sin. God uses us despite our propensity for failure. And God is not deceived when we hide our shame from the world. His love is so much greater than our failures. He knows we’re going to fail. So his response is to shed his love to the world through our failures and our weakness. We have established that Peter was not good at being a Christian, and that he must have felt terrible about himself most of the time. Does this mean that God couldn’t use Peter? By no means! In spite of everything, “the Rock” had a powerful, thriving ministry, a ministry that is still alive today. In spite of everything, thousands were converted through him. In spite of everything, God carried him through and made his love to shine through him. Jesus’ words became flesh in Simon Peter: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And so it is with us.
There are a few things I think we can take from Peter’s story. First of all, Peter’s example is an encouragement to us to be truly honest with God and with each other about the things we are so ashamed about. He already knows when we are not being a “good Christian.” In Peter he shows us that being a “good Christian” is not the point. The point is that God’s grace be made manifest in the world, and he has decided in his wisdom that it is best manifested to us in our brokenness before him. His love is not contingent on anything we do or fail to do. It is so much greater. Secondly, sometimes when we do not want to do something, we say, “I’m not ready yet”, or “One day I will be a good enough Christian to do that, but not yet.” We put off being honest about our sources of shame, thinking that one day these problems will find a solution, but that that day has yet to come. This idea comes out of a misconception about Christian life. No one is ever “Ready” to do God’s will. Peter sure as heck wasn’t. God does not wait for us to be worthy of the responsibilities he gives us; he gives them to us in our weakness. So do not fear failure, or discovery. As Peter learned so profoundly, His strength is made perfect in weakness.
Posted by John Zahl at 8:15 PM