Note: This is Part 8 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Text: Various from Luke, John, Acts, and Ephesians on Peter
Sherwood Picture’s movie, Fireproof, centers around the marriage of Caleb and Catherine Holt. Caleb is a captain at the firehouse, and one of the other firefighters on his team talks about his realization that his own marriage is the work of continually studying and learning about his wife. He suggests that he is trying to earn his degrees in a sense by becoming an expert about his wife, just like one would earn a high school diploma, bachelors, or masters degrees. He says that even after years of marriage – good and bad – he has a long way to go to really know his wife well.
This is the truth about relationships. They are not static. It’s not true just of marriage, either, though the intimacy of marriage highlights it. If we are friends with someone for forty years, we do not have the same relationship with them in the latter years that we did when we first met them. We don’t know only what we knew about them from that first moment or that first conversation.
Over the course of many conversations, arguments, and shared experiences, we come to learn what makes another person smile, laugh, cry, or enraged. We know what makes them blossom and what makes them shrivel. Each encounter strengthens and improves our knowledge, if we will let it. Though their names and birthdays never change, our relationship with people, like our parents and children, our spouses if we are married, our co-workers, and our friends, all will deepen as time goes on.
When we talk about Christian faith as we understand it, one of the ways we describe it is to say that it is a “personal relationship.” And that is true. The gospel message of our faith is that God loves us and wants us to love him in return, and that He has removed all of the obstacles that stand in the way that would prevent us from loving him in return. Like any of the other relationships, our relationship with God should not be static.
Far too often we present the Gospel as the answer to the question, Do you know if you are going to heaven when you die? Far too often, the Gospel is nothing more to us than a ticket to heaven. We think about the Gospel and what God has done for us only in relation to death and what comes after it. This is a shallow Gospel. We seek only the assurance of our eternal destiny, but we never allow our faith to be more to us than the way we answer this question of where we are going to spend eternity. The Gospel is much deeper. The Gospel desires to infiltrate our whole life. We need to be active in plumbing its depths.
Consider Simon Peter’s interactions with the message of Jesus. When we first meet Peter in the Gospel accounts, he still goes by the name Simon and is busy doing his work as a fisherman. It’s not been a good day, at least according to Luke 5. After a long night of toiling with nothing but empty nets to show for it, Simon had lent his boat to Jesus to use as a preaching platform for the crowds that gathered around him. The text doesn’t say that this was the reason, but I like to think that, as a show of thanks, Jesus told Peter to put back out in the water and let down his nets again. When he did so, his nets were bursting with fish so that Simon called out to his co-laborers to bring out their boats and nets in order to take advantage of the catch.
Listen to his response to this catch from Luke 5, “8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’”
Peter was dumbfounded and considered himself unworthy to be with Jesus. But when Jesus invites him along, the text goes on to say, “11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
I think Peter’s response – as well as James and John, who also left everything behind – mirrors our own response when we first really hear the Gospel and begin toying with its message. We are dumbfounded. So we seek it out and learn more about what this truth might be. Peter went on to be chosen as an apostle with eleven other men who had also been following Jesus. Peter became part of the inner circle of three who had unique experiences with Jesus, such as being present in the room when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead.
Eventually, we come to realize that we more than just know about Jesus. We accept him. In Luke 9 Jesus wonders what people think of him. Some say he is Elijah, others Moses, others John the Baptist. But who do you say that I am? He asks. And Peter has this high moment where he says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!” Peter knows Jesus and who he is, or at least thinks he does. When Jesus goes on to talk about being beaten, crucified, and buried, then raising on the third day, Peter cannot comprehend it. That does not fit his picture of Jesus and the message. So Peter rebukes Jesus, only to be rebuked by the Lord in return.
Peter was actively trying to make Jesus into the person he wanted him to be. Jesus would have none of it, “Get behind me, Satan!” We might spend long years of our lives trying to make God into the kind of God we want him to be, rather than simply acknowledging him as the God that He is. We like the Jesus who can give us great catches of fish, but we’re not sure about this God who talks about pain and suffering and death and persecution. So we try to shove God into our preconceived, convenient box that fits the world as we want it to be. We try to keep the relationship static, back at the fishing boats or at the feeding of the 5,000, or perhaps the raising of one of the dead.
In our own lives, we see God act in other amazing ways, like Peter at the transfiguration. And, like Peter, we also take pride in what we have done for God – “Look!” we say, “see how much we have done for you!” In Luke 18, after the rich young ruler rejects following Jesus because of his great riches, Peter loudly proclaims how they had left everything to follow their Lord. But Peter is still busy trying to make Jesus into the image Peter wanted him to be.
