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It must have been a shock to Peter when Jesus called him Satan, especially since all Peter was trying to do was help Jesus. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” is a far cry from “Thanks, Peter. I knew I could count on you for back up”, which is likely what Peter expected Jesus to say in response to Peter’s offer to protect him.
I can imagine the awkward silence that followed Jesus’ outburst, and I can almost see Peter’s face, his eyes wide, staring at Jesus in hurt disbelief and confusion.
Peter was easily the most enthusiastic of all the disciples. That he wanted to please Jesus was beyond doubt, but during Jesus’ ministry years, Peter had a hard time figuring out what Jesus really wanted from him. Jesus nagged him about his lack of faith and about his tendency to “think as man thinks, not as God thinks”. But Peter always tried his hardest.
And that was his problem.
Peter approached kingdom life as if it were the world. But following Jesus and doing God’s will is not like living in the world. In the world, you decide how you want to proceed based on a combination of common sense, logic, desire, past experience, knee-jerk reaction, and other people’s expectations. In the kingdom, you have to wait for God’s go-ahead and proceed only if and when you get it. You also have to do what God wants you to do, not what your gut tells you to do, not what everyone else is doing, not what has always worked in the past, and not what religious tradition dictates you do.
Peter wanted to follow Jesus, but what he ended up doing instead was trying to get Jesus to follow him. It didn’t work.
It must also have been a shock for Peter when Jesus stared straight at him following his betrayal in the courtyard. That’s a wordless “I told you so” that I hope never to experience.
But amazingly, immediately after his resurrection, Jesus singles out Peter for a special mission: He wants him to feed his sheep and lambs. No, Jesus hasn’t left Peter his petting zoo to look after; he’s assigned Peter more or less the same position Jesus had during his earthly ministry.
Say what? Peter is to take the reigns from Jesus? How can that be?
Peter must have experienced yet another shock when he realized that Jesus had entrusted him with the leadership of the new church. Maybe the other disciples were shocked, too. Peter always seemed to get it wrong, and he had even denied knowing Jesus – how could Jesus overlook Peter’s numerous mistakes and make Peter the new leader?
God reads hearts. Peter clearly had a heart for Jesus and a heart for discipleship. What he was missing was the sense that he wasn’t up for the job. Peter’s enthusiasm was tinged with a headstrongness that was morphing into pride. The pride had to go, and pride can only go through repentance and a sense of one’s full dependence on God.
When Jesus appeared out of nowhere while the disciples were fishing, Peter didn’t even want to approach Jesus, he felt so unworthy. This is similar to the man who went to the temple to repent of his sins. He wouldn’t even lift up his head, he felt so bad about what he’d done. And what did Jesus say about this man? That he was the one who was forgiven his sins, not the man who proudly stood up and recited his laundry list of good deeds.
God reads hearts. Peter was ready to be everything he needed to be, but only after he let go of everything he wanted to be. As long as Peter thought as man thinks, he was going to go contrary to God’s will. God’s ways are not our ways. You can only think as God thinks when you stop trying to control the narrative and give yourself completely over to God.
Of the original disciples, Peter was the one Jesus relied on the most. And yet it was Peter who was outed as being the second biggest traitor (after Judas) when Jesus was arrested.
What happened to Peter? What made him hide who he really was?
Talk is cheap. Anyone can say anything until put to the test. Peter said he’d rather die than deny he was with Jesus (as did all the disciples). Then the test came just a few hours later, and Peter did exactly what he said he wouldn’t do – deny he knew Jesus, so as not to get killed.
And he did it not once, but three times.
Jesus told him beforehand that he’d betray him, but Peter refused to believe it. Jesus said: Before the cock crows, you’ll deny me thrice.
Peter said: No way!
Jesus said: Way.
Peter said: NO WAY!
Jesus said: Way.
And Jesus was right.
We all have a bit of Peter in us. Some of us have a lot of Peter in us. We talk a good talk, but when the test comes, who do we obey – God’s voice, or the voice of fear?
(The spirit is willing; the flesh is weak.)
Some of us are even that version of Peter stuck in a time-warp, denying over and over and over again that we know Jesus. To ourselves, oh yes, we’re Christians, but to the world – no way.
That’s how we deny Jesus like Peter did.
Jesus warned us about that. He said that if we deny knowing him, he’ll deny knowing us. That’s a pretty straight-forward warning. And if Jesus denies knowing us, we can kiss heaven good-bye.
Peter knew that if he admitted to being with Jesus, he would be signing his own death warrant. He didn’t want to die. It was as simple as that.
