Last week we heard about Jesus telling Peter that he was the rock on which the church would be built. If I had been Peter, I might have felt pretty good about that. And apprehensive at the same time. To think that Jesus had such faith in me! But what a responsibility. Am I up to it? I suppose I must be if Jesus says I am. Jesus thinks I’m a rock. Steady. Strong enough to be the foundation of the Lord’s church. Just think -- he chose me to be the foundation!!
And now this week. Get thee behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Peter. You are Satan to me. Is this the same Jesus? The same Peter? A stumbling block? A stone to trip and fall over? Just last week he was a solid rock foundation. What’s going on?
Peter might be the foundation, true, but he’s like a cement foundation in the process of being poured rather than one that has set up into solid stone. He hasn’t yet set up; he’s still being formed. As are we all….
In today’s Gospel Peter is so concerned for Jesus’ life that he’s tempting him to preserve it, to save his earthly life at the expense of his heavenly mission. Bag the Kingdom, Jesus. Don’t die yet. Live a little longer. Stay with us. We love you. We need you. The people need you.
How tempting to give in to the love and needs of others, how tempting to avoid the humiliation and pain that Jesus knows is in store for him.
But Jesus’ reaction is vehement. Not a “No, I don’t think so, Peter.” Not even a reasoned, logical reply. Instead he turns so suddenly, so sharply, that I suspect he startles everyone when he snaps at Peter. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Satan! “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter, setting not only his own mind, but tugging at Jesus’ mind too. The temptation is strong.
Why is it Peter who tempts Jesus? Why not the beloved disciple? Why not Judas? Why not one of the women? Or Luke? Or Mark? Why is it Peter who tempts Jesus to lay down his cross? I want to skip a direct answer to that question because I don’t have a direct answer to it – except that it’s a fact stated in Matthew.
Why is it Peter the Impulsive? The question nagged at me as I read and reread this Gospel. Is it important enough to spend time puzzling over? After all, we know that the church did get built, and that Peter did work hard to build it. And we know that Jesus did not stumble over him. But I taught school too long not to know that there is no thing as a stupid question. So. Let’s look at Peter.
Peter. St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. There are dozens of jokes about people who have died being met by Peter at the Pearly Gates. But those are jokes. What really do we know about Peter?
I reviewed material in six very large, very heavy books in an attempt to answer that question. And I took 20 pages of notes. Now I’m not a Biblical scholar, nor am I a historian. [An historian. . . .] I read (present tense) stuff and I learn stuff, and sometimes that stuff gets shoved so far back in the rather disorganized file cabinets of my memory that I can’t lay my hands on a specific file the instant I want it.
What I have here to share is dedicated to those of you who, like me, may not be instant experts on Peter -- to whom we owe an extraordinary amount of thanks for our being in church here today for worship.
When we think of Peter, what comes to mind? Peter saying, “You are the Messiah.”? Jesus saying, “Get thee behind me Satan.”? John tells us that Peter whacked off the ear of the servant of the high priest the night Jesus was arrested. (So where did he get the sword? Were the disciples armed? Or was Peter alone armed? Did he wrest a sword from one of the soldiers? Don’t you wish John had fleshed out that part of the story a little more?) We think of Peter as a fisherman, not a fighter.
According to most traditions, Peter was the first disciple to be chosen. Peter was also called Simon, son of Jonah. (Not Jonah of Jonah and the whale, by the way.) Simon Peter, brother of Andrew. Peter, the rock on which Jesus says he will build his church.
I like knowing that Peter was married. We know that because he healed his mother-in-law, and I have read that his wife accompanied him on his travels. And we know that he was a disciple of John the Baptist before he followed Jesus.
Peter, who tried to walk on the water. Peter, who almost sank until he called on Jesus to help him. Maybe it was his willingness to step forth that made him such a natural leader.
He was often the spokesman, whether for all twelve disciples or for the smaller group of three (Peter, James and John) who seemed to be the inner circle of the disciples. They were the group that was with Jesus at the raising of the daughter of Jairus from the dead, and at the Transfiguration. It was Peter, along with John, that Jesus sent to make preparation for what was to be the Last Supper. Peter, James and John were the three whom Jesus asked to watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Peter, who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed after the arrest. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the man who denied Jesus so passionately at such a dramatic time is the man whom Jesus chose as the rock solid foundation to build the church on? And (also according to John) to be the man to whom Jesus would first reveal himself after the resurrection?
We can only marvel and give thanks that the grace of God grants such a blessing to one who does not seem to merit it, to this outspoken, impulsive fisherman -- appointed by God to serve as a leader in the emerging church. I doubt that Peter took any of it for granted. I am guessing that he struggled mightily with his conscience (the servant’s ear, after all; the denial).
Remember the story of the man whose chains miraculously fell off while in Herod’s prison? That was Peter.
In his travels Peter performed many healings and gathered many converts to the church, so as leader, he needed to be sure of his theology. At one point he was in Joppa – let’s push the “pause” button here – Joppa is a city about 35 miles from Jerusalem. It is now called Jaffa, which makes me remember, from a linguistics class I took 52 years ago, that stronger sounds like “p” soften over the centuries to more gentle sounds like “f.” Hence, Joppa – Jaffa. Same city. It’s a city built on a rocky ledge (116 feet high) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. While its harbor may be poor because of so many rocks that abound in it, my Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary describes it as picturesque. So if you sail into port there, have your camera ready, and navigate very carefully. OK. Now unpause. Back to the program.
In Joppa Peter stayed at the home of Simon, a tanner. Oh, tsk, tsk. With a tanner. Tanning was an unclean profession. Nevertheless, Peter stayed there. Maybe he was taking a page out of Jesus’ “how to” manual. Stay not with the squeaky clean guys, but with outcasts and sinners. The uncleans.
One afternoon he went up on Simon’s roof to pray. Hang on, here comes another side trip. Mediterranean architecture features houses with flat roofs (they hardly need those steep pitches that are necessary in regions of heavy snow). In the Mediterranean climate the flat roofs could double as patios or simply extra rooms open to the air – maybe extra bedrooms. There Peter had a vision about unclean foods. Actually that’s probably more a nightmare than a vision to a good Jewish man. The result of the vision was that Peter realized that all the food God provides is good. Clean and Unclean were standards applied by a law that had outlived its origins. (One of my big fat books stated that no authority has ever figured out the whys and wherefores of dietary laws. That was my Jerome Bible Commentary that we used when we were studying for ordination. A less fat book, The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, at least speculates. “Strict laws about diet are laid down in the Old Testament saying what may, and what may not, be eaten. Among the strict laws: Animals which chew their cud and have divided hoofs could be eaten. Fish with fins and scales were OK, but not eels. Blood must be drained from a carcass before it was cooked. Meat and milk dishes were not to be cooked together, or eaten together. The reason for these strict laws on diet was never explained. They may have been God’s way of protecting the health of the people. They may have been intended to avoid cruelty to animals. They may have been given for more strictly religious reasons. Or not. . . .) It’s one of those things that it’s OK not to know.
Peter’s attitude is that if food should not be classified as clean and unclean, well then, neither should people. And Peter from then on demonstrated God’s grace in presenting to anyone who would listen the opportunity to change a stubborn heart and to soften some of the hardened social customs of Jewish believers.
Peter. We draw from him wonderful stories of adventure and struggle and faith and forgiveness.
Peter. A figure so human, so simply full of human nature, that were we to encounter him, we’d be comfortable to sit down – maybe on a rooftop patio near the Pearly Gates with him – to share a cup of coffee and some good stories.