Should we think of St Peter as a good role model?
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 28th June 2019 at 5.00 PM
Jesus called Peter a rock. But should we think of St Peter as a good role model?
Certainly, he is the Patron of the Abbey, so we should regard him with affection and a degree of awe. We might expect him to pray for us from time to time, and to hear our particular petitions, though we must recognise that he has very many other patronages and we surely must not make impossible demands of him.
He is also often described as the Prince of the Apostles, so the first of all the apostles, the premier player, and amongst that small group of the apostles who seem to have been closest to our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He was there with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, when Jesus prayed in his agony in Gethsemane, the night before he died.
So, he should be a role model for us. But is he?
After all, he fell asleep, while Jesus prayed in his agony of bloody sweat. In that moment, he was certainly no friend to Jesus. Nor was he a friend to Jesus, when he followed Jesus after his arrest, and hung around the house of the high priest to see what might happen.
It was not just that he was curious. When the moment of testing came, he denied three times that he had ever even known Jesus. First, the servant girl said that he had been with Jesus, the man from Nazareth, but he denied it. Then later, the same servant girl challenged him again and said to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ Then the bystanders said, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ Peter began to curse and swear an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ Then he heard the cock crow, and he remembered then what Jesus had said to him, that he would deny him three times. Now he broke down and wept bitterly.
So far, the record of Peter looks pretty bleak. But, we can balance the story.
He was the one apostle who came to see Jesus for what he was, the Christ, the Son of the living God. At Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They had little idea, but said to him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ But then he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him. I think he had a flash of inspiration and perhaps even was unaware what he was really saying, but out it came, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus virtually admitted it – yes, he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God – when he sternly told them not to tell anyone.
And of course Peter had been one of the first disciples to follow Jesus, he and his brother Andrew, and the two other fishermen, James and John: they had left everything, their boats, their nets, their catch of fish, their entire livelihood, to follow him. And they had stayed with Jesus through his ministry. They had been with him, Peter and James and John, when he went up the mount of Transfiguration and they had caught a glimpse of his divine glory. Perhaps that makes his three-times denial of Jesus even more upsetting.
Peter was not there when Jesus was crucified. Presumably he was afraid for his life, as he had been the night before. He certainly had no intention of being crucified with Jesus. He ran away and hid, as did most of the disciples, probably in the same Upper Room where they had eaten the Last Supper with Jesus. Now they were terrified. At any time, the Roman soldiers, or the High Priest’s guard, could come for them. Best to lie low.
So they were still there when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Peter had gone to the place of burial that Sunday morning after the Passover, and found the tomb empty and the grave clothes lying there. John, the one Jesus loved above them all, had been with him. But they went away mystified, confused about what had happened to the body of Jesus. They certainly had no clue that he had been raised from the dead. They still hid themselves.
And even when he mysteriously and wonderfully appeared to them and showed them the holes in his hands and his feet and his side, so that they knew it was really Jesus and he was really alive again in a most remarkable way, they still hid themselves away. For weeks they hid.
It was only when they received power from on high, when the fire of the Holy Spirit danced over their heads and poured into them courage and confidence and heavenly strength, that they went out and began to preach and teach. Now Peter was the first to speak, no longer afraid. And he would die for Jesus, himself crucified, by tradition upside down.
O, we have a really wonderful, full picture of Peter, our Patron. He is a real person to us, not a cipher or a shadow. We see his fragility, as well as his bravery and even his folly. He seems to grasp things by instinct and react without even thinking very much. And we know his fear; we are all too well aware of his fear.
And in the end he takes his courage in his hands and finally loses his fear of death. All he wants to do is to be loyal to his beloved Saviour and to follow him, to death and through death to eternal life. So, all in all, I would say that he is a most wonderful role model for us.
We know our own frailty, our fragility as Christians. We know that we blow hot and cold; sometimes we seem full of faith and guts and the ability to express something powerful and beautiful about God. And the next minute, we are forgetting the love of God and spending our time on the love of earthly things, money, objects of beauty. We are so easily diverted away from the true path, the narrow way, into broad and generous uplands that are in truth full of peril, full of danger.
In the first reading this evening, we saw Peter in prison, sleeping between the guards, awaiting a trial. Of course, this is from the Acts of the Apostles, so it is well after the Resurrection and the gift at Pentecost; this is bold Peter, brave Peter. Even so, what happens is an amazement to him. He thinks that the angel who frees him from his fetters is just a vision, a kind of dream. It is only when he is out of prison and walking back to his friends that he realises that it is really happening: not a dream but reality. And they are so shocked that they keep him outside until he can persuade them it really is him.
How should we think of this incident?
We can trust that the angel was a messenger of some sort sent from God. We can trust that God had decided to free Peter from this moment of imprisonment, to preserve him for more missionary work and for a greater, a truer moment when he would die for Christ. The beautiful aspect of this incident is that now Peter has really learnt to trust in the Lord with all his heart and not to follow his own whim and his own way. He has no idea where the messenger sent from God is taking him; he just follows. He trusts.
If he, Peter, is to be our role model, our Patron, our heavenly friend, then we must come to understand, and to feel in our bones, that we can trust in the Lord with all our heart, that we should not seek always to go our own way, to make up our own minds, as if we are the be-all and the end-all, the know-all. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, as the book of Proverbs says, and be not wise in your own sight.
We are brought up to believe and to think that we have to decide everything for ourselves: we have the power of choice, so we should choose. We can choose to follow this way or that, to do this or that, to become this or that. Up to us. My way. I did it my way.
Peter’s journey was a long one to the point at which he could follow the Lord’s way, he could trust in the Lord and not make it up as he went along. This moment when the angel led him out of prison and the gates fell open before him was a moment of transition, when the brave and bold proclaimer on the day of Pentecost that the Lord was alive became the person who trusted his life, his will, his mind to his God and Father and to his Lord, Jesus Christ.
Let Peter truly be our Patron, our role model: like him, let us trust in the Lord with all our heart, and be not wise in our own sight.
Listen to the Sermon (audio file on an external website)