Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
25 April 2021
1 John 3:16-24
I am part of a group that meets every summer for common worship and learning, except, of course, during a pandemic. But it’s not easy to be part of a group that is scattered across the continent, especially if you don’t have many professional or educational ties. Still, this group has long given me a theological home for which I am grateful.
During the last few months some have been meeting for evening prayer on Zoom once a week and it has been a blessing for me to be able to participate.
In our conversation last week, one of the people said that she’d been looking for a church in her denomination and she’d found a lot of activist sermons, or ‘you have to do such and such’ sermons, but, she said, she did find a church where the pastor proclaimed God’s love for the world. She said, I am an ethics professor, I don’t go to church to hear what I have to do, I go to church to hear the proclamation of the love of God, I already carry my own guilt and I don’t need the church to add to my burden.
Well, the rest of us aren’t ethics professors, but I still think she has a point. I worship to meet God coming to us in love.
I remember the first time I read the book we call the Acts of the Apostles. I liked the action parts but I wasn’t so interested in Peter’s long sermons. For me, the sermons in Acts only seemed to summarize what I already knew. But, of course, the people Peter was speaking to did not, and even the early church was still trying to understand what had happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It all was that fresh.
And yet, I don’t want to talk about Peter’s sermon today, part of which we heard in our first reading. Instead I would like to talk about Peter.
Peter, of course, used to be Simon. In following Jesus he is given a new name and his life is given a new direction.
In the middle of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus takes his disciples to the northern borderlands to a town by the name of Caesarea Philipi. The town is named after the Roman emperor, often considered some kind of deity or saviour, and after Philip, the ruler of that region, a lapsed Jew and a puppet of the Romans. Besides this, there is also a shrine to the Greek god Pan. In many ways this is not so unlike our world today where many compete for our attention and loyalty. It is in this situation that Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is. And we know the answers the disciples give, they rattle down the names of prophets and of John the Baptizer, and then Jesus asks them who they think he is. Peter makes the profound proclamation, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
And Jesus blesses Peter and says, ‘You didn’t figure this out by yourself, but my Father in Heaven revealed this to you.’ And this is when Jesus gives him the name Peter and says that he will build the church on him, which will withstand the assault of hell, and Peter will be given the keys of heaven and the power to shape the church.
But the story does not end here. Because immediately after his confession Peter shows how little he really understands when he interrupts Jesus’ announcement of his impending suffering and death. His protest was well intended but he really did not know what he was saying.
And yet Jesus does not withdraw the declaration and blessing he had placed on Peter, despite everything.
There are other stories in the Gospels about Peter and we generally believe that they are not only about Peter but also about us.
The next story we remember is the story of Jesus and the disciples celebrating Passover and Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper.
At the end of the supper Jesus says to them that they will all desert him, all of them. Peter protests and affirms that he is better than all others when he says, that even if all desert Jesus, he alone would not. Jesus simply answers that this very night Peter will deny him three times.
It is in the courtyard of the high priest where Peter denies Jesus three times. We don’t even know why. He is not the only disciple there and danger is not apparent at this time. Sam Wells says that Peter has heard Jesus say “I am” many times but all Peter can say is, “I am not,” which is what life without God is.
After Jesus has risen from the dead he meets Peter on the beach. Three times he asks him, “Peter do you love me?” The interesting thing in this episode is that Peter is hurt that Jesus would ask him three times. Peter does not realize that it is Jesus who may be hurt. “It is a feature of reconciliation that the person offering forgiveness cannot expect the other party fully to understand the depths of their offense.”1
Jesus meets Peter with love. He wants the relationship with Peter. He is not even asking for an apology, he simply wants to know whether Peter loves him.
We can be sure that Jesus never had illusions about Peter, but he still loves him, and he still wants him to lead his church. He entrusts his lambs to him, even though in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter had acted like the hireling.
And yet the encounter at the lake and Jesus’ continued love for Peter transform Peter.
If before he had thought that Jesus had chosen him for any particular qualities, after his denial and through Jesus’ continued friendship, he can no longer think so.
Friendship also offers him something else, something we in the church should know. Peter has found a whole new set of friends among the people who follow Jesus. He no longer sees himself apart but as one of them. This friendship will sustain him even in times when his faith may fail him and following Jesus becomes difficult.
That is the Peter who preaches in Acts; who cannot keep from speaking and singing, despite adversity. But he is not exceptional, he has failed as many times and as spectacularly as we have, may be more so. Yet the reason he is following Jesus is no other than that Jesus has become his friend and has made him a friend of God.
That brings me back to the beginning. Yes, our faith involves action simply because it is inconceivable that it would not, for God’s friends is who we are. But our actions are not the first thing that matters, rather God’s continued love, friendship, and forgiveness.
Thanks be to God.
1Sam Wells, Power and Passion, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2007, page 147