No disciple gets more things wrong, through a deep desire to get things right, than Simon Peter.
You remember Simon Peter: he starts out life as a fisherman. He is called with his brother Andrew to follow Jesus. From the beginning, Peter has a prominent place among the disciples. However, his enthusiasm for the cause often leads him astray.
When Peter sees Jesus walking on water, he wants to be just like him. But Peter isn’t Jesus, and when he steps out on the waves, he sinks. (Mt 14:30). When Peter witnesses Jesus up on a mountain, transfigured by the glory of God and talking with Moses and Elijah, he is thrilled. But instead of taking in the miracle of the moment, he imagines that he can make it last forever, and suggests establishing mountaintop living arrangements for these three religious superstars (Mk 9:5). When Jesus wants to wash Peter’s feet at the Last Supper, Peter tries to show respect by refusing to accept such a menial service from his savior. But when Jesus presses the issue, Peter loses his head entirely, proclaiming that if washing is the right thing, Jesus must wash his head and his hands, too, give him a full bath before the meal begins (John 13:2-11).
Peter is all in: he gives his whole heart and his whole life to Jesus. Yet somehow, Peter’s dedication doesn’t always get him where he wants to go. In so many stories, you can almost see the rest of the disciples rolling their eyes at the teacher’s pet. You can almost hear Jesus coughing back a laugh over his most dedicated, and most ridiculous disciple.
In the text today, Jesus is walking with his disciples from one town to the next. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the only one who is brave enough or sure enough to say out loud, “You are the Messiah.” Score one for Peter.
But just after this, Jesus begins to explain what his life as the Messiah will be like. Jesus says that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then rise again. Peter is outraged. How could such a holy man be destined for such a bitter end? Peter loses all control and actually begins rebuking Jesus for his teaching. Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Once again, Peter has missed the point. He loves Jesus so much that he can’t bring himself to accept what Jesus is saying about his suffering and death. Jesus gathers a whole crowd to tell them: If you want to follow me, deny yourself. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
The rebuke in today’s text are the harshest words that Jesus ever says to Peter in the gospels. This story is not, however, the end of Peter’s mistakes. In fact, Peter’s behavior goes downhill from here. Jesus tells his disciples two more times in the Gospel of Mark how his story will end (Mark 9:31 and 10:33-34), but Peter still can’t believe it. Perhaps Peter imagines that Jesus must surely become an earthly ruler, or an honored religious leader. Maybe Peter even dreams that as Jesus’ right hand man, he also has a wonderful destiny in front of him. Whatever the reason, Peter is unprepared when Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion finally come to pass. He is filled with grief. He is filled with fear. And in the midst of his grief and fear, Peter publicly denies following Jesus, three times, to protect himself (Lk 22:56-61). He betrays the one he loves so much.
Amazingly, this betrayal is not the end of the line for Peter. Jesus said about Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) and, in the end, Jesus’ trust is not misplaced. When the news comes that Jesus may have risen from the dead, Peter is among the first to respond. Peter goes on to preach on the day of Pentecost, at the founding of the church. He takes the lead in selecting a replacement for Judas Iscariot. Peter helps open the way for the Jesus movement to welcome gentiles. Before the end of his life, Peter travels to Rome and brings the good news of Jesus there. Some consider him the first bishop of Rome, and therefore the first Pope. It is in his name that St. Peter’s basilica in Rome is dedicated.
In this later era of his life, Peter does not shy away from the difficulties that arise because he has chosen to follow Jesus. He is arraigned twice by religious authorities. He endures prison. And finally, he is willing to die for his faith as a martyr. According to tradition, Peter requests to be crucified upside down, because it is not fitting to be killed in the same way as Jesus.
In this season of Lent, we are encouraged to examine ourselves closely. What is preventing us from entering into a closer relationship with God? What are we doing or not doing that mars our efforts to be disciples of Jesus? How are we straying from ways of love? These are necessary questions that help to prompt confession, reconciliation with God, and renewal in our faith. Unfortunately, these questions also sometimes turn into traps for us.
As we ask ourselves these questions, an internal voice of self-defense may spontaneously arise and prevent us from really considering an honest answer. “You’re doing great!” it says. Or, “You’re doing as well as you possibly could under the circumstances.” Or, “Take a look at the people around you, you’re doing so much better than them, probably you’re all set.”
Depending on which demons are more prevalent with you, you may hear other voices. “You’re a terrible person!” they say. Or, “I can’t believe you messed up again.” Or, “Take a look at the people around you, why can’t you get yourself together.”
If you have ever heard any one of these messages in your head, consider the story of Peter. Those of us who try to follow God are real people. We’re each our own unique bundle of wonderful gifts and terrible habits and beautiful aspirations and devastating misconceptions. There’s no need for us to be surprised or ashamed if we’ve made mistakes. There’s no need for us to pretend that we haven’t made any. Discipleship is not about perfection, real or pretend. It’s a struggle for everyone, because all of us set our mind far too often on human things, rather than divine things.
But the good news doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that it’s ok to be flawed, or that we have one another in the struggle, though we do, and I’m grateful for every one of you. The best news is that ultimately, mercifully, this whole adventure in life is not about our merits or our faults. It is not about us. It is about God.
God’s invitation to discipleship is an invitation to be part of something much bigger than our individual stories. In fact, setting aside our preoccupation with ourselves is exactly the point. Living a life that is about our own performance is exhausting. Better to embrace a larger way. A way that keeps drawing us on, no matter what happens. A way in which we can always try again, for the sake of God and one another. As Jesus says: those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Dear God, you know. I get so wrapped up in my story. What am I getting right? What am I getting wrong? How have I been harmed? What do people think about me? Help me to clear just a little space, free from self-concern or self-evaluation. Fill that space with your love: a love that helps me know that I belong to you no matter what; a love that helps me know that I am bound up with all of creation in a bigger story. Help me to breathe in and out, and feel the relief of living in you. Amen.