Discourse 37 - The way of the Christian, illustrated by the example of the apostle Peter




The example of the apostle Peter (Jn 3 + 18; Mt 26,75). / Article by Gerhard Naujokat 00, 2001-11-15

Peter, the ‘man of rock’

Faithfulness is not something for which we are principally responsible.

Blind zeal is no substitute for commitment.

Even disciples have their weaknesses.



(The example of the apostle Peter (Jn 3 + 18; Mt 26,75). / Article by GN, 2001-11-15)

The article below appeared in the journal ’Philadelphia Kreuz & Reich‘ [’Philadelphia Cross & Kingdom‘], and is published here by the kind permission of the author. Gerhard Naujokat, a Kassel pastor and publicist, was General Secretary of the White Cross in Germany from 1966 to 1999. Among his other achievements, in 1999 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany by the German President for his many years of activity as an advisor to young people and a family and marriage guidance counselor. As well as giving frequent lectures and seminars, Pastor Naujokat is also the author of numerous specialist books.

(Gerhard Naujokat / http://www.philadelphia-verlag.com)



Peter, the >man of rock<

In all biblical accounts of the disciples of Jesus, Peter comes across as the strongest and most vital. Though perhaps not the favorite of the disciples - that was probably John - Peter was very close to his Lord, and more than any of the others followed his path without deviating from it. At the very first moment of his calling he dropped his tools and his fishing nets practically without a thought, to follow the man in whose footsteps he would walk in future with unconditional obedience. His confessions of faith were convincing and adamant: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16,16). When Jesus indicated that he was going to be betrayed, Peter wanted to know who he was referring to. Jesus founded his congregation on Peter as on a rock - the rock that had become his name: >Peter<, from the Greek petra. And yet even this rock was not always firm and reliable. He fell and broke down, gave evidence of his human weakness and inadequacy.

Nonetheless - or perhaps even for this very reason - Peter can be a model to us of a person who follows in the footsteps of Christ. He can inspire us to follow him, in spite of all his weakness and instability - qualities which also form part of our own nature and character. So we can have the courage to admit to our personal mistakes, just as the Bible makes no attempt to gloss over or deny the shameful weakness of Peter, but gives us a clear view of it and preserves it as a record for all time.

Faithfulness is not something for which we are principally responsible.

Peter is convinced of himself, and is deeply hurt when Jesus does not share this conviction. The disciple does not think himself capable of behaving in the way in which he later in reality will do. He is penetrated through and through by the will and the readiness to follow his Lord in all situations. In the Garden of Gethsemane, admittedly, natural tiredness got the better of the strength of his will to watch and to wait - as was the case with the other disciples as well. Plainly our capabilities are too weak to follow Our Lord in all the heights and the depths. This may be dependent on circumstances, and in some cases on the limitations of our nature.

Fear for our lives, or just a long suppressed need for sleep, can easily cancel out our much belauded loyalty and our idealistic instinct of faith. Our buildings, proud as they may appear to be, collapse sooner than we often like to admit. Jesus has plainly taken all this into account, and when faced with profuse professions like Peter‘s “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mt 26,35), he is realistically reserved, even almost hurtfully skeptical.

We feel inclined to take the side of Peter when he here shows himself so honestly devoted - to defend him, and say, “Lord, you are doing him an injustice. He is really penetrated heart and soul by the will to stick with you and follow you unconditionally, wherever you may go. There can be no doubt about this will and conviction of his, which what is more he asserts with such penetrating force. He does not deserve to be put down like this.”

But reality has the last word, confirming the cautious reserve that expresses itself in the words of Jesus. And reality is the touchstone not just in this case - it is the standard by which we too are judged. It is only with effort and in all our weakness that we can persist on the path of following Our Lord.

Blind zeal is no substitute for commitment.

As if trying to give convincing proof of the loyalty that has been called in question, when Jesus is arrested Peter draws his sword and raises it against one of the servants. The other gospels leave the reader in the dark as to which of the disciples resorted to violence. Only John mentions Peter explicitly by name.

He is the same disciple who will later deny his Lord and Master repeatedly. The two events are in striking contrast, even if the contrast is only apparent: here we have the courageous and high-hearted comrade, who will remain unshakably loyal to Jesus even at the lowest point of his public ministry, when everything falls apart and he is arrested. Is it possible to show iron resolution more powerfully than Peter does at this moment? But Jesus is far from wanting this kind of solidarity, and commands him to sheathe his sword.

Too late. The ear of Malchus has already fallen to the ground - but this event has preserved his name for all time. With his severed ear, Malchus enters world history. Peter is one for drama. Wherever his strong personality is found, something is going to happen. It does not remain without effect - whether positive or negative, it is always active.

