Peter

A Beach Moment

There are stories in the Bible so powerful that I find it daunting to elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing in a gallery before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite story in the Bible, the place I go for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.

—————–

Now that you’ve read it, let me share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. It’s also nice if we respond to the gift as best we can.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.

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Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.

The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.

Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So,how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.

Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.

The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.

 

 

Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.

Saying It, Living It, Part 1

When I was in journalism school, the instructors taught that good reporting on a story required answering the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.

I figured the five W’s could help us expand on today’s Bible passage, Matthew 16:13-20. In doing so, I pray we’ll better understand the full importance of what happened on this particular day in Jesus’ ministry.

The story revolves around the “who” questions Jesus asked, but I’m going to begin with the where. The backdrop for the story is enlightening. We’re told Jesus and his disciples went to the district of Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea_philippi_1886In other words, they left the very Jewish world where they had been teaching and ministering to escape for awhile into the Gentile world, where it was far less likely they would be recognized. Caesarea Philippi was named such in part because it was the home of a temple dedicated to the deification of the Roman emperor, the caesar, who expected his subjects to see him as lord over all things. As Jesus had his conversation with his disciples, it’s likely they saw this gleaming white tribute to human hubris.

The district also was the home of multiple pagan shrines, serving these Jews as clear symbols of humanity’s desire to follow something other than the One True God.

It was in that setting that Jesus began to ask his “who” questions. First, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples’ answers were quite flattering, the highest and holiest descriptions Jews would apply to a mere human being. They reported the people placed Jesus among the great prophets, the ones seen in one way or another as declarers of the Messiah, the one who would save Israel from oppression.

In followup, Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” No pause is indicated, but I’ve never been able to read this passage without imagining one. Peter’s response seems too bold to have tumbled out one beat after the question.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter said. That’s a lot of “who” to attribute to anyone. Peter was saying Jesus was fully aligned with God, more important and more powerful than any caesar or anything else that had ever or would ever presume to take on the role of God.

In doing so, Peter also caused a “what” to come into existence for the first time. The foundation of the church was laid. Jesus was being clever when he played on the name of the disciple before him, calling him what is recorded as “Petros” in the Greek text. Almost certainly, they stood there speaking Aramaic, their native language, and Jesus actually said, “Kephas.” Either way, Peter’s name literally meant “rock,” and Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”

As in most news stories, the “why” in this story is a particularly powerful fact. The Messiah had come not just to save Israel, but to prevail over death and build a church to participate in the process. Some older English versions of the Bible are misleading, translating Matthew 16:18 as saying about the church, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

The Greek word translated incorrectly as “Hell” is Hades, and that word shouldn’t be confused with our modern understanding of Hell as a place of torment for nonbelievers. Both the Jews and the Greeks of Jesus’ day thought of the afterlife as having one common abode, a sort of waiting place until the time of the general resurrection and judgment. Jesus was saying he was going to do something so incredible that he would break the power of death.

That incredible something, of course, was his crucifixion. Death took Jesus, briefly, but Death had to release God’s Holy One on the third day, unable to contain what had given the very universe life.

As for the when—well, in some ways, the answer is eternal. Jesus always was and always will be. The universal church of believers always will be, even after we reach the time when death and evil are fully destroyed before our eyes and nothing remains but blissful worship and celebration.

The answer to when also is “now,” however. Who do you say Jesus is? Every moment is an opportunity for you to affirm for the first time, or again, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Next week, we’ll focus on what it means to live out that creed moment by moment.

 

Clinging to the Gunwales

Matthew 14:22-33

We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.

Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.

Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.

Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.

In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.

In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.

In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”

Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?

What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?

I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.

What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!

Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.

As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.

Undeniably Holy

Exodus 24:12-182 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

The idea of the transfiguration, depicted in our Matthew text and attested to in our 2 Peter verses, can seem more complicated than it is. Let me begin with a couple of very simple principles that will help.

I first needed eyeglasses in my early twenties, and wore them all through my thirties, until my vision went the other direction and the eye doctor told me to stop wearing them. It was a light prescription; without glasses I could see across a room pretty well, but things would get blurry at about road sign distance.

