Call to Worship/Psalm 32 (NRSV)
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore, let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
O God, we praise you for the saints and martyrs of this and every age, whose lives, like seeds, had dropped to the ground, yet whose witness has inspired us and borne fruit. We pray that we may be found faithful as we live out your calling on our lives in our time and place. Make us receptive like Mary your mother, bold like Paul, joyful like Francis of Assisi, and contemplative like Teresa of Avilla. Help us to reflect Mary Magdalene’s great love for you, John the Evangelist’s understanding of you, and Simon Peter’s steadfast devotion to you. And when we feel that we have failed you, remind us that all your saints were sinners in need of your mercy and grace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 26:30-35, 69-75 (NRSV)
30When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
31Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” 34Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
69Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” 71When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. 75Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
There is something about Simon Peter that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because I so readily identify with him. He was impetuous, quick to act, often without taking a moment to consider the consequences of his action. He was hasty to interject an observation or an opinion into the conversation when a more reserved response or even silence would have been more appropriate to the situation. Peter was a man of action—let’s get things done and get them done now!—perhaps excusing his insensitivities or failures or lack of results by suggesting, “well, at least someone tried to do something,” or “at least I made an effort, that’s more than the rest of you lazy louts have done.”
To me, Simon Peter is a paradox. While his actions that we find in Scripture often fall short or astray of the mark, it seems that, for most of the time, his intentions are genuine and his heart in the right place. Even though he could be somewhat of the proverbial bull in the china shop, Peter was fearless. He knew that simply sitting around wasn’t enough. There is a boldness to his actions that inspire us. There is a willingness in his spirit to attempt to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t all exactly work out as planned. For example, in the story of Peter floundering about in the waters of the Sea of Galilee, he was the only one who took the risk of striding out upon the waves toward Jesus. The other disciples never left the safety of the boat.
Peter started out as a fisherman. He lived with his wife in Capernaum, where they shared a house with his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew. He and Andrew had their own boat with their father and were in business with a couple of partners named James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The first time Jesus laid eyes on him, he took one good look and said, “So, you’re Simon, the son of John” (John 1:42), and then said that from then on he’d call him Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, which is a name derived from the Greek word petra, that means “rock.”
Rocks are ubiquitous. We see them everywhere most everyday but take little notice of them. While diamonds and other rare gemstones are both beautiful and valuable, the common rocks that we encounter daily often do not warrant any kind of comment at all. But there is something no nonsense about a rock. Once it settles down, it’s pretty much there to stay. There’s not a lot you can do to change a rock, and, barring earthquakes, you can depend on it about as much as you can depend on anything. So, Jesus called Peter the Rock, and it stuck with him the rest of his life. Peter the Rock. He could stop fishing for fish, Jesus told him. He’d been promoted, if you will. From there on out people were to be his business. Now he could start fishing for them.
At that time. there was a great deal of talk going around about who Jesus was and who he wasn’t. Jesus himself seemed just as glad to steer clear of the subject. One day Jesus brought it up, and the disciples had to contend with his question. Some said he was John the Baptist come back from the grave, or maybe Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet who might preface something big for the people of Israel looming on the horizon. Jesus then put it more directly to them: “Who do you say that I am?” No one seemed to want to stick his neck out to proffer an answer. The silence was deafening until Peter exclaimed one of the most precise confessions found in the New Testament: “You’re the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the living God.”
It took a great deal of courage to make that profession—and Jesus knew it. If it was true, it was enough to blow the lid off everything. If it wasn’t true, you could get yourself stoned to death as a blasphemer for just thinking it. But Peter was bold enough to proclaim it anyway. It is in this moment that Jesus crafted for Peter the only beatitude he ever made up for a single individual and said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona,” which means Simon, son of John, and seems to have been what he always called Peter when he really meant business—telling him that he was the rock upon which he wanted to build his church and that he would be given the keys of the kingdom.
But if Peter was the only one Jesus ever gave a beatitude of his own to, he was also the only disciple he ever scolded in such a direct way. Soon after Peter’s confession, Jesus was saying that to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, wasn’t going to be a bed of roses, and the time wasn’t far off when he would be arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified. This went against everything Peter understood a Messiah to be and abruptly dismissed Jesus, saying: “God forbid, Lord. This shall never happen.” Jesus’ response is just as abrupt. “Get behind me, Satan,” he said. Jesus challenged Peter’s comment because Peter’s words echoed the temptations of Satan when he had been fasting for forty days in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River. Satan had tempted Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread, assert his authority by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple to test God’s providence, and take his place as ruler by offering him the kingdoms of the world if he would simply bow down before him. Peter was becoming not a steppingstone, but rather a tripping hazard, an obstacle along the path of sacrificial love. “Get behind me Satan!” he said. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” One can almost hear one of the other disciples whispering, “Oh, snap! Jesus really got Peter today.”
