18 January 2015

Sermon – "Discipleship is a process" (1 Peter 5:1-11)


Last year, as many of you know, I passed the fortieth anniversary of my ordination. The occasion provided an opportunity to leaf through old photographs and reignite many memories, particularly of the people among whom I have been privileged to serve over the decades. This morning in our Epistle and Gospel readings we are given two brief glimpses of the life of the apostle Peter, one towards the end of many years of discipleship, the other back at the very beginning. Peter did not have the convenience of photographs but as he composed the first of his two letters that we find in the New Testament with the help of his friend and coworker Silvanus, I can only imagine that a torrent of memories, going all the way back to the events of this morning’s Gospel reading, must have been flooding through his mind.

Peter first became aware of Jesus through the witness of his brother Andrew. Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist. He had been present when Jesus had come to the banks of the Jordan River and John had proclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God!” Andrew had been so entranced by what he heard and saw that he followed Jesus to where he was staying and spent the rest of the day with him. His excitement was such that he wasted no time in going straight to his brother and telling him, “We have found the Messiah.” This in turn aroused Simon’s interest enough that he followed his brother back to where Jesus was. There Jesus met him with the words, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”. Now kepha is Aramaic for “rock” or “stone”, which in Greek is petros—hence the name Peter. And it seems to me that the rest of the story of Andrew’s brother Simon, or Peter, in the New Testament is how he became a rock.

So now as we read the Epistle, Peter is writing from the perspective of a long life of discipleship. He describes himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. It is a unique designation. Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find a disciple described in this way. The apostles were to have been witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. But Peter describes himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. I wonder if Peter did not have in mind that fateful night as Jesus stood in the Garden of Gethsemane and pleaded with his heavenly Father, “If it be your will, take this cup from me.” Luke’s gospel tells us that his agony was such that he sweat drops of blood. Or later on as Peter warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s residence as Jesus awaited trial. Three times he denied even knowing Jesus. Surely he must have seen the pain in Jesus’ eyes as Jesus looked at him—and I have no doubt that that pain pierced his own soul as he ran out only to break down and weep inconsolably.

At the same time Peter describes himself not only as a witness of Jesus’ suffering but also as one who shares in the glory to be revealed. Here too I wonder if there were not reminiscences in his mind—of the day when he and James and John had stood at the top of a mountain to see Jesus revealed in all his eternal glory before their very eyes. As Peter now prepares to close this brief letter, written to followers scattered over the great swath of land more than a thousand miles long and five hundred miles across that is now modern Turkey, what does he have to say to them? Three things stand out in my mind: be humble, be prayerful, and be watchful.

Be humble

Twice in the eleven verses that we have before us Peter speaks about the need to be humble: in verse 5, “Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another,” and again in verse 6, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.” There had been a time in Peter’s life when he had been anything but humble. I think that, like many of us, genuine humility, the grace, as Paul describes it, of honoring others before ourselves, did not come easily to Peter. He was impetuous. He had spent his life working long hours, hauling in nets with heavy loads of fish flipping and flapping in every direction, occasionally battling storms at sea. Life had demanded that he be tough.

No doubt Peter’s pride had been punctured somewhat early in his acquaintance with Jesus. It was on that occasion when he and his companions had been out fishing all night with nothing to show for it. The sun was getting high into the sky and the fish would certainly have retreated to the cooler waters deeper down, when Jesus said to them, “Go back out into the middle of the lake and let down your nets for a catch.” The gospels don’t psychologize, but I can only imagine Peter thinking to himself, “What does that @#$%& carpenter think he knows about fishing anyway?” His words to Jesus were more polite: “Master, we have toiled all night and haven’t caught a thing…” Then something in him caused him to relent. “Well, if that’s what you want, we’ll let down the nets…” And we all know the rest of what happened. In no time nets were so full that they threatened to tear apart. All that Peter could do at that moment was to fall at Jesus’ feet, and here I like the way the New Living Translation puts his words: “Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.”

In spite of this incident early in his life with Jesus when it came to the point where everything seemed to be unraveling, it was Peter who stood up and boldly declared, “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:29). A few moments later, as the soldiers closed in to arrest Jesus, it was Peter again who boldly strode forward, drew a sword and sliced off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Yet in the end all this bravado proved to be nothing as Jesus was led away, put on trial and finally crucified.

Now, years later, Peter finds himself telling his fellow believers, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” The word refers to the tying on of a servant’s apron. So perhaps Peter had in mind that evening in the upper room when Jesus had gotten up from supper, stripped off his outer garment and fastened around himself the towel of a slave. After washing their feet he had said to them, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

I believe that the person to whom humility comes naturally is rare. Rather, humility is something that most of us have to learn, as Peter did, both through the school of hard knocks and through the example of others. The Bible tells us that even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). And Jesus comes to you and me as he did to Peter with the invitation, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Be prayerful

Thus Peter says to us, “Be humble.” And secondly he says, “Be prayerful.” “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” Again it was a lesson that Peter had begun to learn during his time with Jesus. He had been there when Jesus had taught,

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33)

Jesus’ words about trusting God had been put to the test one night when one of those sudden, violent storms, which I understand are wont to arise on the Sea of Galilee, threatened to capsize their little fishing boat and drown them all. I suspect that Peter was one of those who in a panic found Jesus asleep in the stern of the boat and shook him awake. “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” And with just two words from Jesus the storm was over more quickly than it had begun.

“Teacher, don’t you care?” “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” It’s the same word in the Bible. Worries and anxieties will come. There will be crises and disappointments. Yet what a privilege is ours that we have a God who is not only big enough to handle them, but who also cares—to whom we may bring all our concerns, who knows our needs before we ask, whose desire is only for our good!

Be watchful

Thirdly, Peter calls us to be watchful. “Discipline yourselves. Keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” In spite of God’s fatherly care, Peter is under no illusions that Christian discipleship is a cakewalk. Once again he could look back on his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, as Jesus had poured out his soul in prayer, he and James and John had all succumbed to their fatigue. “Simon,” Jesus had said to him after the first time, “are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:37,38).

At numerous points the Bible warns us that when we sign up to follow Jesus we are, whether we like it or not, engaging in a spiritual battle. As we read in Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). Satan desires nothing more than to bring us down, to fall into the traps he sets around us, to make us believe the lies that call into doubt God’s good purposes for us. So it is that the life of discipleship is one of vigilance: of having our ears attuned to the voice of God, our minds infused with the word of God, our hearts inflamed by the Spirit of God, our eyes focused on the Son of God.

“Simon, Simon,” Jesus had warned Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31,32). May we take Peter’s words, learned through the crucible of long Christian experience, to heart today. As we walk the path of discipleship, may we be humble, prayerful and watchful—and (in Peter’s words) may the God of all grace himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.

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