Welcome Back, I trust you are putting up with masks and social distancing with grace and good humor. I say again: it’s an odd way to love your neighbor, but that’s what you’re doing. …Well, today, I’m asking you to put yourself temporarily in the place of Simon Peter. Walk a bit in the shoes of a fisherman.
In this painting, Jesus is serving the disciples a breakfast of bread and fish, as that prelude to our Scripture reading is envisioned by the Chinese artist He Qi (heh chee). I’ve again used Scripture, biblical scholarship, tradition and my own imagination to think through some of the things that led up to this point. Listen as my good friend, Doug Ross, gives his voice to this man, who is indeed Simon son of John, also known as “Peter.” These days, a lot of people think of him as SAINT Peter, but I’m SURE he’d be the first to tell us: “saintly” may have been a goal, but it was NOT how he started.
When I was five years old, I joined the other boys and girls of Capernaum (kuh-PURR-knee-um) at synagogue where the rabbi hired by our community was to help us memorize and begin to understand… Scripture! I was fascinated by the scrolls – the only true reading material in our town. I remember how, on the first day, Rabbi Abner wrote the letters of the Hebrew alphabet on a slate and had us recite them. Then he put a drop of honey on the slate and – one at a time – we licked it off so we would always associate reading Scripture with sweetness. I determined then-and-there that I would master reading and memorize the Holy Word better than anyone, ever.
But within a week it was obvious I was the least capable student in class.
Even at that early age, my friends had nicknamed me “Peter” (which means “Rock”) because I was stronger and bigger than any of them, unmovable when we wrestled, unbeatable when we fought. If we had been Romans, I’m sure I’d have been trained to be a great warrior or athlete. But Jews do not waste time on athletics; and warriors are valued, but not nearly as much as scholars. As we grew older, it became more and more clear: I would not be a scholar, but a fisherman (like my father and grandfather).
My scholastic shortcomings even brought me to a point where the nickname I’d been proud of began to have a double meaning. When I stumbled over a reading everyone else had mastered, a fellow student would quietly sneer, “Peter” – by which he meant: “dumb as a rock.” No one did it to my face, of course, I was still stronger than any of them. But I stopped taking pride in my strength when I got in a heated fight with two friends and almost killed one of them.
I decided then I needed to work on controlling my temper. If I couldn’t be a rabbi, I would at least be a good Jew – kind, and charitable, and gentle to everyone.
Of course, I didn’t include Romans in that. As a young man, I would have been glad to fight any-or-all of them. But: fail to control your temper around Romans and you could end up crucified. Hit one, and they might kill you AND your family.
To no one’s surprise, I did not move on to Beth Midrash (similar to your secondary school); instead, at age 13, I went to work with my father full-time. Happily, strength is valuable to a fisherman; I became a good one.
At 19, I married Naomi, a girl my father picked out for me. We’d been lifelong neighbors. In fact, when my mother died giving birth to my sister, Naomi’s mother treated me like a member of their family long before she learned I was to become her son-in-law.
Naomi turned 15 a few days before we married. It took me a while to stop thinking of her as my little sister. But we enjoyed each other and the next ten years were good, though it took us that long to conceive a child. And when we finally did, Naomi almost died, and our baby was stillborn. I understand such things are rare in your world. They are common in ours.
The experience left me bitter – once again far from the Jew I wanted to be. One day, I was sorely tempted to take a swing at the soldier protecting our local tax collector. He was telling us that Rome now demanded an even bigger portion of each catch. Naomi knew I’d come close to doing something that would get me executed. She begged me to search out a new rabbi who had just moved to Capernaum from Nazareth. His name was Jesus, and – like her – I’d heard good things about him.
Jesus both frustrated and fascinated me. I told him about the soldier I almost hit. He understood my anger, but he said God wanted me to work on loving my enemy! (Matthew 5:44) A week later, a different soldier ordered me to carry his backpack and gear for one mile. It’s Roman law; I had to obey, but it infuriated me. Jesus again understood, but said, “Next time, go with him two miles: the first one will be because you have to; but the second mile will be your gift.” (Matthew 5:41)
I was incredulous, “You think one small act of kindness could change the heart of a Roman mercenary?”
“Probably not,” Jesus answered, “but I know it could change you.”
The next day, my brother, Andrew, came to me and said, “John the Baptist has shown us the Messiah!” (John 1:35-40) He was so excited about dragging me to Jesus, I didn’t have the heart to tell him we’d already met. But it got me thinking, “Jesus IS someone people would follow. Could he…, could he be…?”
A few days later, Jesus was trying to share the Word of God near a spot on shore where we were repairing our nets. In little time, his crowd swelled from fifty to almost a thousand. Jesus asked if he could address them from one of our boats. I had sought his counsel, but never heard him speak. It was amazing; we were all spellbound.
When he finished, Jesus asked us to pull out to deep water and let down our nets. I told him it was day, the fish we want are most active at night, and we’d just fished all night with no success. I even thought about adding: “Jesus, you’re a wonderful rabbi, but as a fisherman, stick to carpentry.” I didn’t. After all, it would give the crowd a chance to disperse. Besides, after that sermon none of us felt like denying him anything. We did as he asked.
For the first time in my life, the catch was so large, I couldn’t pull it in, not even with help. Our partners came over in another boat; we filled both craft so full they almost sank. All I could think was, “Andrew was right. Jesus just might be the Messiah!”
