The Gospel According to the Life of Peter

Please join us in an online worship service on May 5 (Sunday) at 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM (Tokyo Time). Our speaker this Sunday will be Rev. Tim Boyle. The liturgist is Steve Eskildsen; our organist is Kazuko Sacon; and the slides were prepared by Misae Urata.

Sermon Title: The Gospel According to the Life of Peter – (Transcript attached below.)

Old Testament Reading: Ps 145:1-12

New Testament Reading: Luke 5:1-11

Hymns: Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken — Ah, the Look in Jesus’ Eye (from Japanese hymn “Shu no Hitomi”), Amazing Grace

The Gospel According to the Life of Peter (Transcript below)

Text: Luke 5:1-11

The last three zoom messages I’ve given at West Tokyo Union Church have been about what we can learn about God’s message to us from the lives of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so the next in line would be John if I did them in order.  But instead, today, I want to focus on Peter, the disciple Jesus chose to be his chief apostle. As a jumping off point for what we can learn from the life of Peter, I’m going to refer to a book written in 1969 by a man with the last name Peter.  Laurence Peter was his name, and he entitled his book “The Peter Principle.”  It’s a book about how organizations operate, and this “Peter Principle” that is described in the book is formulated as follows: “People are promoted in an organization to the level of their incompetence.”  In other words, when a person does well in one job, he tends to be promoted to a higher level, until the job becomes something he can’t handle well, at which level he then gets stuck.  Mr. Peter also points out that because of seniority and tenure, a person’s promotion is not always based on talent and expertise.  The book was no doubt meant to be satire, but we’ve all seen enough examples of this “Peter Principle” to know that there is some truth to it. 

Incidentally, this same Laurence Peter wrote another book entitled “Why Things Go Wrong” in which he provides even more examples of the “Peter Principle.”  My favorites in that book are the public laws illustrating that principle.  For instance, according to Mr. Peter, there was, at least when he wrote the book, a law in Danville, Pennsylvania that stated that to make sure all fire hydrants were in working order, they must be checked 1 hour before a fire!  Hmmm!  And in Seattle, there was a law on the books that stated that it is unlawful to carry a concealed weapon that is more than six feet long.  It is not only unlawful; it is also rather difficult to pull off!  How could you conceal a six-foot-long weapon on your body?  Another was that in Los Angeles, there was still a law on the books that stated that it is unlawful to shoot jackrabbits from the back of a streetcar!  I wonder when the last time was that law was used!  I’m sure that you could find good examples of such silly laws in countries all over the world as well.  Mr. Peter’s thesis, of course, is that incompetence is still with us in full bloom.  Another writer once said that stupidity did not give way to science and technology; it just progressed right along with science and technology.

Now, what these theories are telling us is that there is an innate imperfection in human nature.  We can’t get rid of it.  No matter how high we climb in life, we take that same human nature right along with us.  We have the ability to learn from our mistakes, that’s true.  But it is obvious that we do not have the ability to avoid making new mistakes.  

One thing that I like about the Bible is its realism about that.  The pages of the Bible are filled with people who have to live with their accumulated past mistakes.  Isaiah, when he was confronted by the vision in the temple, said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”  Now, that is not just morbid self-belittling.  It’s honesty about the human condition.  It says that when we measure ourselves against the highest that we know — when we stand before almighty God — we must confess, “I am not worthy.”

The Bible is filled with people like Isaiah.  They are real people, and we recognize them in those around us.  They are people who are disarmingly honest about the human condition.  My favorite of all is Peter.  Good old Peter, whose portrait is drawn more fully and more honestly that perhaps anyone else in the New Testament.  That portrait begins in Luke 5, our text, where Jesus calls him to be his disciple.

Now if anyone is a good example of the “Peter Principle,” it is this other man named Peter, Saint Peter himself.  He rises quickly in the organization of the early church, and he takes his incompetence with him all the way to the top.  It’s amazing the way that they tell the story of Peter in the New Testament.  Because the temptation, it seems to me, must have certainly been there to rewrite the story — to edit it and take out all those embarrassing moments and events in Peter’s life; you know, the way that biographers do with national heroes, so as to put them in the best light possible.  That must have been a strong temptation.  But the New Testament writers didn’t do that.  They showed Peter bungling his way all the way to the top. 

