Peter – The Courage to be Right & Wrong
First Baptist Church Laurens, September 7, 2014
This summer, I have enjoyed becoming acquainted with the British novelist David Downing and his World War II character John Russell. Russell is a British journalist stationed is Nazi Berlin who becomes an unlikely spy for the Allies. In the first book in the series which is set in the 1930s before the war begins, Russell befriends a Jewish family living in Germany who is afraid for their lives. The father has been sent to a concentration camp and the mother is trying to escape Berlin with their children before things in Germany get any worse. In one moving scene, Russell goes to see the father in the concentration camp where he is being held. As they visit, Russell apologizes to his friend because he feels bad that he has never shown much courage by trying to help their family more. Each time an opportunity had presented itself, Russell had chosen his safety in the face of the Nazis over his friend’s well being. When he apologizes though, his friend doesn’t understand. “What are you apologizing for?” Russell’s imprisoned Jewish friend asks. “You haven’t done anything.” “Exactly,” Russell replies, “That’s the point, I haven’t done anything!” (From the book Zoo Station by David Downing)
What strikes me is how this dialogue gets at the old Christian idea of sins of commission and sins of omission. As you may recall, sins of commission are those things that we have done that we wish to God we would have never done. Sins of omission are those things that we didn’t do which we wish to God we would have done. The story I just shared about the literary character John Russell and his Jewish friend fits squarely into this later category as Russell agonizes over and laments what he had failed to do for his friend.
I share all of this because if there is one thing we can say about the disciple Peter it is that he rarely, if ever, committed any sins of omission. This, in essence, is one of the most instructive aspects of Peter’s life for you and I as followers of Jesus today. What I mean is that while Peter often failed to get it right and made many mistakes, he always tried and always at least attempted faithfulness. He never simply sat on the sideline while doing nothing.
This is a huge challenge for many if not most of us. For many of us, our uneasiness with following Jesus and our inability to inspire others to follow is wrapped up in our fear of failure. Because we are afraid to get it wrong, make a mistake or say the wrong thing, we choose to simply do nothing. Why? Because for many of us, we are much more comfortable with doing nothing than we are with doing something that we will later regret.
Peter’s story challenges such thinking in a profound way.
Our story for today of Peter walking on the water is one of many examples of this truth. Yes, Peter sank to the bottom, but he at least got out of the boat. In another scene, Peter challenged Jesus that he shouldn’t submit to death in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans or even talk about such possibilities. In response, Jesus becomes very angry with him. But at least he was willing to open his mouth and be honest with how he felt at a time when most of the disciples stood silent. And, yes, Peter in yet another scene denied Jesus in what without question was the most disappointing moment of his life but his moment of shame came after three years of obedience. Time and time again, Peter made big mistakes or said the wrong thing. But, time and time again, they happened at the very same times when only he among the twelve was willing to try at all.
One of my classmates in High School was a guy named Joe. Joe weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet and had zero athletic ability. One year he went out for the varsity football team. To say he got introduced to the school or hard, hard knocks is an understatement. The truth is he was beat to a pulp most days at practice and in any game where he touched the playing field. Yet, every time our coach asked for volunteers for virtually any drill he was almost always the first one to run on the field. He was sort of the Rudy of North Alabama High School football if you will.
I have long since forgotten most of our team members but I still remember him. Though he usually fell on his face, he recognized that his only chance to get it right hinged on an unswerving determination to get in the game and give it his best.
This is what Peter did and this is what we must do. Sure, there always exists the possibility in every situation that we may say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing or make a poor decisions. But our fear of getting it wrong should always be balanced with the strong reminder that in life and faith our only shot at getting it right depends on a willingness to step out of the boat and try.
Just as we must allow ourselves this freedom, we must also offer it to others too and this is another remarkable part of the Peter saga. What I want us to see is that just as Peter allowed himself to make mistakes or to say the wrong thing, Jesus and the other eleven offered him the same grace too. When he failed, they didn’t kick him out of the club or look down their noses at him. Instead, they had the kind courage that allowed for failures and mistakes too. In a world where we often look at those who make mistakes as damaged merchandise or second class citizens, we must model this same behavior in our relationships with each other as well.
There is a beautiful story about a small college in the Midwest years ago. The college had commissioned a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. In turn, the artist chose to create the masterpiece on site and thus had a large piece of rock delivered to the campus. Slowly but surely as the artist labored day after day, Lincoln began to emerge from the stone. A rather simple minded lady who worked as a custodian in the building where the artist was working was mesmerized by the process. One day, she approached the sculptor and said, “let me ask you something. How is that you knew that Abraham Lincoln was inside that big rock?” (From the book The First to Follow: The Apostles of Jesus by John Claypool)
This kind of imagination is exactly what we are challenged to offer to each other. Where we see in one another rough hewn lives that are jagged and misshaped by poor life decisions, the gospels call us to help one other to believe that deep inside a masterpiece lives in all of us which often only requires each other’s patience, grace and long suffering to finally began to emerge. Without question, our willingness to allow others in our lives to fail is a huge benefit to their willingness to take risks in becoming who God wants them to be. We must allow for this type of failure in others. For just as we are not perfect, neither is anyone else.
One last thing. Not only does Peter’s story invite us to allow ourselves to fail and to allow others to fail, it also calls us to be humble and vulnerable enough to share our stories of failure with each other. Here is the remarkable thing about Peter. Many people think he was the eye witness for Mark’s gospel. If this is true, what it means is that Mark’s accounts of Peter’s mistakes came to him from Peter himself. This suggests that Peter shared in humility about his own mistakes believing that his personal real story of successes and failures in following Jesus would have value for others to hear.
We all live life trying to put our best foot forward. We are all always tempted to present versions of ourselves that are often holy and perfect rather than truthful and accurate. While such images may make us feel better about ourselves they are not very helpful to us or anyone else. Instead, being honest about who we and where we are helps us to admit our inadequacies and it helps others to know they are neither alone or any different from anyone else.
Life isn’t about perfection. Life is about daring to be wrong knowing that a willingness to be wrong is the only chance we have to experience the opportunity ever being right. Amen.