This wasn’t the last time Peter said the wrong thing either, or asked the wrong question, or got the wrong point. Once, when Jesus was talking about forgiveness, Peter asked how many times you were supposed to forgive any one person—seven times maybe? Jesus turned on him and said that after you’ve forgiven him seventy times seven you were just starting to get warmed up. Another time Jesus was talking about heaven, and Peter wanted to know what sort of special deal people like himself got, people who had left home and given everything up the way he’d given everything up to follow Jesus. Jesus took it easy on him that time, because a rock can’t help being a little thick sometimes, and said he’d get plenty, but so would everybody else.
And we would be remiss if we forgot Peter’s hoof-in-mouth moment at the Transfiguration—Jesus taking his inner sanctum of Peter, James, and John up on the mountain where he was lit up with godly light, standing between Moses and Elijah, the greats of Israel’s past. In this most holy of moments, Peter utters something about building booths, attempting to capture it, hold on to it, possess it—instead of allowing the moment to be what it was; a glimpse of God’s glory, God’s blessing bestowed upon Jesus before he made his way down into the valley that would lead to death on another hill—the one called Golgotha.
And then there were the things he did or failed to do, those final, miserable days just before the end. At their last supper, when Jesus started to wash the disciples’ feet, it was Peter who protested—”You wash my feet!”—and when Jesus explained that it showed how they were all part of each other and servants together, Peter said, “Lord, not my feet only but my hands and my head!” At that same sad meal, Jesus said he would have to be going soon, and because Peter didn’t get what he meant or couldn’t face it, he asked about it, and Jesus explained what he meant was that he was going where nobody on earth could follow him. Peter finally got the point then and asked why he couldn’t follow. “I’ll lay down my life for you,” he said, and then Jesus said to him the hardest thing Peter had ever heard him say. “Listen, listen,” he said, “the cock won’t crow till you’ve betrayed me three times,” and that’s exactly what happened—P eter sitting out there in the high priest’s courtyard keeping warm by the fire while, inside, the ghastly interrogation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin was in process, and then the servant girl coming up to ask him three times if he wasn’t one of them, and his replying each time that he didn’t know what in God’s name she was talking about. And then, the cock crowed. The gallicinium, often referred to as the “cock crow,” was a bugle call that the Romans used to signal the third watch of the night—the first watch starting at nine, the second at midnight, and the third at 3:00 a.m. Into the lingering echoes of that fanfare flooded Jesus’ words from around the table earlier that evening. It was a soul-shattering moment, as if someone had struck a hammer to wedge, splitting Peter the rock’s heart in two. Tears running down in torrents from Peter’s face like water gushing down a rocky crevasse.
Fortunately for Peter, his tears were eventually transformed to joy. According to the apostle Paul, the first person Jesus came back to see after Easter morning was Peter. Their last conversation on this earth, however, is reported in the Gospel of John. It was on the beach, at daybreak. Some of the other disciples were there too, and Jesus was cooking them breakfast over a small charcoal fire. When it was over, Jesus said to Peter (only again he called him “Simon, son of John,” because if ever he meant business, this was it), “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” and Peter said he did. Then Jesus asked the same question a second time and then once again, and each time Peter said he loved him—three times in all, to make up for the other three times that Peter had denied him that fateful night around a different charcoal fire, the one in the high priest’s courtyard.
Then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep,” and you get the feeling that this time Peter didn’t miss the point. From fisher of fish to fisher of people to keeper of the keys to a shepherd of God’s people. It was the Rock’s final promotion. From this point on, we read about Peter’s story in the book of Acts. At the Pentecost event, we hear Peter’s bold proclamation, fearlessly addressing the crowd that had gathered there, sharing the story of Jesus who had died and was raised who calls us into new life with him. Later on, we read where the fledgling church faced a major crisis: to what degree should the Church accept Gentiles into the body of believers? Thanks to a vision, Peter changed his mind about requiring the Gentiles to follow Jewish rituals in order to become part of the church. Peter’s changed heart goes to bat for all Gentiles, agreeing that they can be baptized and welcomed into the community of faith. But later, Peter reneges on what he had said about the Gentiles and has to be shamed by the apostle Paul in order for the Gentiles to be fully included again.
