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Trinity 13 Year A
Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi
back to sermons year A
We have just heard the account of one of the turning points in Jesus’ ministry. It took place at a place called Caesarea Philippi, which was in the very north of Israel, further north than Lake Galilee, close to what is now Syria. Jesus asked the disciples who people think he is. Simon Peter is the first person to realise that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. As a result, Jesus tells him that he will be the rock on whom the Church will be founded, and that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Today I would like to focus on Saint Peter. What do we know about him? what kind of person was he? Let’s look in particular at three stories about Saint Peter, which we find in the gospels.
(i) The first is the account of when Peter – originally known as Simon, or Cephas – was standing on the edge of Lake Galilee, with his fellow fishermen. They were washing their nets, having been fishing all night, but having caught nothing. Jesus came to them and told them to take their boat back onto the lake and try again. This time, the nets were filled so full that they began to tear. Peter was amazed. He fell down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man”. But what did Jesus do? Far from leaving him, he said, “Follow me; from now on you – and your friends – will be fishers of men”.
(ii) The second story about Peter is from the time when he had become a disciple. One night, he and some other disciples were out in their boat on Lake Galilee, having left Jesus on the shore. Jesus came out to them, walking on the water. Peter didn’t believe it was actually Jesus; he thought it was a ghost. So he gave Jesus a test: “If it is you, Lord’, he said, “Tell me to come to you across the water”. He started out – but lost his nerve, and began to sink. Jesus helped him up and said, “You have so little faith: why did you doubt?”
(iii) The third glimpse we have about the kind of person Peter was is taken from the time when Jesus had been arrested and taken off to be tried. Peter followed at a distance, and joined some other people around a fire in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, where Jesus was being held. A servant girl said, “This man was with Jesus”. Peter said, “Woman, I do not know him”. Twice more he denied that he had been a follower of Jesus. Then the cock crowed, and Peter remembered that Jesus had said, “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times”.
What, then, do we learn about Saint Peter from these three events in his life? We see in the first – when he was first called to be a disciple – how acutely aware he was of his sinfulness, and how unworthy he was to be a disciple. In the second – when he tried to walk out on Lake Galilee, one night – we see Jesus rebuking him for having such a weak faith. And in the third, when Jesus had been arrested, we see how ready he was to disown Christ when things became difficult.
And yet – as we heard in today’s gospel reading – this was the rock, supposedly strong, solid, stable, secure – on whom Jesus said he would build his Church. What’s more – Jesus knew that Peter was sinful, lacking in faith, and cowardly, at that very time when he gave him the name Peter, which means “rock”. But he trusted him all the same. He saw the potential in him to be a great leader.
God knows that each one of us commits sin, is weak in faith, and is sometimes cowardly. But he still wants us to serve him and to do his will. Our weakness of faith, all our failings, all our shortcomings, are not necessarily barriers to our being used by God in his service. Indeed they can make us all the more aware of God’s forgiveness and his love for us.
In spite of all his failings, then, Peter went on to be that rock on which Jesus built the Church. He also became the one whom Jesus specifically asked to strengthen the faith of his fellow apostles: “I have prayed for you”, he said, “ that you faith may not fail, and that you may strengthen the faith of your brothers’. He was also the one chosen by Jesus to feed his sheep – to take overall responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the Church, and to set a pattern of care for its members.
In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see a Peter who was bold, confident and filled with God’s power as he preached, taught and healed the sick. When arrested and put in prison, he was completely unafraid. Something had changed him; and that was God, who never rejected him or lost faith in his ability to serve him and to bear witness to Jesus.
The story of Saint Peter, then, is that of a man who came to God diffidently, falteringly, unsure whether he was good enough. In this, he is like the countless people around the world who are unsure whether they are worthy of God. But the conclusion of the story is that, just as God took Peter and used him, he can take each one of us and use us, whoever we are, whatever our background, whatever we have done in the past. All he asks is that we do our best to follow the way of Christ, to believe and trust in him, and let God show us his purpose for us.
For even if our faith in God is sometimes weak, his faith in us never fails.