2010 offers us a chance to shed our old skin, to look at others and ourselves with clearer lenses. We can do no better in this regard than to return to the rich example the New Testament gives us in the disciples, particularly Peter.
While Peter is known as a stalwart of the faith, I confess to identifying more with the more down-to-earth Simon Peter of the gospels—he who loves his Lord but chafes when the Lord asks him about it; he who has both the spiritual leader and the cowardly soul inside of him. He is, without a doubt, one of us.
That kind of human inconsistency is perhaps why Jesus made such a big deal out of Peter during their time together pursuing Jesus’ ministry. For it’s not at all difficult to see in Peter’s reactions our own as he starts to sink when the Lord calls him to walk on the water or when he asks gamely if seven times is enough to forgive a brother. One can only imagine Peter’s eyes widening at Jesus’ response: “No!” said Jesus in Matthew 18:22. “Seventy times seven.”
Peter is bewildered, awestruck, and yet he keeps on hanging out with Jesus, later expressing his willingness to follow wherever Jesus leads the disciples by saying in Matthew 19:27: “Behold, we have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us?” Jesus responds that Peter and the others will sit and judge over the 12 tribes of Israel, which to a first-century Jew would be about as good a hereafter as it gets.
Lesson One: Jesus’ Boundless Grace
But clearly, Peter was getting more than just the promise of an important role in the hereafter by following his Lord. He was getting that most precious of opportunities: to participate in Jesus’ advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth right here, right now. He had a front row seat as he watched how Jesus trusted the Father and the Holy Spirit in any number of situations. These experiences with Jesus enabled Peter to emerge as a true leader of Jesus’ followers after their Lord ascended. Peter was chosen to lead the faithful and make new disciples despite his failings.
And not just any failings. Peter’s decision to run as fast as he could from his association with Jesus at his best friend’s final hour rivals Judas’ own betrayal. After all, Peter was Jesus’ chosen deputy, the one who would lead his Lord’s flock in time. As Peter went, so went the whole mission.
I think we are told of Peter’s cowardice, as well as all of his other failings, for a very important reason. First, when we see Jesus back together with Peter later, still seeing in him His friend and deputy, we are relieved to know the seemingly boundless grace Jesus has for those who want to draw near to Him again. Jesus is so very not like us—no tit-for-tat, no holding of even legitimate grudges. He is bigger than all of that, and we see in Peter (as we should see in our own stories) the benefits of receiving this forgiveness from him.
Lesson Two: Without God, Humans Are Severely Limited
But we also learn something else important from Peter’s walk with the Lord. Before Jesus was taken away to be crucified, Peter swore to his Lord that he would never forsake him. Big words, but Jesus knew better, for he knew Peter well and had no illusions about His friend’s lack of consistency, courage, and strength.
Peter may have been deeply hurt to hear Jesus’ candid appraisal:
“I tell you the truth, Peter,” Jesus replied. “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” (Matthew 26:34)
As we all know now from reading the rest of the story, Jesus knew Peter better than the fisherman knew himself.
Nowhere else in the Bible do we have a more crystalline understanding of our relationship towards God than with the interplay between Jesus and his lead disciple, Simon Peter. Before accepting his weak self apart from God, Peter is, at best, temporarily enthusiastic for what he sees God doing in Jesus. Peter wants to believe, even wants to act as Jesus acts. But his natural strength and joy fails him every time.
Yet for whatever reason, Jesus loves him anyway, even after he has to rebuke him (Matthew 16:23), even after Peter makes good on Jesus’ prediction, betraying his Lord utterly (Matthew 26:75). We are told that Peter “wept bitterly” at such a moment, no doubt because he was overwhelmed by how much Jesus had loved him and how little he was able to love Jesus in return.
Lesson Three: With God, We Can Do More Than Expected
That is our plight as human beings, as wayward children of God. When we begin to grasp how many times Jesus has forgiven us (and it’s even more than “seventy times seven”) for our hatefulness, disbelief, and selfishness, we realize as Peter did just what holiness is—and how little of it we have on our own.
Just look at the contrast. We get offended when a fleck of annoyance comes our way from a brother or sister—and demand that it end right now! Meanwhile, Jesus forgives us freight train loads of self-absorption and anger—toward God and neighbor who deserve something better from us.
Like Peter, we must come to the point where we are tired of trying to reconstruct ourselves, trying to love and be good without the benefit of the only One who is loving and good. When we start each day with a prayer instead of a demand, then we can become the Peter of the Book of Acts—used by God for good, finally capable of consistency of heart, and bolder than he could have ever been by himself.
Peter shows us what Jesus can do with each of us, once we really let Him in, giving Him permission at last to order our lives and breathe life into every aspect of our being. Cowards can become heroes, fickle friends can be transformed into reliable deputies who can carry on the work.
If Jesus can forgive His best friend and second-in-command for betraying Him even at the moment of death, then there is hope for anybody who sincerely asks Jesus for forgiveness and healing.
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