In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
"Simon, Simon!" Jesus warned, "Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren." (Lk 22:31) With those few words Jesus summed up the life of Simon Peter, the life of every saint, the life of us all. Like all of us, Simon was a man who could get it right, but who also could get it so very wrong.
Now, having arrived at the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks Simon and his brothers to get it right, and He begins by asking, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" In other words, what was the word on the streets? The word on the dusty streets of first century Palestine was very much like the word on the fast lanes of today: Jesus of Nazareth is the most extraordinary and influential man in the history of the world. That was the word in Jesus' day, and it's the word today. Some saw him as the reincarnation of Elijah, or John the Baptizer. No small compliment, for they were the greatest prophets. Jewish rabbis have always welcomed Jesus into their rabbinic fraternity. Their only problem is that you see Him as the Son of God and their missed messiah. Mohammed said that he was a great prophet in the line of Abraham and Moses, and gladly added his name to the list. Communists claimed Jesus as their own; a social revolutionary who cared for the downtrodden.
Of course, we shake our heads, for in spite of the compliments, they've got it all wrong. They've merely made a Jesus of their own fashioning. That was certainly true several years ago when a group of scholars met in what was called the "Jesus Seminar." The purpose of this gathering was to determine the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Through an elaborate system of votes they attempted to determine if Jesus really did say all the things attributed him. Again you shake your heads. They're merely making up a Jesus of their own liking. But don't shake your heads too long or too vigorously, for we also like to stuff this ballot box. We want the Jesus of our own liking, the convenient Jesus. A Jesus who, like a lucky charm, is pulled from pocket or purse when we need Him to quickly do something for us, but who is put away when our tongues wag, or our minds wander, or our tempers flair. In my moments of delicious self-pity, or when my righteous indignation rages, I do not like to pass by the crucifix in the chancel, or a picture of the Savior on a wall, for they remind me of how wrong this "quality time" with my flesh really is.
In those uncomfortable moments Jesus becomes extremely inconvenient, and He has every intention to be inconvenient, inconvenient to the flesh. He intends to throttle and kill the flesh every day through our baptism. You see, Jesus is not interested in placating our flesh, but appalling our flesh. He is not interested in getting on our good side by granting our every request, but by giving us what is best even if the flesh bitterly complains. He is not interested in pleasing us, but rather in saving us. He is not interested in our version of Jesus, but in being the real Jesus for us. He is not interested in the high life, but true life through daily death. This is the way of the cross.
That was the purpose of Jesus' question: "But who do you say I am?" Now Simon, who could get it so very wrong, gets it very right. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." Simon had gotten the words of his creed exactly right, and getting theological words right is very important. But Simon could hardly have understood what his creed meant for Jesus and for him. Jesus does not leave Simon in suspense. We read next, "From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day." To that Simon said, "Lord, this shall not happen to you!" To that Jesus said, "Get behind Me, Satan! ...you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."
Simon would have been content to walk the dusty streets of Palestine with Jesus forever. But Jesus' road led to a terminal point, to a cross. Simon, you see, was locked in a prison, and all of us with him. It is a prison infinitely more hellish and gruesome than the one from which Simon escaped, as we heard this morning. (Acts 12:1-12) It is the prison house of Hell. We are born into this world as the slaves of Satan, doomed to die eternally in the dungeon made for the devil and his angels. Only Jesus can help. He is the key, the Key of David, as we heard in the Old Testament prophecy. (Isaiah 22:20-23) Only He can unlock the gates of Hell. Only Jesus can pay the ransom price of His holy precious blood and His innocent sufferings and death. He redeems us from the fate we deserve for our blasphemy of making up our own Jesus, or our disappointment with the Jesus we have. Jesus is our sainthood, for we are washed in his blood in Holy Baptism; and as His saints we are invited to His heavenly feast, where with angels and archangels we laud and magnify His glorious name!
Simon, Son of Jonah, had gotten it right, though he only now was beginning to understand what his words meant. Just as the Jonah of old was plunged deep into the sea, so the new Jonah would be plunged into hellish death. Just as the Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the new Jonah would be three days in the tomb. As Jonah came forth from the fish, so the new Jonah would rise triumphantly from the grave. As Jonah took up the task before him, though reluctantly, the new Jonah has taken up His reign. As Jonah was saved by being plunged deep into the water, so we, plunged deep into water and the Word, emerge redeemed, to serve God in righteousness and purity. Here is the legacy of Peter and Paul, for whom this day is set aside. It is a day for thanking God for the grace shown them. The first denied the Lord of the Church, and the second persecuted the Church of the Lord. If Christ's blood in Holy Baptism avails for them, then it avails for us. If they are invited to His table, we are invited. If Christ can employ them in His service, then He can use us. If Jesus can rescue them from imprisonments, tormentors, perils of nature, death, and from the lion's mouth, then our prayers for help are not in vain.
Yet, there is another part of the legacy of these saints. Although Simon's miraculous release from prison is a satisfying end to the story, and though we can all point to God's gracious dealings in our lives, there was an imprisonment from which neither Peter nor Paul escaped. Jesus prophesied of this when He told Peter that one day men would lead him where he didn't want to go, thus signifying the type of death he would die. We have a record of Paul's impending death in his second letter to Timothy. In this letter, with his life ebbing away in prison, Paul resigns himself to death. Peter, tradition has it, met death through crucifixion, but so that no one would compare his death to Christ's, he insisted that he be crucified upside down.
The world and our flesh view this with disbelief. Here are men who did more for the church than all of us in our combined lives. The flesh cries out, "Is this any way to reward faithful service?" Indeed, it is. Peter and Paul embraced death as it embraced them. Yes, death is a penalty for our sinfulness, but Jesus' death sanctifies the deaths of His saints. One need not fear meeting the Maker if Jesus has become your sin and you His righteousness. Peter and Paul, you see, had a great Gospel and Resurrection to die into.
Here is the other legacy of these saints of God. God can rescue us from trouble by removing it, or He can give us a godly resignation to accept it and benefit by it. A time may come when there is no way out of the prison you find yourself in. Life will remain pretty much the way it is, even though your flesh detests it. When that time comes, may you pray for the grace of godly resignation, and may the godly resignation of Peter and Paul be your inspiration.
I am reminded of another personage from history, another famous prisoner, but in his failure to be resigned to his fate he stands out in stark contrast to Peter and Paul. It is Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was imprisoned because the peace of the world demanded it. Peter and Paul were imprisoned because they sought to bring the world the peace which passes all understanding. At his end Napoleon wondered if anyone still loved him. Peter and Paul loved all men. Bonaparte spilled rivers of blood from the Pyrenees to Moscow. The only blood which Peter and Paul spilled was that which came from their own veins for the sake of Christ. Napoleon had devastated countless towns, homes, and lives. When Peter and Paul entered a home, these men of peace brought the peace of Christ. It was in this peace that these men lived and died. May God grant us this peace in life and in the hour of death.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.