Sunday, July 03, 2005

On St. Peter as a model for right ministry

It is wonderful to celebrate the Sunday within the octave of our patron saint with all the smells and bells, lights and delights, that we can muster, which is quite a lot! And certainly St. Peter is worthy of all the praise and pomp we can put together: as a teacher, healer, martyr, witness to the love and the grace of god in so many ways, he is a giant and a rock in the tradition in which we stand.

But he wasn’t always. If you really look at the man as he appears throughout in Matthew’s gospel, he’s does not appear to be – to put it nicely - the kind of character that you’d take to the final interview if you were on a committee that was looking for a Saint.

Here’s what I said at the start of the “Children’s Church” sermon at 9:30.

“He was a good guy, really, but he was funny; sometimes his mouth opened before his mind really thought of what he was going to say or do… Sometimes he got into trouble by trying too hard. He talked too much. He would say he was going to do something and then not do it. He and Jesus had a couple of big arguments when Simon got a little too sure of himself. But Jesus still liked him a lot and kept him as a good friend. Even though they still got into arguments sometimes.”

I think that is an informal but fair summary of how Simon Peter is seen in Matthew’s Gospel. The first time Peter even speaks in Matthew is when he’s in a boat and sees Jesus walking on the water. He asks if he can meet him on the water, then he sinks. It’s not a good first impression.

Can you see the official Saints committee? “Tends to overstep himself, may be unstable, not good at following through. Could end up all wet in the clutch.”

But In the very centre of the Gospel we get the story we just heard, where Jesus says, Who do you say I am? And Simon Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" He gets to the centre of it, the most important thing right away. But, in the very next scene when Jesus starts to talk about what’s going to happen, the first hint of the crucifixion, Peter disagrees, and starts an argument!

Back to the committee: “Subject does not always think consistently with espoused feelings, ideas and convictions, perhaps shares a bit too readily with those in positions of authority. May not do well in structured environment“

And even towards the end, when Jesus says all the gathered disciple will fall away, Peter protests a bit too much. "Even if I have to die with you," Peter told Him, "I will never deny you!" But by the end of that same chapter in Matthew, when the story is getting a lot darker and we’re in the courtyard of the high Priest, one of the house staff looks at the guy that’s back away from the crowd by the fire, and says, You’re a friend of Jesus, right?” And Peter’s ends up saying, "I do not know the man!"

The final committee report: “Lacking tenacity, ability to stay with choices, tends to go for the easiest answer, even at the cost of friendship and supposed personal convictions, manifesting a doubtful maturity and questionable ethics. At this point the committee would not….”

So even though he gets better coverage in John’s Gospel – where his martyrdom is mentioned - and in both Luke and Acts where his ministry is seen as a direct continuation of Jesus’ own – even then, with all these contradictions, he still seems the kind of person that committee would likely write off as a possible Saint. So why are we gathered here in a building dedicated in his name, in honour of who he was and what he did? What can his life and witnesses, as mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, tell us today?

Three things, I think. First, to be fully human; second, to be ready to struggle with the life of faith and with doubt too; and third; to be willing to change and grow beyond what you think you know about yourself and about God.

First, on being human: We need to remember - to quote the psalm - we are but flesh. We’re so tough on ourselves, on each other that we aren’t enough; maybe that fact is that we are afraid that we are incomplete when the truth is that we are only unfinished, mere flesh and blood. There is a real courage, even faith, in being a human being in process. But we judge so much. All, each, every religious tradition out there says, don’t judge, but we do.

So many of us have a test-taker mentality: afraid that we might be seen and judged for being incomplete, might flunk the course for not having our answers right. But if this Simon Peter can finally end up as an example of a rock of faith and a saint then we might need another model and another word. Perhaps “unfinished” is the right word for a work in process. There is a different context and texture there: not incomplete, but unfinished. It is softer, kinder, more open. Not according to a prearranged plan or filling out an existing exam, but living out your life in a response to a varying rhythm over time, less like marching and more like dancing. As the hymn says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy!” I once saw a bumper sticker which said, “Be kind, God isn’t finished with me yet!” And St. Peter can tell us the wisdom about that one from some the viewpoint of some very personal experiences. So, be kind about being human.

Second, Peter shows us a way to be ready to struggle with faith and doubt like Peter was. The Jewish writer, Abraham Heschel, in a work called, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, writes: "Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human persons. To have faith is to be in labor." And Peter does labor on. He gets it wrong, he keeps going, he comes up with the wrong response, he tries again, he turns out all right. You can tell the committee that Peter is not afraid to learn from his mistakes, maybe not even afraid to make them. And to get over that fear, fear of getting it wrong, is a pretty good thing to get right. We can all learn more about that.

For the truth is that strength often comes from struggle, we learn how to live a life of faith by struggling with what it means to doubt, then come to believe and live out within the particularities of our own life. And Peter finally struggle though, comes to believe something bigger than he knew. And that’s the third point right there.

Peter ends up basing his life on something that is bigger than his own life, that’s what makes him a Saint, but he starts small, over time, with struggle, by humility, and then his faith become bigger than his life, because in the end it isn’t merely his own faith. Faith comes from God, we forget that often, think of it as some sort of massive self-improvement process. But that’s not what we learn here. It comes as a gift that we get to take when we approach with open hearts and empty hands.

Thomas Merton writes this in a book called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is entirely untouched by sin and by illusion; a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives. Which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty in the pure glory of god is us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence… [And I would add, as our friendship with God through Christ].

Here’s what I said at the end of the “Children’s Church” sermon:

And Jesus said, “Simon, I am going to call you the Rock –that’s what Peter means, - because right down in the middle of who you are – deeper than how much you talk, and the times you’re scared, and all the times when you wonder what you’ll do and how you’ll get through it. There is a place deep in you that is so solid and caring and loving and good; and even if you get a little flaky on the surface, that strong place in the middle of you will always be there. And that’s why you are my friend and why I will always be your friend.” And Simon said, “I am not flaky ever” and they had another fight right after that!

But they still stayed friends. And Simon-Peter grew up over time, and he realized that, even though sometimes he was silly, and worried a lot, and talked too much, and wasn’t perfect at all most days, that there was something deep inside him that was very good, strong and just as it should be. And that had to do with his friendship with Jesus. And he grew up some more and after awhile everybody called him Simon Peter and he always remembered that he was a friend of Jesus and that Jesus said he was made of good stuff, solid like a Rock, right down the middle.”

May it be so for us as well. Amen.

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