(…continued) Many times, our sins are deliberate acts of defiant disobedience. We know what is the right thing to do, and we choose do something else– or, we know that what we are intending to do is wrong, but we go ahead and do it anyway. Peter, however, was trying to do the right thing in attempting to prevent others from doing what was obviously a bad thing– arresting and then executing an innocent man. But Jesus had already seen ahead to the greater good in the events that would soon be unfolding, and in his several rebukes to Peter, he made clear his intentions. Peter’s sin was in his unwillingness to trust in God’s plan of this greater good, this greater good which is now the hope of the whole world.
Earlier, Peter had understood the significance of the presence of Jesus. It was Peter, after all, who in another great statement of faith and courage had told Jesus that he would never abandon him, saying, “Lord, where else would we go?– you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter had seen enough and heard enough to understand what Jesus was all about. He just never imagined that on the way to that promise of eternal life, there would have to be a cross. But then seeing Jesus die on that cross, and then risen from the dead, deepened Peter’s faith in a way that nothing else ever could have. After that, Peter was ready for anything. He was already prepared to die for Jesus, but now he was able to see even such suffering in a new and deeper way.
However, for a time, Peter was confused about what it meant to follow Jesus. Do you ever get confused like that? Do you ever have a hard time figuring out what God is doing in your life or what God wants from you? Did you ever end up doing the wrong thing even when you were trying your best to do the right thing? If so, you are in good company. Peter and all the disciples had that trouble trying to follow Jesus, and they were with him in person. That is one of the messages of Good Friday. Not only was there death and despair on that dark day, but there was also great confusion for all who knew and loved Jesus.
There is a great line in this year’s movie Risen that speaks to this very thing. The Roman soldier Clavius asks Peter why he and all the disciples were making the dangerous journey to Galilee to see Jesus when they knew they were being hunted by the authorities. Peter said, “I don’t know why we are supposed to go there, except that Jesus said we should; and we’re followers of Jesus. So we follow. Then we find out.”
Peter and Clavius in Risen, 2016
Thirty years later the church in Rome was undergoing savage persecution at the hands of the insane Emperor Nero. The new community of Christians in Rome was being devastated by raids in which men, women, and children were rounded up and killed in the arena by wild beasts, all for the entertainment of the huge crowds. Peter himself died in this persecution. He might have died in despair, the whole thing making no more sense to him than the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But now, an older and wiser man, and with an unshakable faith, Peter was able to encourage his suffering congregation with these words, taken from I Peter chapters four and five:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. Rather, rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good… I appeal to you as a fellow elder, as a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and as one who also will share in the glory to be revealed.
Peter said he was a witness to Christ’s sufferings, and so now, he had a entirely different view on such persecution. He would, like Jesus, be willing to follow God’s plan wherever it led, even if its purpose was not clear to him. Why? Because of the future glory that would be revealed. At first, Peter could not imagine his Lord and Master dying the death of a criminal on a humiliating cross. But the early church would very quickly embrace that cross as its central symbol, as it is yet today.
The apostle Paul, expressing his faith in that cross that was so despised by all others in the ancient world, wrote in I Corinthians 1:22-25:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Guide us, we pray, down the unknown corridor of this day and every day. Lead us, each one, to the one door of all the many doors that you would have us open. Give us courage to speak the word that you have have us speak of love and healing. Give us ears to hear you speak at every turning of the way– to listen, to hear, and to obey, even when the heart within us faints. Amen.
–Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, pages 79-80.