Sketches of Peter

Later in his life, Peter wrote a couple letters to the church. They’re First and Second Peter, toward the end of the New Testament. In his first letter, he expands on a tangled and complex metaphor about how each member of the church is basically like a rock and how that’s a good thing.

You know his name was Simon, right, when Jesus first commandeered his fishing boat back in Capernaum. Jesus was the one to call him Peter, a word that means rock, and it carried a double meaning. Jesus said “on this rock I will build my church,” which makes Peter pretty important.

But also: who wants to be compared to a rock? You can sort of imagine Peter making one of his patented hot-headed comments, and as an exercise in asking the other disciples to have faith in this upstart community, Jesus proclaims that on this rock the church will be built.

Peter returns the favor in his letter by imagining all of us as rocks: living stones. He says that we’re all being brought together like a mason would gather materials, in order to build a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.

Then, after calling us all rocks, Peter gives us one of the most beautiful descriptions of the Church that I’ve ever read. I’m going to read it to you, and while I read it, remember that this description applies to us, and the Catholics across the street, and the church around the world, and the last 2000 years of bumpy and occasionally beautiful history:

“…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Peter wasn’t a scholar, like Paul or the authors of any of the Gospels, and it shows in his writing. He doesn’t use elegant Greek, and parts of it are difficult to even translate. But I love this image of him clumsily picking up a pen, asking for spelling advice, just needing to get something down on paper about the beauty of the community that he has helped to found.

 


 

Back in Capernaum, Simon Peter might have been a rock but he wasn’t an apostle. He was just a fisherman, in the little fishing town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. The sun had come up full in the sky, but after a night’s work on the lake Peter’s nets were still empty.

He was tired and ready for bed, no doubt, when a travelling preacher asked to borrow his boat. The shore of Capernaum is shaped like an amphitheater, so if speakers push out a bit on a boat, they can be heard easily by everyone on the shore. It’s a useful little trick to know.

Why did Simon the fisherman say yes? Was he too tired to argue when the teacher climbed into his boat, or was he looking for a distraction from cleaning his empty nets? Maybe he was just a generally nice fellow who didn’t mind lending his boat to strangers. Maybe he was genuinely interested in what this traveling preacher had to say.

Jesus said some stuff, from the boat. I’m sure it was great, being Jesus and all, but Luke doesn’t give us any of it. It’s almost as though Simon isn’t really listening, so he can’t even pretend to know what Jesus was talking about.

But then Jesus turns to Simon and says, Put out into the deeper part, and let down your nets for a catch.

This was lunacy. Everyone knew that night was the time for netting fish. Simon grumbled, but he did it anyway, and caught such a huge number of fish that the nets began to break, and then even the boats began to sink under the weight.

Here’s another image of Peter: When Simon Peter saw this, he fell down at Jesus’s knees. He didn’t keep cleaning his nets, and he doesn’t butcher the fish and sell them in the market. He also doesn’t ask for an explanation or invent a line of reasoning to explain this.

Whatever this is, Peter knows a grace when he sees it. He and the fishing buddies with him abandoned their equipment and their business, just left it all behind and followed Jesus.

 


 

It’s a Saturday- the Sabbath. They’re in a synagogue, and Jesus is teaching. A man was there whose right hand was withered, and the scribes and Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man.

Can’t heal on the Sabbath, you know. That’s work, and work’s not allowed. If Jesus heals this guy, then the scribes and Pharisees will have the beginning of a case against him.

Jesus knew what they were thinking. He could have healed the man on the downlow, but instead he invites the man with the withered hand into the middle of the assembly.

And there’s Peter the fisherman, watching his teacher. “Let me ask you something,” Jesus said to them. “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath or to do evil? To save life or to destroy it?”

No response, not from the Pharisees, not from the congregation, not from Peter.

Jesus heals the man, of course, because the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath. Because the Sabbath laws were given to heal human brokenness, not to leave us more broken. Because the purpose of the law is love, and redemption, and restoration.

Peter is there on his bench, listening.

 


 

They’re at a banquet, now, in the home of Simon the Pharisee. He’s a big shot, and this banquet is a big deal.

In the middle of it a woman from town, a known bad character, discovered that he was there at table in the Pharisee’s house. She brought an alabaster jar of ointment. Then she stood behind Jesus’ feet, crying, and began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Luke says that the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was going on, which is one of the best examples of literary understatement that I’ve seen lately. The Pharisee saw this? I mean, how could you miss it?

