by the Rev. James B. Craven III
[Listen to this sermon here or on Spotify or TuneIn, or read the text below.]
In the name of God-Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen
For the most part, Christ’s apostles were not a well educated lot. Luke was an exception, a physician, historian, and artist. Albino Luciani, the September pope, John Paul, was asked by a parishioner once if he could recommend a good history of the early Church. His response, “Try the one Luke wrote,” which was of course the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Those really are one book, artificially divided when the biblical canon was put together.
Paul was also well educated, a Pharisaic rabbi and a religious cop. Peter though, like the brothers Andrew and John, was a commercial fisherman, the prototypical blue collar worker. Interestingly most biblical scholars do not believe that Peter actually wrote the first and second letters of Peter because of the letters’ excellent and sophisticated Greek style, not the way an uneducated commercial fisherman of the time would have written. Regardless, the letters were likely written from Rome after the outbreak of Nero’s persecutions. And the letters are the only portion of the New Testament at all attributed to Peter.
We do know a fair amount about Peter. In my last sermon I mentioned that best seller of the year 1418, the Imitation of Christ. It isn’t easy to imitate Christ. That’s a high bar. But Peter is much more like us, not always heroic but more often putting ourselves first. We have to remember though that we are never defined by the worst thing we have ever done. Peter promised Jesus he would follow him all the way, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” And Jesus said “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.” That night Jesus was arrested and led away to the high priest. Peter followed at a distance, and a woman said “This man was also with him,” but Peter adamantly insisted “I do not know him.” Another person said “You are one of them,” but Peter said “Man, I am not.” Later someone said “Certainly this man also was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter said “Man, I don’t know what you are saying.” And immediately the cock crowed, and Jesus looked at Peter, who remembered what Christ had predicted. Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times. And Peter wept bitterly, too well aware that when he was most needed by Jesus, and had promised he would always have his back, Peter ran the other way, out of understandable fear. I can do that, and it is a whole lot easier than imitating Christ. Peter had been there when Jesus was arrested, just as he saw him condemned and was in the crowd when Jesus was executed. Pretty scary stuff, and we can well understand Peter’s very human aversion to it all. Most of us would, without question or hesitancy, give our lives for our children or grandchildren. That’s maternal and paternal instinct. Ordinarily though, our human instinct is to run from danger, as Peter did. Cops, firefighters, and Marines all run toward danger, but they are trained to do that. Peter wasn’t, as most of us are not.
Now I have never healed anyone. I have prayed for healing for some but it is God who does the healing. We heard the wonderful story today of the healing of God of Tabitha or Dorcas, through the agency of Peter. Tabitha was a Christian disciple, devoted to good works and acts of charity. She died and the women of her household washed her body. That was the custom in rural areas of this country a hundred years ago. They then laid her in an upstairs bedroom. Some of the disciples were there, in Joppa, now Haifa, on the Mediterranean. They sent two men for Peter, the first and foremost of the disciples, the one first chosen by Jesus. When they got to the house they took Peter upstairs where the dead woman lay. All the women stood with Peter praying and cherishing all the purple clothing Dorcas had made. Peter asked all the women to leave the room, while he prayed. He then looked at Dorcas and said “Tabitha, get up.” And she did. The others all saw that she was alive, and many came to believe in the Lord, not in Peter, but in the Lord. Peter likely would have said he never healed anyone, but that he did function as Christ’s agent. We see this also at Caesarea when Cornelius fell down at Peter’s feet and worshipped him. Peter said “Get up. I too am a man.” And Peter in Joppa learned that none of God’s creations were common or unclean. Peter remembered too how Jesus had said “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized by the Holy Spirit,” and the Holy Spirit landed on Peter and the rest, then and there.
Soon after, Herod had Peter arrested and thrown into jail, where he slept between two soldiers, bound with chains, with armed guards at the door. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared in a bright light, his chains fell off and he escaped Herod’s prison. That was always a favorite Bible story of my prison congregation.
As his status as the first and foremost of Jesus’ disciples, Peter became the first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope. Interestingly Peter was clearly married, because Scripture tells us of the healing of his mother in law. Celibacy in the Roman Catholic clergy dates from the year 400 or so, though in the Middle Ages there were a number of papal children in the Vatican playground.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked “Who do men say that the Son of Man is ?” Well, some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah. Peter though said “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Then Jesus told him “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That’s why we see Peter with the keys in artistic depiction to this day.
In the liturgy for the ordination of a priest, in the 1928 and earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer, and in the Church of England prayer book, the bishop says “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.” That language changed in the 1979 book simply to “You are to… declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners.” I am glad the newer version was used when I was ordained priest 27 years ago. The old language is a heavier burden than I want. I much prefer the idea of declaring God’s forgiveness rather than my own. As I noted earlier, I don’t heal anybody. God does. Playing God is a temptation we must resist.
Peter and Paul are said to be buried in the catacombs beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They likely are in truth buried there, though the evidence from nearly 2000 years ago could be stronger. And pretty strong church traditions tell us that Peter, knowing he would be executed, asked that he be crucified upside down, feeling he was not worthy to die the death of his Lord. Even so it is still easier to imitate Peter than Christ.
Let us pray:
Almighty Father, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the
apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the Living
God; Keep your Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith,
so that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and
follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for