Outing ourselves as followers of Jesus can be uncomfortable. People stop liking us. People talk down to us. People accuse us of being bigots, racists, homophobes, relics of the ‘dark ages’. People start watching us like a hawk, and at our slightest slip-up, they triumphantly point their finger as us and shout “That’s not very CHRISTIAN of you!”
Sometimes, given the world’s response to us when we say we’re Christians, it’s easier just to say nothing. Sometimes it’s easier just to ‘go along to get along’, to hide that we believe in God and follow Jesus. But when we do that, we’re right back in the courtyard with Peter, warming our hands by the fire and sipping a latte while Jesus is out back getting beat up.
Jesus knew Peter would deny him, and later, after his resurrection, Jesus gave Peter another chance. He gave them all another chance, but first he bawled them out for being so hard-headed and cowardly, for having so little faith and for not paying attention to what he’d told them before his crucifixion.
Jesus has told us and shown us everything we need to know to make it to heaven. He beat down the path for us, but we still have to follow closely behind him on that path. Those who try to sneak into heaven another way are kicked out.
It’s not enough to say “I’m a good person” or “I try to be nice to people”. That’s not enough. We’re to go out in the world and preach the Good News, not the watered-down inter-faith version that the world accepts. The name of Jesus features prominently in the Good News. The Good News is all about Jesus. We, as his followers, should be all about Jesus.
Everyone who knows you should know you’re a Christian.
If they don’t, it’s not too late to let them know.
But some day – cock-a-doodle-doo – it will be too late.
One thing I especially love about the gospels is how Jesus and his followers are portrayed as normal everyday people. No royalty there (not in earthly terms, anyway), and not even any trained ministers among them. Jesus was a carpenter from a poor hick town and his followers came from the lowly ranks of fishermen, tax collectors, administrators, and even party girls. And, being normal everyday people, they all occasionally screwed up (sometimes royally), and we get to read about it and learn from it.
This is a huge blessing for us and a further testimony to God’s love for us, how we can read about the everyday ‘normalness’ of Jesus and his early followers. We can screw up, just like they occasionally did, and God won’t give up on us. Just as we keep forgiving people (seventy-times-seven times, if necessary), God keeps forgiving us. We fall down; he picks us up. And he’ll keep on doing that as long as we’re sincere in wanting to follow Jesus.
The best-known royal screw-up is, of course, Peter denying knowing Jesus three times. Think about it – Jesus spells out to Peter that he’ll betray him three times before the cock crows (meaning, within less than a day), but Peter swears he’d never betray Jesus and he’d even die for him if necessary. All of the disciples swear the same thing. Let me repeat that – Jesus tells Peter precisely when and precisely how he’s going to screw up, but Peter refuses to see it as a possibility. And then, within only a few short hours, Peter does exactly what Jesus says he’d do.
This “warts and all” approach is one of the main things I love about the gospels. The information about Peter was included not to denigrate him – no, not at all. Rather, the information was included to show us that we’re just like Peter and Peter’s just like us, especially when we screw up. And, just like Peter, we too can get another chance, if we sincerely love God and sincerely want to follow Jesus.
I wonder how many of us reading (and writing) this can imagine being in Peter’s shoes. I’m guessing that most of us who call ourselves born-again followers of Jesus have, like Peter, sworn in our hearts that we’ll do anything and everything to follow Jesus, anything and everything to do God’s will.
I also imagine that we’ve been tested on this already and have come up far, far, far short of what we’d envisioned for ourselves.
But take heart, you worms! As my grandmother used to say: “Mistakes keep you humble.”
Without humbling ourselves before God (meaning, without handing our one and only true possession over to God, day in and day out [meaning, without handing our will over to him, day in and day out]), we won’t be able to do God’s will and we won’t be able to get to heaven.
That’s a spiritual fact.
Peter screwed up royally, we occasionally screw up royally, even Jesus made the odd mistake, like when he assumed, when he was 13 years old, that he was old enough to start his ministry, or when he tried to heal a blind man and had to do a second round of healing to get it right.
Jesus wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a sinner, but he wasn’t perfect. His followers aren’t perfect, either. Only God is perfect. We strive for perfection (Jesus says “be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”) but we’re not expected to achieve it. When we fall short and fall down, God will pick us up, pat or spank us on the bum, and then set us back on the path we need to go.
After his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Peter said yes, of course, he loved him, and even got a little impatient with Jesus for asking him the same question over and over again. People interpret Jesus’ three questions about loving him as being the resolution of the three times that Peter denied knowing Jesus (and I agree with this interpretation), but I also see Jesus’ repetition of the same question as being a way to emphasize a profoundly important point – that in living your life, you occasionally screw up and do the exact thing that you swear you’ll never do. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get another chance, as long as your heart is in the right place, and as long as you still love God and still want to follow Jesus.