Peter must have felt pretty uncomfortable, there at the table. I mean, sure, Jesus pushes boundaries- would Peter have bothered following a teacher who didn’t? But this seems over the line, maybe over several lines, maybe over the horizon point of even being able to see the line due to the curvature of the earth.

Jesus forgives this nameless woman who has made his feet smell like Chanel. And moreover, when Simon the Pharisee protests this nonsense happening in his own dining room, Jesus asks him which hypothetical person would appreciate forgiveness more: the one who owes five hundred to the money lender, or the one who owes a tenth of that?

In other words, forgiveness is more valuable to this woman, a “known bad character,” than it ever would be to Simon the Pharisee. People who have thoroughly failed are the ones who most appreciate an outstretched hand and a second chance.

And there’s Peter at the table, snacking on lentils and olives and pita bread and watching and learning from this Teacher.

 


 

Peter saw Jesus send demons into a herd of pigs, which no good Jew ought to have been keeping anyhow. He saw a woman healed of internal hemorrhaging just by touching Jesus’ robe. He was there in the room when Jesus raised Jarius’ daughter from the dead.

Peter carried a basket, when Jesus took five loaves and two fish and blessed them and divided them up and fed a crowd of five thousand. They picked up twelve baskets full of leftovers.

When Jesus was praying alone, his disciples gathered around him.

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” he asked them. The disciples gave their reply, and then came the real question: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter replied, “God’s Messiah.”

Peter is certain, although he certainly doesn’t know what it means. Eight days later he climbed a mountain with Jesus and James and John, and then Jesus started to shine and Elijah and Moses appeared and Peter saw the glory. A cloud appeared and overshadowed them… and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my son, my chosen one: listen to him.”

Peter and his friends didn’t say anything about this, when they came down off the mountain. What could they have said?

 


 

Peter walked with Jesus as he became heaven-bent on getting to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He was there for Jesus’ street theater entrance on a donkey, this country carpenter coming into Jerusalem as a King of Peace.

He was there when the King of Peace made a whip and chased people out of the temple, and when Jesus stood outside the glorious temple of stone and said that he could rebuild it in three days.

A quarrel began among them, while celebrating the Passover meal, over which of them was to be seen as the most important in the new kingdom they were there to found. Jesus turned their argument upside down, taking on the role of a servant among them.

Then he turned to Peter, saying Simon, Simon, listen to this. The satan has demanded to have you. He wanted to shake you into bits like wheat. But I prayed for you; I prayed that you wouldn’t run out of faith. And, when you turn back again, you must give strength to your brothers.

 


 

Peter was shaken and tried, and the rooster crowed well after Peter had failed three times. Jesus turned and looked at him, hiding in the courtyard while his Rabbi was on trial for his life, and Peter went outside and wept bitterly.

 


 

The Rabbi died on a common cross, but blessedly they got him into his borrowed tomb before the Sabbath began. And there they sat, all that silent Saturday, with the rubble of their failed revolution.

And to be part of a failed movement hurts enough, but Peter had personally failed. Luke doesn’t tell us, but it’s not hard to imagine at least a few more episodes of bitter weeping.

 


 

The women came rushing in with their wild tale of angels and empty tombs. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the others with them. They told their tale, and it sounded like nonsense- just as it would today.

But Peter was off running. He raced to the tomb, stooped down and saw only the grave-clothes. He went back home, perplexed at what had happened.

Later Jesus appeared to the two walking to Emmaus, then to the gathered disciples in Jerusalem, and Peter began to understand. But keep this image of him lacing up his sandals as the others are making fun of the women’s story. Keep this image of him understanding, instinctively, that he needs to run.

Peter has failed, massively. But I’m reminded of a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Peter hears the story, laces up his sandals, and starts to run.

 


 

Jesus leaves the disciples with the worst possible advice of all: wait. Wait in Jerusalem. Don’t go home. The Holy Spirit is coming.

Then Jesus ascended into heaven, and they were left with nothing but the waiting. They took care of some business, like finding a replacement for Judas, but c’mon. Peter is a man of action.

What kind of people just sit around and wait, anyhow?

When the day of Pentecost had finally arrived, they were all waiting. The Spirit arrived with wind and fire and the disciples were suddenly able to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them the words to say.

The city was full of visitors from all over the known world, and each of them could hear the disciples telling about the powerful works of God in their own language.

Peter was the one to make the connection, when onlookers started to wonder if the disciples were just drunk. He saw that the promises of old were being fulfilled, that young and old and men and women and everyone else that you wouldn’t expect were being empowered and called on to share this story of hope and courage and joy.

