This Lenten sermon is from 1961. To learn a little about the history behind it, click here.
One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). – John 1:40-42 (RSV)
Dear friends in Christ:
“You are Simon — you shall be called Cephas (which means Peter).” This short sentence contains a verb in both the present and future tense. You are Simon — you shall be called Cephas. Christ greeted a Galilean fisherman and told him that he shall become a man of rock-like character. This must have sounded a bit incredible even to Simon. Friends who were near and heard it must have looked at each other with tolerant and knowing smiles, “Whichever of Jesus’ followers is destined to become a rock, it’s is surely not Simon.” Yet Simon Peter came into his own and developed to an amazing degree. He came to be acknowledged as leader of the Twelve. Even today he is best loved among the Apostles. Of course this is not because of his superior ability. I am not sure that he was the most brilliant of the twelve. But we never love somebody simply because he claims to be clever. Nor do we love Peter because he was faultless. We love him in spite of his mistakes and shortcomings. Since Peter played an important part in the Passion story which we study during Lent, it will be good to have a look at this man.
Let us look first at some of Peter’s good qualities.
First, he was authentic, something that should not be overlooked. A person once said, “Once a minister becomes more minister than man, he’s got three strikes against him.” Peter was always himself. He never pretended; he never tried to hide his ignorance. He said what he thought, and not what other people wanted him to say or hoped that he would say. We appreciate people like that more than people who try to please everybody.
Next, Peter had gifts of leadership. He had what we call personality. We might not agree about what makes for personality, but whatever it is we value it. It’s something that makes a person effective, makes him a leader. When Peter said, “I will go fishing fish,” a number of his disciples said, “we will go with you.” They didn’t stand around undecided. It was natural for them to follow the leader.
A third quality we like in Peter is his wholeheartedness. Sometimes he was on the wrong side of the fence; sometimes he was on the right side of the fence, but he was never on the fence. There were times when his enthusiasm passed the boiling point; other times when his enthusiasm was below freezing; but at least he was never lukewarm. In a moment of desperation he swore falsely, but as soon as he realized what he had done he wept bitterly – tears of repentance. “I hate men who are half and half” we read somewhere in the Psalms. And we all know what God had to say to a certain church in the third chapter of Revelation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). We like Peter for being wholehearted. He did not start on the Christian path and then slow down and come to a standstill.
However, along with much that was good in Peter, there was much that was not so good. His greatest shortcoming was his excessive self-confidence. He was always sure of himself and as proud as a drum major leading the high-school band. He always had to be first; he had to be the official spokesmen. When Jesus tried to pierce the armor of his self-assurance with a word of warning, it had about as much effect as a BB gun on a battleship. Peter seemed to think that others might fail – John and James and even his brother Andrew – but failure on his part was out of the question. He believed that he was able and strong.
Peter was deeply devoted to Jesus and was convinced that Christ possessed more than human wisdom, but at times Christ still needed a little advice from the number one disciple. For instance, one day a woman who had been sick for twelve years came through the crowd, touched the seam of the Lord’s robe, and found healing. She turned and wanted to slip away with the blessing she had received. But the Master wanted to give her a fuller blessing. He asked, “Who touched me?” Peter was amazed, maybe even embarrassed, by the question. He found it ridiculous, and rushed into the breach, saying something like: “You want to know who touched you? Scores of people have touched you. Don’t you see the crowd pushing from all directions?” Peter needed to give some advice even to Christ. At a later date, when the Lord proposed to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter declared, “You shall never wash my feet!” He thought what Jesus wanted to do wasn’t appropriate for a man of his position. He needed to give advice.
One must also say that Peter was a very impulsive man, who often reasoned with his feelings rather than his mind. Sometimes he was guided more by emotion than by reason. He spoke first and thought second; he took a position and then looked for the reasons to prop it up.
I don’t know the first thing about playing golf. I’ve been on a golf course only once in my life, and that was when someone who gave me a ride unexpectedly stopped at a golf course to play a game. What could I do but wait and watch? I’ve also watched a couple of times on TV and marveled at the care with which a golf player strikes the ball. He looks over the field and measures the distance from the ball to the little hole. He takes all the possibilities into account before striking. My tendency is just the opposite, and so is the tendency of many. We first strike and then consider; we act first and then are surprised when the ball doesn’t roll into the hole.