Some Christians have a misguided belief in action, thinking that at important moments they must prove themselves through forcible activity. Many who feel called to follow Christ, and want to give actual proof of it, flee forward in the hour of challenge. They engage in action at any price - whatever their chances of success and whatever the justification. Often this kind of unthinking activity is more damaging than useful in its effects.

So for example there is kind of courage in confessing one‘s faith that calls forth more hostility than conviction in persons who come in contact with it. Or Christians engage in resistance against powers that are only going to be irritated by their action. Is this sensible or necessary? This has been a question for Christians of all eras.

Should one come to an arrangement, go underground, confess one‘s faith and fight or howl with the wolves? In such situations the congregation is always faced with a dilemma between adaptation and resistance. But we do not have to testify in all cases to our mental independence and the firmness of our convictions by resorting to extreme measures. More often than not it is the wiser course to withdraw in faith, while remaining consistent and alert in spirit, and wait upon events.

But it is not possible, generally speaking, to determine in advance one‘s behavior in situations where one may be persecuted or where one may be called on to confess one‘s faith; and when things become critical, this may issue in unusual reactions. The willingness to lay down one‘s life (leaving true martyrdom aside), whether in acts of violence or terror or similar outrages, does little to recommend the doctrine for the sake of which people engage in such acts. Peter too is at risk, in his blind zeal, of plunging forwards. But Jesus can wait, because he is convinced of his permanent victory in the long term. Peter thinks too spontaneously and with too little depth - he would like to save whatever can be saved in the present moment, and make his anger plain.

Jesus is not convinced by this kind of action. He puts his disciples in their place. A confessing Christian comes up against his limits, is referred back to those limits and must recognize that he has done the wrong thing. The service of Christ Our Lord is incompatible with any kind of fanaticism.

Even disciples have their weaknesses.

And then there is the other side of Peter. Like a lost sheep, he tries to join another flock. Of his own flock nothing remains to be seen. So he prefers to warm himself at another fire, not wanting to freeze in loneliness and desperation. His zeal has not had any effect, the power opposing it was too strong. Jesus has been arrested. If Peter denies his discipleship, it is not without a struggle. He trembles for his own life. His courage in face of the group has fled.

He denies it against his better knowledge and against all conviction. This is at once senseless, untrue and easy to refute. A disciple loses credibility, loses his integrity and betrays the cause of Jesus. This is the nadir of Peter‘s ministry. The crowing of the cock is a shrill signal, comparable to the fire alarm of a siren. This could have heralded the end of the salvation history of God, the collapse of a movement of several millennia, of the strongest spiritual power of humanity.

But just at this same low point of failure, betrayal and collapse, only to be exceeded by the death on Golgotha, the germ is planted for a great new future and the revelation of salvation. The evangelist Matthew shows the turning point: ’And Peter... went out and wept bitterly‘ (Mt 26,75). Peter‘s decision for his Lord at this low point, and his remorse, were positive. Christ crosses out the minus and turns it into a plus, which - not accidentally - is identical with the sign of the cross.

This makes the situation an illustration of the greatness and the limits of every Christian existence in the moments of highest testing and deepest trial. There is no life, there is no Christian existence without these moments of failure, such as we would never think of ourselves in advance and above all would never believe possible. Like a personified conscience, the cock crowed to call Peter‘s culpable failure to his mind in a way that could not be ignored.

The tears of Peter are tears of the heart. Then he became the rock. According to tradition, Peter died a martyr‘s death many years later at the end of a ministry rich in blessings to others.

That Peter is capable of deep remorse makes him appear human and lovable again. He was not a hardboiled traitor, one who without a thought hangs his flag whichever way the wind blows, who attaches himself to the big battalions in a spirit of careful calculation; nor was he a deserter who stubbornly and repeatedly changes his allegiance like a double agent. No, it was just naked fear that robbed him of the courage to confess and led to the collapse of his character. This lesson may have been salutary for him, and for the congregations that later heard him teach.

In critical situations, would we have the strength of soul and mind that we need to meet all challenges constantly? Do we have the courage to defy the majority opinion surrounding us and to speak the truth? - even in face of an extreme party with its illusory warmth and offer of a spurious homeland, as the Zeitgeist and the standards of the group dictate?

Perhaps the challenges we face in our situation are nothing like so dramatic. Perhaps it is not a constant temptation for us to howl with the wolves. True, it is not always a time of testing. But to take up the sword as the first recourse and engage in action for action‘s sake, while keeping quiet about the word, is not very productive. It is to be hoped that we are moving into a time when words will have more importance than weapons. So the story of Peter, with its many different phases and layers of meaning, should give us daily food for thought. The challenge of today is that we should find the right word at the right time! We will not be asked directly every day, but we must have an answer ready to the question, “Aren‘t you one of his disciples?”