Finally, at the last supper, when Jesus was talking about all the things that would happen and even warning the disciples that they would all fall away, Peter tries to insist that there was nothing that could happen that would cause him to leave Jesus. So Jesus tells Peter in Luke 22:34, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” And Peter does in fact deny Jesus. All three times. Vehemently. At the crows of the rooster, Peter, too, fell away and left his Lord, hanging his head in shame.
The hard seasons and turns of life challenge our faith deeply. Unexpected events that don’t fit into our understandings and plans for life attack our beliefs. Superficial faith that seeks to maintain the status quo will not support us during the flailing seasons when everything is going wrong. We have two choices: walk away and try to go back to our old life, or lean in and see just how far this Jesus and His Gospel really will take us.
Trial, conviction, rejection by the people, flogging, a hard walk with a cross, hours of agony, flowing blood and water, a borrowed and then sealed tomb. Peter was dejected. Then sunrise on the third day and the women come running in: he isn’t there! He is risen! And Peter ran off to see for himself. The tomb was empty, and Peter leaned in to the Gospel truth that Jesus had long sought to teach them. He leaned in and found the Gospel deeper than he had imagined it to be, stronger than he had believed it to be. He dove and swam deep in its waters.
After the Spirit came in the tongues of flame, Peter became an ardent preacher of the Gospel. He was a full convert now. The Gospel was deeper and wider than he could have possibly dreamed, imagined, or hoped. The church thrived with Peter’s passion.
How have times of suffering and hardship deepened and inspired your faith and your witness? How deep have you found the Gospel to be? How far have you dared to lean in, or even to dive in? Have you plumbed just how much God there is in this message that we proclaim?
Even the passionate preacher that is Peter in the book of Acts still had more to learn about the Gospel. He still had further to lean in. In Acts 10 and 11 we read about Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Peter had not even considered the possibility that the message was for more than the Jews. Once again, the Gospel proved to be further, deeper, broader, better than Peter had even the power to think.
In Ephesians 3, Paul desperately searches for words to describe God and the truth of the Gospel message. Listen starting in verse 8, “8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In describing God’s wisdom as “manifold,” Paul uses the same word used of the colorful coat given to Joseph by Jacob. God’s wisdom has more colors than a photograph of a field of wildflowers under a setting sun.
Peter continually learned more about what God was accomplishing in the world through the Good News brought by Jesus about the arrival of the Kingdom. Tradition says that he became the first bishop of the church at Rome. And tradition also says that he died by being hung like his Lord on a cross, upside down, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as Jesus.
We must not be static in our understanding and living of the Gospel. It is a relationship. It is deep. The Gospel should change everything about our lives. The Gospel should affect all of our choices and decisions. It should affect our responses to the goings on around us. There is more to this Gospel than we yet know or imagine.
At the end of his account of the life of Jesus, John records an encounter between Peter and the risen Christ. Peter had gone back to fishing. His group again had no luck catching any fish. A man on shore suggested they try finding some by casting on the other side, and so they did. Immediately, John recognized Jesus and told Peter who it was. Peter dove in the water and swam to shore. Jesus ate some of the newly caught fish.
After breakfast, Jesus offered Peter a chance to undo the three denials he had made. Three times Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him. Three times, in tears, Peter said he did. Three times Jesus said: feed my sheep. This was the invitation for Peter to shed the burden of denials, to shed the preconceived ideas of who Jesus was and what his message was for. This was the invitation for Peter to lean in to all the things that God wanted him to be. To lean in and keep learning and growing, for God was not yet through with Peter.
We never come to the end of learning about friends and spouses. We never come to the end of the Gospel. As well as we think we may know it, like the back of our hand, there is yet more to know. As much as we imagine we understand it, there is yet more to understand. As deeply as we think we depend on it, we can lean in deeper still and depend on it yet more fully.
The Gospel is rich and deep. We must not be static with it. We must continually allow it to challenge us, shape us, grow us, change us, direct us, protect us. Be like Peter. Continually get to know this Gospel better. Continue to grow in your relationship with God and His Christ. You have not yet arrived, however long you have been on this journey. There is yet more to do, yet further to go, yet greater depths to plumb, yet further to lean in. Do not be satisfied in your salvation. Do not be content in what you know of the Gospel. Seek and you will find, Jesus promised. So let’s seek more of the manifold mysteries of this Gospel.
Let’s pray together.