I hope you can appreciate what Peter meant to the Church in that first century.  You see, the Lord himself appointed Peter to be the leader of the Church.  He said to Peter, “You are Peter — Petros — The Rock, upon which I will build my Church.”  His name was Simon before this.  Jesus gave him his new name, and when Peter assumed his new position as chief apostle after the Resurrection and Pentecost, the Church venerated him because he was seen as the primary representative of Christ.  He was the nearest thing that they could see to Christ in the flesh.  We know nothing like that in our own experience.  We can only imagine what it was like to be in that first century church.  For one thing, there weren’t any dedicated church buildings.  You met in somebody’s home — if you were lucky — or in hidden away places such as the catacombs under the streets of Rome — secretly, because it was against the law to be a Christian. 

Now, suppose the word comes to you that Peter himself is coming for a visit (and we know that he did visit many churches), and that he is going to tell your group stories about his experiences with the Lord.  Can you imagine what it would mean to be a part of that — to know that Peter himself was coming?  It would mean that you would be able to get as close to Christ in the flesh as you could ever possibly get.  It would be a truly holy moment in your life.   When Peter visited these churches, he would tell stories about his life with the Lord — the very same stories that you and I read in the gospels.  They are stories in which he never seems to quite get it right.  He is a bumbling, sinful human being just like the rest of us.  His power is not in his perfection, but in his humility.  God used him not because he was without sin, but because he could confess his sin.

They must have asked him, “Peter, tell us about the time you first met Jesus.”  And he told them this story, “I was a fisherman out on the Sea of Galilee, and we were having a terrible day — like none we had ever had before.  We had no luck at all.  We had been out there all night and when we called it quits to come back to shore, we hadn’t caught even a single fish.  It was as though something had directed all the fish to stay away from our boat.  We were washing our nets dejectedly there by the boats when I looked up and saw him coming towards us.  There were people all around him, and they were crowding in trying to get closer to him.  Finally, he worked his way over to my boat and climbed in asking me to push off from the shore a bit.  So, I pushed the boat out a few feet from the shore.  He then stood there in the boat for a while teaching the people many beautiful things, while we all listened intently.  When he had finished, he told us to move out into the deep water, saying, ‘Now, I’ll show you where the fish are.’  Well, you can imagine how I felt at that point — someone who obviously was not a fisherman coming up to a professional like myself to tell me where the fish were.  But I swallowed my pride, and I did as he asked.  We went over to the area he directed us to, and at his command, we put down our nets again — those ones we had just taken the trouble to clean.  And all of a sudden, there were so many fish caught in our nets, we had to call over another boat to help.  We hauled in so many fish that both of our boats were to the point that we almost sank.  When I paused to figure out what had happened, I instinctively fell to my knees and said, “Depart from me, O Lord! For I am a sinful man.”  For I knew, like Isaiah of old, that I was in the presence of God.  And do you know what he did?  He did the same thing that God did to Isaiah; He called me to a great mission.  He said that he wanted to use me — even me!  And to this day, I don’t know why he did it.  For I was then, as I still am now, totally unworthy.  But when we got back to shore, we gave the fish away, left our boats and nets on the shore and followed him.”  

Now that story, or something like it, is what Peter told wherever he went.  It’s the story he told Mark, who then wrote down Peter’s memoirs, which is why we have it today as the “Gospel According to Mark.”  Those early Christians cherished those stories, because they realized that those stories were something that everybody should hear so that we would know that the good news is not about what we can do, but about what God can do with us and through us and in us.  It is not about our perfection; it is not about our power; it is not about our virtue; it’s about God’s grace in our lives!  That’s the other “Peter Principle” — what we could call the “Saint Peter Principle.”  Incompetence, honestly confessed, is overcome by grace.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can so identify with Peter — because he demonstrates that sincerity and good intentions don’t always result in success.  You know, there was nobody with better intentions than Peter.  Nobody!  Nobody was more sincere than Peter.  He was just a big “teddy-bear” of a man who was always trying to do the right thing, but who somehow, more often than not, managed to fall flat on his face.  It was as if there was a struggle going on inside of him between the good side of him and the bad side of him, and the good side didn’t always win.  “I do not do the good that I want to do, but the evil that I do not want is what I end up doing.”  It was not Peter who said that.  It was St. Paul.  But it could have been Peter, and it could have been you or me.  Do you remember the story of Peter trying to walk on the water?  He sank like a rock.  He told that story about himself too.  I can just picture him telling it with a pun about his name, Peter, the rock.  “I sank just like my name, like a rock!”

Now the meaning of it was this: “I can preach a good sermon about faith, about how if you keep your eyes upon Jesus, you’re not going to sink.  But when it comes to putting it in practice — when you’re called to step out of the safety of the boat and put your trust in the promises of Jesus, well that is all together a different matter!”