The gospels show us how the early disciples lived their lives while they were here on Earth. We can see ourselves in their triumphs and confusion and weak faith and occasional royal screw-ups. But we can also see ourselves in how they kept going and how they were rewarded for their perseverance by a steadily increasing faith and an ever-closer relationship with God and Jesus.
You’re going to make mistakes – that’s for sure.
Just don’t let your mistakes unmake you.
During his ministry years, Jesus had a tumultuous relationship with Peter. Even while granting him heavy responsibilities, Jesus submitted “the Rock” to numerous public chastisements. In one of the more extreme confrontations, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and lambasts him for thinking as man thinks, not as God thinks. This outburst must have been confusing for Peter and for the other disciples, as Peter had simply been pledging to protect Jesus when Jesus explained what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. And vowing to protect people is good, isn’t it?
Not when it’s against God’s plan.
We born-agains all have a bit of Peter in us, wanting earnestly to serve God and follow Jesus and yet occasionally taking on the role of Satan without realizing it. I doubt that Peter was aware that he was acting like Satan when he offered to protect Jesus, just as we’re not away that we’re acting like Satan when we want to, for instance, make the world a better place.
“Change!” is the new rallying cry of political parties, governments, youth-oriented organizations and much of the globalized masses, and with it comes the pledge to “make the world a better place”. But do we really mean when we say we want to make the world a better place?
What we’re implying is that the world could be better than it is. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that statement. We’re all working on improving ourselves, so why not improve the world, too?
Working to improve yourself is one thing; it implies a decision of your own will to work on yourself. It implies an action that you choose, followed by a consequence that’s specific to you. To get better consequences for yourself, you choose to do better actions. However, when you impose this mode of thinking on the world, you attempt to override the consequences of other people’s actions. What you’re in effect saying is: The consequences of other people’s actions are not suitable. But what you’re really saying is: God’s justice is flawed and therefore God’s justice is imperfect and needs to be changed.
As born-agains, we know that God’s justice is perfect. We know that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” because God gives us exactly the consequences to our actions that we’ve earned. If anything, he mitigates (lessens) the consequences we suffer out of love for us, to the extent that mitigation is warranted (e.g., we are unaware that what we are doing is wrong, or we do something out of a “blind rage” or in an extreme emotional state). God’s mitigation (or mercy) is reflected in the most civilized of the world’s courts, and it should also be reflected in us.
God’s justice is perfect. If we accept this statement as self-evident, then we necessarily have to see the rallying cry for “Change!” as a howl from the pit of hell. God never changes; his truth and justice are as perfect today as they have ever been or will ever be.
As the old adage goes, you can’t improve on perfection. If God’s justice is perfect, then the only way to make this profoundly flawed world a better place is to make better choices yourself, and in that way improve your own outcomes. But when you try to change or mitigate the consequences of other people, you simply shift the earned outcome to another circumstance. They get what’s coming to them sooner or later, one way or another.
A clear example of “shifting outcomes to another circumstance” is the evolvement of disease. The proponents of modern Western medicine like to gloat that numerous diseases have been eradicated through medical interventions, but what they don’t add is that in eradicating certain diseases, others have either become more virulent or more widespread. Bacteria-caused diseases and conditions are getting harder and harder to treat due to the evolvement of bacteria that is now resistant to antibiotics. At the same time as Western medicine is claiming higher “survival rates” of cancer victims, more and more people are contracting the disease than ever before. People are living longer (allegedly, although Methuselah might not agree with that assumption) through improved health care and sanitary conditions, but their quality of life is questionable, given that most older adults experience multiple diseases and conditions, which only increase as they grow older. Is it really an improvement to live to the age of 90, if you spend the last decade of your life confined to a bed in a long-term care institute?
Whenever you hear the rallying cry “Change!”, you need to add “…the more things stay the same” and “Get thee behind me, Satan!”. God’s justice is perfect; it cannot be improved. The only change you can make is in yourself. You cannot impose change on others; if you try, all you do is shift consequences to another circumstance.
Peter wanted to protect Jesus, but Jesus needed to undergo the arrest, torture and crucifixion in order to fulfill scripture as the Messiah. I’m not saying to ignore the beaten-up guy along the side of the road like the priest and Levite did in the Good Samaritan parable. What I’m saying is to wait for God to show you who to help and when to help them. These people will come to you, trusting that you can help them. God will have sent them. This is how Jesus healed: he could only help those who came to him and who trusted him to help them. The people of Nazareth didn’t trust him and therefore were not healed.
Wait for God to show you who and when to help. Rather than blindly following the world’s Satanic cry of “Change!”, wait for God, like Jesus did.
And in the meantime, make better choices.