Peter was impulsive and often unpredictable. Sometimes he spoke with wisdom and at other times he did the very opposite. Sometimes he was so heroic that we want to stand up and cheer, but the next time we see him in a different light. One moment he jumps out of a little tossing boat to walk on the waves of a raging sea; the next moment he’s in trouble up to his neck and cries frantically for help. That’s the way impulsive and emotional people are.
In saying this I do not mean that we have to repress our feelings altogether. God has given us feelings for a reason. I once listened to an old gentleman who felt it was his duty to warn against the damage of too much liveliness in religion. This may be true in some cases, but listening to that gentleman one didn’t know whether to smile or weep. He himself was as dry as a coconut husk in the tropics. I would rather have impulsive Peter than that gentleman for my teacher.
Now Jesus took this bewildering mixture of weakness and strength, hope and despair, sinner and saint, into his hands and said, “I will make a solid character out of you. You are Simon — you shall be called Cephas. Today you are the old, unreliable Simon, but when I am done with you, you will be different. You will have a sure foundation and be like a rock that gives support to others. Tired souls will lean their weak shoulders against that rock and find new hope and strength.”
How did Jesus bring about this change? What did he do with Peter? First of all, He showed Peter his potential. He showed him that he could become a new man, a man whose weakness could become strength, whose pride could become humility, whose ugliness could become beauty. All this I will do for you if you let me, if you respond to my love and treatment.
What God said to Peter is unique in one sense, but universal in another. God has a purpose for each one of His children. To each of us He is saying, “You are–you shall become.” Who you are, and who I am, is important, but far more important is who we will become. Some are braver than others; some have climbed higher than others, but none of us has yet become our best. We have not taken full advantage of the promises God has given to us. There is so much in God’s Word that we can claim as our own. If only we would open our hearts, God would fill them with his treasures. Ezekiel, the prophet of old, once had a vision where God showed him the depths of grace and mercy available to him, if he would accept salvation. In the vision, the prophet saw a river coming out of the Temple of God. He was asked to step into the water. He did, but he didn’t go far enough. He waded in only until he was ankle deep, but the angel of God urged him on. When the water was knee-deep Ezekiel stopped again. Still, it was not enough. He had to go forward until the water came up to his waist. Then, once more he had to go forward until his feet could no longer touch the bottom, and he was forced to swim. This vision taught the prophet a lesson. The grace and mercy of our Lord is like a river. Some Christians go in just a little, ankle-deep; others go knee-deep, others waist-deep, and some go in all the way until they lose their own ground – their own righteousness – and commit themselves completely to the Lord. Read the story in Ezekiel chapter 47. You are — you shall become. This is only possible when we respond to God’s love and treatment.
Our Lord not only gave Peter a glimpse of his potential, He also promised His support, which is even more important. The Lord knew that Peter would never reach the desired goal by his own strength. Peter knew it too; so do I, and so do you. As long as we fight by our own strength, there is falling and rising, rising and falling. However, when we fight in the strength that God supplies, with divine help, the victory will be ours. That is His promise. “My grace is sufficient,” He says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Our Lord promises to help us become our best; he promises to change an unpredictable, hard boiled sinner into a rock-like character.
Of course, only those who respond and are willing to obey will reach the goal. Christ alone can save, but he does it with our cooperation. Did you ever undergo an operation? If so, then you know what it is to have faith. The doctor told you that you are sick. You agreed about that. However, he also gave you some hope, saying, I can help you; an operation will remove the trouble spot. You told him to go ahead. You dared to go into a sleep as deep as death in spite of the fact that you knew your physician is not infallible. One single mistake on his part might end your life. You put yourself completely into his hands. Such a faith directed toward our Lord is the one sure road to spiritual health.
Peter committed to this path and the Lord began His work in him. The progress Peter made was often disappointing. The graph of Peter’s life was not a straight upward ascent. It was more like that of a patient with a fever. But Peter kept on trying. He never let any fall become final. The difference between those who go down in defeat and those who gain victory is not that those in the first group always fail and those in the second never do. Rather, those in the second group pick themselves up and started anew, while those in the first group say, it’s useless. Peter won the battle of life because he refused to quit. We read in the Book of Acts that people brought their sick into the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them as he passed by. Peter had become so solid that weak and weary souls could find shelter in his shadow. Out of an unstable and unpredictable man Christ had made a rock-like character, an instrument to be used in saving others.
1st Sunday in Lent, 1961