Beyond this, we know very little about Peter. Legends of all sorts arose about Peter’s mission work as a primary leader in the Church. The letters of First and Second Peter found in the later part of the New Testament were attributed to him, although they were most likely written in his name at a later time. Other books that aren’t included in the Bible—like the Gospel of Peter, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter, all works written long after Peter’s death.
Following his work in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Corinth, Peter finally made it to Rome, where he taught and preached on God’s behalf, drawing converts of all sorts into the church. It is believed that the Gospel of Mark is drawn directly from Peter’s teaching and preaching there. One of the stories that circulated about Peter was when he met frightening opposition by the Roman authorities. His life endangered, Peter’s friends urged him to flee so that his life may be spared. The story says that, as Peter was preparing to leave Rome, he saw Jesus coming into the city. “Domine, quo vadis?” Peter asked: “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus responded, “I am to be crucified.” Continuing his questions, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, are you being crucified again?” Jesus’ response was, “Yes, Peter, I am being crucified again.” According to this story, Peter then recognized that Jesus was going to Rome to bear the cross from which he was fleeing. Peter returned to the city where he met his ultimate demise. Tradition holds that Peter’s wife was crucified first, with Peter being forced to watch. When the time came, Peter insisted that he was not worthy to die as his Lord had, so Peter was crucified upside down.
While the legends and stories that we have are difficult to substantiate, I think we can all agree that Peter was a significant leader in the early Church, one of the pillars upon which the Church was built. The Roman Catholic tradition holds that Peter was the Church’s first Pope. Peter shares a feast day with Paul, the other pillar of the church, annually on June 29th. Indeed, Peter was the rock upon which the church was built and his memory and fortitude live on in all generations of believers who are able to boldly, with Peter, proclaim Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
A Sonnet for St. Peter (written by Malcolm Guite)
Impulsive master of misunderstanding,
you comfort me with all your big mistakes;
jumping the ship before you make the landing,
placing the bet before you know the stakes.
I love the way you step out without knowing,
the way you sometimes speak before you think,
the way your broken faith is always growing,
the way Jesus holds you even when you sink.
Born to a world that always tried to shame you,
your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,
I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
before you knew how to deserve that name.
And in the end your Savior let you prove that each denial is undone by love.
Prayers of the People
O Lord our God: you are Love, living and dancing through all creation, you are Light challenging and purifying our hearts,you are Peace, deep and unfathomable, working through and beyond all pain and conflict.
We praise you for the gift of life itself—
for our fragile and beautiful planet,
for the richness and variety of race and culture,
for human companionship, love, and laughter.
Use us now as channels of your blessing for those in need—
for those who do not have enough to eat…
for those whom violence and war are the order of the day…
for victims of hatred, prejudice, and injustice…
for those who are sick in body or mind or spirit…
for those who are lonely and afraid…
for those who are enslaved by addiction…
For those who have lost all hope of finding a home or finding work…
Risen Christ, breaking the bonds of evil and death, shine upon us and on those for whom we pray. Let your light flood our darkness and fill our world with life. Empower us to be agents of your healing, messengers of your good news, and bearers of your generous grace on which we all depend. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who instructed his disciples to pray:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Closing Thought & Benediction
There is a story that circulated after Peter’s death that tells of Emperor Nero’s anger at Agrippa for Peter’s execution without his knowledge, as the emperor had hoped to extend Peter’s punishment more cruelly in vindication for the evangelism of some of his servants. One night, Nero awakens to a person striking him and ordering him to stop punishing Christians. Frightened by this vision, the emperor refrains from any further persecution.
There is no doubt that Peter’s influence on the Christian faith runs both wide and deep. While his words and actions sometimes went awry, his fearlessness in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world is immeasurable. The Church would not be what it is today without his leadership and his bold witness.
May the God who forgives our frailties and redeems our denials, give you peace.
May the love and teachings of Christ Jesus, mirrored in Peter’s faith, sustain us amidst the storms of life.
May the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who empowered Peter to share God’s good news with the world, inspire us to serve.