Peter failed, and turned back, and now he’s strengthening the others.

 


 

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion with a very Roman name. He was devout, and he and all his household revered God. He gave alms generously to the people, and constantly prayed to God.

But none of this, of course made him a Jew. And Jews followed very particular laws regarding food and fellowship, and as a result of the law they didn’t share dinner tables with Gentiles, no matter how pious and how generous they were.

God needed Peter to go see Cornelius, and so Peter received two messengers. The second message came from men sent by Cornelius, asking Peter to come visit their master in Caesarea. The first message, though, is the one that sets the tone for all Christian ethical thinking to follow.

Peter was hungry and hanging out on a roof in Joppa, which isn’t a weird as it sounds- in a world without air conditioning, a rooftop with some shade and a breeze is often much cooler than being indoors.

Did I mention that Peter was hungry? Because Peter was super hungry.

While his hosts were preparing lunch, Peter fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened, and a vessel like a great sail coming down toward the earth, suspended by its four corners. In the sail; there was every kind of four-footed creature, reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice: “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

“Certainly not, Master! said Peter, asserting his holiness. I’ve never eaten anything common or unclean.

“What God has made clean,” said the voice, coming now for a second time, “you must not regard as common.”

Peter had a tendency to be just the tiniest bit thick, so this all happened three times, and then suddenly the sail was whisked back up to heaven.

Take this snapshot of Peter, standing bewildered on the roof. We know about Cornelius, but Peter doesn’t yet. He’s just being told that a set of laws that he’s followed his whole life need to be chucked out the window.

He’s failed before, and he’s trying to get it right now or at least fail better. What does he make of this dream?

 


 

Let me spoil the story for you: Peter goes to share fellowship with Cornelius. He counts his violation of the dietary law as a Gospel act.

Peter says, when he gets to Cornelius’ house, “You must know that it is forbidden for a Jewish man to mix with or visit a Gentile. But God showed me that I shouldn’t call anybody ‘common’ or ‘unclean.’ So I came when I was asked, and raised no objections.”

Picture Peter here in Cornelius’ living room. This household has been participating in Judaism, but always as outsiders. They can give alms, and they can pray, but they can’t really be part of the chosen people.

Is Peter trembling, as he sits down to a nice ham dinner with Cornelius and his household? Perhaps. But he’s also certain. The vision he saw was all about food, but Peter understands that it’s really about fellowship, about people.

The vision asked him not to call any food source unclean, but Peter understands it to mean that no person should be called unclean. There’s something about this new way of living, this resurrected life, that means that Peter can share a table with Cornelius.

So since Peter always seems to act with gusto, I think we should imagine him tearing into the ham, excited to be at the table with Cornelius.

 


 

A dispute arose among the churches of Christ: is circumcision necessary? It’s hard, perhaps, for us to understand how much this question mattered to Jewish Christians. They traced this practice all the way back to Abraham, back to the father of the faith.

Circumcision, see, was the defining mark of a male follower of Yahweh.

Picture Peter in the room, for this argument. The apostles and the elders have gathered to determine whether or not circumcision is necessary for followers of the Rabbi Jesus.

Those in favor of this argument, like Peter himself, have known the Law to be a source of joy and blessing. They aren’t mean-spirited, or judgmental, so put those images away.

Those arguing that the male Gentile believers should be circumcised are wanting to invite these believers fully into the covenant faith of the children of Abraham. That’s an impressive form of hospitality, and we shouldn’t downplay it.

But Peter, having seen Christ’s ministry, and having failed and having turned back, and having seen the Spirit come down, and having found himself sitting at Cornelius’ table, is having none of this.

Peter simply points out what would be obvious to any observer: God, who knows the heart, gave the spirit to the Gentiles just the same as to the Jewish believers. It doesn’t quite seem fair, since this is a Jewish Messiah, but Peter knows a grace when he sees it.

In response to those who would wield the law as a dividing line, Peter insists that we believe that it is by the grace of the Lord Jesus that we shall be saved, just like them.

There’s your final sketch of Peter, confident as always. He’s seen Christ transfigured and the empty tomb. He’s left it all behind in total commitment, and he’s let his fear run him into failure, and he’s wept with despair, and he’s come out the other side of all that with humility and tenderness and courage.

 


 

That, Friends, is the rock on which the church is built. Can we see ourselves, and our families, and our meeting, and the church and the world more broadly, through this vision of redemption?