Then he told them about the days leading up to the crucifixion.  He told them about how Jesus had told them beforehand that he was going to be arrested and put to death on a cross.  Peter continued, saying that he told Jesus, “I’ll stay with you until the bitter end.  I’ll never forsake you.”  And, you know, he could have told the story that way, to say that he really had done that.  Nobody would have questioned it!  But he didn’t tell it that way.  Likewise, he could have told it by saying, “At least I stayed with him longer than any of the other disciples!”  But he didn’t tell it that way either.  He told it honestly.  “Three times, I was asked if I was a follower of Jesus, and three times, I said ‘No! I don’t even know him!’  I wanted to do the right thing, but when the moment of truth came, I just didn’t have the power in me to do it.”

Now, why would Peter tell all those unflattering stories, and why would Mark and the other gospel writers remember and record them?  There is only one reason.  It’s because Peter knew that what God had done through him was not something that came about because of his own strength and virtue.  No, it had come about by God’s grace alone.  You see, that is the real “Peter Principle.”  It’s the “Saint Peter Principle.”  Our incompetence — even our sinfulness, honestly confessed — is overcome by God’s grace.  It’s as if our problem in this life is not our incompetence, but our efforts to conceal it. 

In thinking about my own life and the lives of many of my colleagues in the professional ministry that I know something about, I think that when we are really honest, we know that we can never really live up to the expectations that are placed upon us.  We don’t have to just look at such dramatic and embarrassing failures we’ve seen during the last few decades on the American religious scene.  I won’t mention names, but every few years, it seems, some high-profile TV preacher ends up in a big scandal of some sort.  As much as I would want to distance myself from some parts of their theological belief system, and particularly from their abuse of power and their follower’s trust, still, I recognize them as simply fellow human beings who are subject to temptations and to poor judgment, just as you and I are.  

I know what Isaiah was talking about when he said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”  And that doesn’t just mean that I sometimes use inappropriate language when I get mad.  I’ll readily confess that that is true.  I do occasionally let a few slip out.  Well, all right, perhaps more than just “occasionally.”  When Isaiah used those words, he was referring to his whole being.  In the symbolism of Isaiah, when the angel touched Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal from the altar, he said, “This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven.”  Isaiah knew he was unworthy, and so do we when we come face to face with the Holy.

I am reminded of a description of a self-sufficient man, proud of his independence and his self-sufficiency.  He always liked to walk through the park on a Sunday afternoon immaculately dressed, so that people would see him.  He would walk along pompously with an air of superiority, head held high, swinging his cane to show off.  He would be thinking about how successful he had been and about how he deserved everybody’s respect.  And at precisely that moment, he trips on a rock and falls flat on his face.  He gets up as quickly as he can, dusting off his clothes and looking around anxiously to see if anyone was watching.  And then, he resumes his strutting promenade.

Now, I have never done it quite that way, as anybody who knows me knows that I never, if at all possible, dress up immaculately.  But, in other ways, the putting on of a false front and worrying that somebody might see me, as it were, “trip on a rock and fall flat on my face” — in other words, to make a fool out of myself: that I can relate to.  Among the most basic of all human needs is the desire to have self-esteem, or self-respect.  In one way or another, we all strive to gain this sense of self-esteem and respect for oneself, but as any parent can tell you, it is very fragile and easily broken.  This is especially so when we look to others for our self-esteem, which seems to come so naturally to each of us.  

Those people we know who are always putting on a show; they are in reality making that thing, be it their college degree or whatever, an important part of their self-respect.  They desperately try to force other people to respect them so that their own low self-esteem is bolstered up.  And when our self-esteem is dependent on what others think of us at the moment, it becomes of utmost importance for us to try to hide our vulnerability and any weaknesses we think we might have.  We become afraid to show our real selves for fear that we might not be accepted, and thus, we have to put on a false front.

You’ll notice, however, how different that is from Peter.  His self-esteem certainly did not come from his educational background, for he had none.  And it didn’t come from his being recognized as a man of outstanding leadership and speaking ability who always had good judgment, for that wasn’t true either.  In fact, we also have recorded in Acts one incident several years after he had become the early church’s chief apostle, where Peter was strongly reprimanded by Paul for allowing his Jewish ethnic prejudices to take over.  Good old Peter was wrong again, and he admitted it.  

No, Peter’s self-esteem was not dependent upon what other people thought of him — that they would think of him as a sort of superman with special qualities no one else had.  His self-esteem was based in the fact that he had been chosen by Jesus in spite of all of his shortcomings, and that God’s grace overcame all of his failings.  In fact, God often used those very weaknesses and failures for the greater good.  Peter had discovered the paradox of grace — that it is when we confess our weakness that we become strong.  This is what explained what happened in Peter’s life.  It explains why Peter had so much power when he was so human.