When we finally got to shore, I fell to my knees and said, “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.”
He said, “Don’t be afraid, I’ll show you how to fish for people! Come, follow me.” (Luke 5:1-11)
With Naomi’s blessing, I did. I followed Jesus for three years, during which he fearlessly stood up to our hypocritical religious leaders, healed hundreds, and inspired thousands. I saw him do amazing things, and grew ever more confident that he really was the new Moses, the man God had chosen to lead Israel out of bondage. In Caesarea Philippi, I told him as much, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Chosen One of God.” (Matthew 16:16)
He responded by redeeming the nickname I’d grown ambivalent about: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Only God could have given you this knowledge. From now on, I will call you Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:17-18)
It was the proudest moment of my life.
Sadly, it soured a few minutes later when Jesus told us that being God’s Chosen One meant he would go to Jerusalem and be killed! He added something about rising from the dead three days later, but I didn’t hear it. I was too busy shouting, “What?! Never!” I insisted crucifixion couldn’t possibly be the fate of the Messiah. Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)
What I saw as truth, he saw as temptation. What I saw as God’s plan, Jesus recognized as my own. I went from “Peter, a foundation of rock” to “Peter, dumb as a rock,” in less time than it takes to tell the story.
Everyone now knows Jesus was right about what being “God’s Chosen One” meant. But not everyone knows how right he was about me. That didn’t sink in until our last Passover together. Jesus had just washed our feet and commanded us to be equally ready to humbly serve each other after he was gone.
“Gone?!? Lord, where are you going?”
He said, “I’m going where you are not now strong enough to follow.”
Well, I was still twice as strong as most men (and I kept a short sword hidden under my robe). “Lord,” I said, “I will follow you anywhere. I will lay down my life for you.”
He answered, “I tell you truly: tonight, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” …I was speechless.
Much later, we went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he asked me and the others to stay awake with him and pray. We all agreed.
Ten minutes after that, we were all asleep.
We woke to the sound of angry shouting and the sight of soldiers with swords drawn. I pulled my own sword and tried to cut off one man’s head, but only got his ear. Before I could thrust again, Jesus said, “Enough! Put it down!” Then he touched the man’s ear, healed it, and submitted peacefully to arrest. (Luke 22:49-51)
I lost any will to fight, and before I knew it I was running away with the other disciples. We scattered blindly. My route took me close to the home of the high priest where I almost bumped into the temple guards and others in the arresting party. A servant girl saw me by the light of a coal fire I was pretending to warm myself at. She said, “He was with Jesus!” I denied even knowing who she was talking about.
As the night wore on, that happened two more times. Someone accused me of being a disciple, a friend, a follower of Jesus. I insisted it wasn’t true. The last time, almost as a period to my denial, a rooster …crowed.
The next few hours were a blur of guilt and tears and hiding – hiding from the soldiers, but also from anyone who might recognize me, and even from God. I kept to the edges, barely close enough to see when – at 9:00 – his cross was raised, and – at noon – when the sky turned black, and – at 3:00 – when he died.
The next day, I somehow I found myself back with the disciples. It was Sabbath, but we didn’t speak, or pray – mostly we just hid.
Then came Sunday: an amazing day, a confusing day, a day of miracles. I was overjoyed to learn that Jesus had defeated death, but I couldn’t look him in the eye because I had given up to fear. I could never be part of his church, much less its “rock foundation.”
We learned that he wanted to meet us in Galilee. So we returned home and waited, and fished while we waited. You heard last week of the miraculous catch and the “stranger” who pointed us toward it. When I realized who that stranger was, I dove in and swam to him. But as I neared shore, I again felt that odd mixture of joy and shame…. Jesus shouted a welcome and bid us join him at a coal fire he’d prepared – a fire that reminded me of the one I’d warmed myself at a thousand years ago when I had first denied him. He fed us fish and bread.
But then – I think because he knew I was much “hungrier” than the others – he fed me in a most peculiar way. “Simon son of John,” he said. “Do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Then,” he said, “feed my lambs.”
We repeated that conversation two more times – one time for each of my denials; and each time it ended with him saying something like, “Take care of my sheep.”
He said more after that: talking about how I would die in his service, and how I was not responsible for the way other disciples went about their mission. I listened, but – truthfully – I only half heard. Even as the sun rose, it was slowly dawning on this “Rock” that Jesus not only forgave me, he still wanted me: wanted me to be part of his team, his disciples, his… church.
The Gospels tell us that Simon Peter was a fisherman: not terribly bright, but always eager; always wanting to be a good man, a good Jew, a good Disciple. Maybe the most endearing thing about him is that, after every failure, he came back, he kept trying.
According to John 18:10, he was the disciple who had a sword, so it obviously hadn’t sunk in when Jesus said to love your enemy or turn the other cheek, and fighting may well have been second nature to Peter. We also know he had prejudiced side. In Acts we will see that he has to be hit over the head with a vision of non-kosher animals that he is commanded to eat, before he’s convinced God loves Gentiles and really does want them included in the church.
And, as we heard in the monologue, he was certain that Jesus was heading to a crown of gold in Jerusalem, not a crown of thorns.
But Peter stuck with Jesus, even so, and I think it was because he recognized the truth of God and God’s love that he saw in this carpenter/rabbi. The Pharisees may have been brilliant, but they weren’t smart enough (or, humble enough) to see the One True God lovingly embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.