This morning I want to focus on Peter, one of the main characters in our Gospel reading for today. Peter appears frequently throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Some of his appearances are humorous and some are tragic, but they are always human. He is full of all the good and bad that is in each of us. He is far from perfect, and yet somehow Jesus doesn’t abandon him. In spite of or maybe because of all his complexity and his imperfections Jesus sticks with Peter.
The first story in Matthew in which Peter plays a major role is when Jesus walks on water. In case you don’t remember the story, this is when Jesus leaves the disciples out in their fishing boat alone in the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly a storm comes in and the disciples are terrified. Jesus walks to them across the water and tells them not to be afraid. Peter, in Peter-like fashion, responds with bravado and confidence. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So, Jesus does. He tells Peter to “Come.” And lo and behold Peter does! He begins to walk across the water to the waiting Jesus, that is until he notices the strong wind and begins to think about what he is doing. Then Peter becomes afraid, and he begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus, “Save me!” and Jesus reaches out to him and catches him, saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” He challenges Peter but he does not let Peter drown.
A few chapters later, we see Peter in a more positive light. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They give a bunch of different answers, but only Peter gets it right. Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is a proud moment. Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Peter is flying high. Peter is doing well.
That is until two short verses later when Jesus begins to tell his disciples things that they just don’t want to hear. He begins to reveal to them that he will undergo great suffering and will die and on the third day will be raised again. This is just too much for Peter. Peter loves Jesus and he has staked his whole life on following this man. He cries out “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus responds very harshly, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And yet, Jesus still takes Peter with him to the mountaintop to witness the Transfiguration we heard described in our Gospel reading for this morning. Jesus might have rebuked Peter one chapter before, but Jesus has not given up on Peter. And on that mountaintop Peter is still confused and afraid. Peter sees Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. He sees Jesus transfigured. And yet, he is still afraid. Jesus again does not leave him. He comes to Peter and the others, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And finally, we have Peter at the end of Jesus’ life. Following the Last Supper, Jesus is “deeply grieved even to death.” He asks Peter and others to “remain here and stay awake with me.” And Peter and the others, well, they fall asleep. Jesus comes to Peter and the others and wakes them up not once but three times saying to them, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” In Jesus’ moment of deepest need, Peter fails him. And then of course there is the greatest failure of all. While Jesus is being tried and beaten, Peter denies Jesus three times.
I relate all of these stories of Peter to you this morning, not to help you brush up on your Scripture, but to make a point, a very important point. Peter is a mess much of the time. He is trying very hard. He is very passionate and earnest. He wants to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but much of the time he just doesn’t get it. His life is a series of fails, falls, and being lifted up again by Jesus. Each time he learns a little something, and each time he moves a little deeper into his faith. We know this because we know that he was a great apostle and was responsible for being the light of Christ to many people following Jesus’ resurrection.
And you know what? This is the story of our lives as well. I would guess that no one gathered here to worship this morning has perfect faith. I would guess that every single one of us, if we were truly being honest, could tell countless stories of times when we just didn’t get it, times when our understanding of God and what God was calling us to do missed the mark by a long shot. I would guess that every single one of us sitting here today could also tell stories of when Jesus lifted us up again, brushed us off and helped us get up to face another day. This is a pattern that shapes the life of every single human being.
I certainly know that this pattern shapes my own life. I am a priest, but faith has never come easily to me. Like Peter, I have a tendency to be impatient with God’s timing and movement. I don’t like waiting for things to happen, and I can struggle with the belief that in God all things work for the good, when I can’t see any movement in that direction. Sure, in hindsight I can often see how things worked out better than I could ever have imagined, but I’m not very good at understanding that when I am in the period of waiting. I am an awful lot like Peter in that respect. I am sure there are many times that God is muttering at me, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
And what the story of Peter teaches me is that God loves me anyway. God loved Peter. God called Peter. God blessed Peter. Peter was impatient, impetuous, unfaithful, and just plain exasperating at times, and yet God loved Peter. God did not give up on Peter. God scolded Peter, questioned Peter, and challenged Peter, but he never abandoned him. I am impatient, impetuous, unfaithful, and just plain exasperating at times too, and yet God loves me too. God calls me, God blesses me. God scolds me, questions me, and challenges me, and yet God does not abandon me. I fall, I fail and God picks me up and reminds me yet again to listen to him. I may not be patient but God is.
And this is what I want you to take from this story as well. You may have different struggles than I have. You may not be as impatient as I am. Perhaps you find it is easier to have faith in the face of difficulty and the unknown. I don’t know what your falling down and failure involves. Maybe it is pride. Maybe it is stubbornness. Maybe it is a desire to be comfortable. Maybe it is passivity. Maybe it is too much certainty that your way and your view is the right way and right view. I don’t know what you struggle with, but my guess is that you struggle with something. I would bet that you too are familiar with the falling, failing and being picked up again pattern that is a part of every Christian’s life. The good news is that whatever your failing, whatever it is that causes you to fall down, God loves you and is there to pick you up as well. God is calling you and blessing you too.
Peter didn’t get it on that mountaintop so long ago. I don’t always get it. You don’t always get it. And yet Jesus touches us and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” In a nutshell that is what following Jesus is all about. It is not about perfection. It is not about being without sin. It is not about being faithful with no doubts. It is not about mountaintop transfiguration experiences. It is not about having all the answers. It is not about having absolute certainty all of the time. It is about falling down, failing, and being picked up and brushed off. It is about putting one foot in front of the other knowing that God is beside us and loves us with each step we take, whether it is a step of triumph or a misstep. It is knowing that as we walk the journey of faith God does not abandon us and is with us every step of the way—even when we are not sure that there is a way to follow or if the way we are following is the right way. That is the life of faith. That is the life of a follower of Christ.
And Jesus touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”