In the history of the Church, many others have also made this same discovery.  The Reformation itself was based in this very discovery by Martin Luther.  He described it in the language of sin and guilt by saying that the more he strived to lead a sinless life of perfection the more guilty he felt, and the more powerless he became.  It was like being a performer who is afraid of making a mistake, and that fear then paralyzes him so that he can’t do anything right.  (And I can certainly relate to that one too!)  But then Luther finally got the point of the gospel through reading Paul, just as John Wesley then made that same discovery through hearing Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans being read.  They saw that faith means trusting God.  For them, it meant that God had forgiven them — he really had.  And so, you don’t have to pretend!  You can be honest about who you are.  You can trust that you can step out from the security of the boat, or you can come out from behind all the defenses you have built up around your life, and when you do, you won’t sink.  You won’t sink, because God is on your side, and He is there with you.  His grace means that it is not all dependent on your own efforts alone to really achieve something in this life.  You can be imperfect, and you can have all the weaknesses and problems in your life, and you will still be able to experience God’s grace.  You see, that’s the “Saint Peter Principle.”  Our limitations and our sins are overcome by God’s grace.  We can’t do everything, and we most certainly can’t do everything well, but we can do our best through the power God gives us.  And grace means that somehow, that’s enough!

I don’t fully understand all of this, but I have certainly experienced it.  If we are faithful at doing the best that we know how, then grace means that there is something that happens that overcomes our limitations.  That is why I trust that as a minister, God can take the words of this less than eloquent speaker and use those words to do something for someone else by His grace.  This is why as a parent and now grandparent I trust that what I have said or what I have failed to say will somehow be overcome by the grace that allows my children and grandchildren to hear what I meant to communicate.  That is why as a human being, I trust that my mistakes in the past will not detract from my life in the future.  By grace, they will be overcome.  In fact, by grace, they can become the very means of appreciating life all the more.

An author by the name of Dame Edith Sitwell once said of William Blake, the famous English painter and poet, “Of course he was cracked!  But that is where the light shown through!”  We are all cracked somewhere.  All of us!  None of us is perfect.  And it is by grace that those flaws don’t ruin our lives; and it is by grace that sometimes, those flaws become the very source of our power — of where the light shines through.  And in the end, when the saints come marching into the kingdom, they will be quite a sight indeed.  Not one of them will be without flaws and cracks.  All of them will have led lives with major shortcomings and problems at one time or another.  But God will have used all of them in one way or another.  

This is what God’s message is to us from the life of Peter.  It’s what we can call the “Saint Peter Principle.”  And when those saints come marching in, Peter will be first in that number.  He was chosen by Jesus to be the first disciple, and he is the prototype that we are to follow.  The rest of the saints following behind him, including ourselves, will be just like him, with many problems that we’ve had to overcome — often some that we never really overcame at all.  But all in that number will have discovered the grace of God, and all will have at some point knelt down and said, “I’m not worthy.”  And from that point on, the fact that they were not perfect didn’t really matter.  It just didn’t matter!  Grace overcame their incompetence!  

That grace is freely available to us all in so many ways, and when it comes to the corporate life of the Church, perhaps it is most deeply symbolized in the Holy Communion.  It doesn’t say so in the gospel stories, of course, but I have a feeling that it was Peter who was the first to actually partake of that first “Last Supper” on the night Jesus was betrayed.  That would have been so like Peter.  Always eager to step forward and lead the way.  But it was also very shortly after that that he fell so badly only to be restored again through grace by the risen Christ a few days later.  So, as we share in that grace poured out for us — whether during a communion service or in the varied ways we minister to each other in the life of this church, let us always remember the example grace played in the life of Peter.  Let us discover anew in our own lives that same grace — that grace revealed in the real “Peter Principle” — the “Saint Peter Principle,” that His grace is available to us to overcome and even use all our shortcomings.  And that grace will see us through to the end, when we join together with the saints of old in that grand march — the one portrayed in that old New Orleans jazz song, “When the saints go marching in.”  Yes, Lord, I do want to be in that number!  And it is by God’s grace alone that you and I will be.  All we have to do is accept the invitation! 

So as our closing prayer, let’s sing “When the saints go marching in” together: “O when the saints go marching in; O when the saints go marching in; O Lord, I want to be in that number; O when the saints go marching in!”


Zoom log in information

ID: 840 9415 4793

PW: 583756

We hope that many of you will be able to come and worship with us!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.