I never got used to keeping track of my glasses. I suppose this was because I didn’t have them as a child, so I didn’t have my parents’ voices in my head threatening me with the end of the world if I lost or broke them. In fact, I was always putting them down somewhere I shouldn’t, and then I would have to hunt for them.

One morning, I was frantically trying to leave for work, but I could not find my glasses. I looked in the bedroom. I looked in the bathroom. I looked in the living room and the dining room. Finally, I made one of those “aaargh” sounds designed to attract my wife’s assistance. Connie walked into the room and said, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “I’ve got to go to work, and I cannot find my glasses!”

She found them very quickly. “They’re on your face,” she replied.

Principle 1: Sometimes you’re so close to something, it’s hard to see it.

Mentioning my wife reminds me of another story. Connie and I have known each other a very long time, since we were 14.

I still remember the first day she walked into my homeroom class. After the school year had already begun, she was transferred from one homeroom to another. Mostly, I remember how terrified she looked when the teacher led her in and introduced her.

There stood this very tall, awkward girl. Remember, at 14, the girls are often taller than the boys, and she was one of the tall girls. She clutched her books tightly and ran to an empty seat in the back of the room as fast as she could.

“Poor kid,” I thought. And I guess I was right—she did eventually marry a guy who didn’t know whether his glasses were on his face. Love and marriage were to come much later, however.

I also suspect we crossed paths a lot earlier than middle school. We were comparing notes on childhood experiences, and we realized we had a common one. Our stay-at-home mothers both shopped regularly at the Johnson City Publix from the time we were babies. She’s just 41 days older than me, and you know how babies and toddlers notice each other.

How many times did we see each other from our shopping cart perches? Did we wave or smile, not realizing God intended us for each other?

And there we have principle 2: Seeing, even for a long period of time, is not always knowing and understanding.

Now, on to the transfiguration. Jesus took three very close disciples up a mountain. They had been with him from the start of his earthly ministry. They thought they knew him.

He seemed to them like a holy man already; that is, he seemed to reflect the same holy light Moses had brought down from the mountain thousands of years earlier after encountering God. But come to find out, Jesus was the light, the source rather than the mirror.

There even was testimony direct from heaven, the same kind of testimony some had heard at Jesus’ baptism. On the mountain, Jesus’ status was made clear: As Son of God, this man was God among us, holiness amid brokenness and sin.

They wanted to dwell in that light—Peter surely did—but they had to come down from the mountain so Jesus could do his work on the cross. And through that work, even we are made holy.

We may not always see that holiness in each other, even when it’s right in front of us. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.

Show and Tell

It’s the end of the Pentecost story that intrigues me. Any preacher would like to see 3,000 give their lives to Christ following a sermon.

What led to that astonishing response remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see a model for evangelism so simple a kindergartener should be able to grasp it.

God led the way, of course, and God still leads the way today. Pentecost began with Jesus’ followers waiting and praying, just as Jesus had told them to do before he ascended into heaven. God arrived as the Holy Spirit in wind and something that looked like flame, and the earliest church members received a power they did not have before. Specifically, they were able to declare Jesus as Lord and Savior and be understood regardless of the audience’s language.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Maybe, just maybe, this Pentecost model I think I see is simple enough to undo some of that fear.

The model in the Pentecost story is as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

First, God showed the early church in tangible ways the Holy Spirit was with them. Wind and fire. Supernatural gifts. How could they doubt?

In their excitement, they showed others what they could do; they demonstrated the changes in their lives.

That should be easy enough for us to do today. Our faith should make us different in ways people can spot. We should show more love, grace and forgiveness than we would without Christ in our lives. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

If we don’t have much to show—if we’re not different than before our conversion—we need to re-examine our relationship with God. Maybe ideas like love, forgiveness and grace really haven’t sunk in.

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by your actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what you have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw; some will always sneer. Peter just used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.
Show and tell. Try it. You might be surprised who watches and listens.