Sunday, August 24, 2008

Peter Gets the Job

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 24, 2008: The Baptism of Matthew Patrick Maurer

Year A: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Matthew 16:13-20

Peter Gets the Job

I know some of you have had the experience of hiring people. As unpleasant as it is to interview for a job, I think it’s even more difficult to be on the other side – deciding which candidate is best for the job. No matter how carefully you interview people, you can still make the wrong choice. You can still end up getting burned.

I experienced that a little when I was the History Department chairperson at St. Peter’s Prep. I would interview people for positions in the department and often the candidates would dazzle me in the interview. They said – and seemed like – they were passionate about teaching, creative in the classroom, committed to young people. And sometimes that turned out to be real. But in other cases later I’d find myself sitting in their boring classes, wondering what happened to that passionate, creative person? It’s hard to know for sure if we are hiring the right person. It’s hard to know if the right person is getting the job.

But, in the case of the disciples, for better or for worse, Jesus knew exactly what he was getting. Sometimes I love how so often the disciples provide a kind of unintentional comic relief in the New Testament. The disciples usually don’t understand what’s going on; they ask stupid questions; and often they drive Jesus to exasperation.

In Mathew’s gospel, just before the passage we just heard, there’s a great example of the disciples’ unintentional comedy routine.

Jesus is still in the middle of his dispute with the Jewish religious leaders that we talked about last week when he says to the disciples in all seriousness: “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” I imagine the disciples blinking and staring blankly at Jesus. Or maybe they stand there and their eyes shift nervously side to side. Matthew then writes about the disciples, “They said to one another ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’

Jesus hears this and lets them have it. I imagine him slapping his forehead or covering his face with his hands. “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not talking about bread?”

In my imagination I can see the disciples looking down at the ground – embarrassed and sad that they had let down Jesus again. But also still confused, scratching their heads – what is Jesus talking about? “You ask him.” “I’m not going to ask.” You ask.” But no one has the courage to speak up now.

So, yes, the unintentional comedy act of the disciples is funny. Jesus, of course, doesn’t seem to find it very funny – more often he’s just disappointed and exasperated. And maybe we shouldn’t find the foibles of the disciples too funny either – since the disciples are really stand-ins for us. Just like them we don’t always get what Jesus is talking about. And just like them we make big mistakes.

And out of all the disciples the biggest bumbler – the one who usually doesn’t seem to really get it – is Peter. I bet many of you have a soft spot for Peter. He’s a lovable character, all heart, sincere. He’s a working man – think of all those long hours out there on the boat, hauling in the nets, reeking of fish, always living on the edge. If the catch isn’t good he won’t be able to provide for himself and those who depend on him.

And, Peter, this seemingly simple fisherman, throws his lot in with Jesus. And Jesus knows all about Peter’s flaws and weaknesses and yet Jesus chooses Peter to be the leader of the disciples. Peter gets the job. Peter’s there at the big moments, like the Transfiguration. He’s often the spokesman for the other disciples. His name appears first on lists of the disciples.

And, yet, Peter gets a lot wrong. Despite his special position usually Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Like the others he takes Jesus literally, doesn’t get what the parables are about.

And Peter doesn’t just get things wrong. Peter does wrong things. Near the end of Jesus’ life Peter can’t even stay awake to keep Jesus company in the garden. Worse than that, Peter deserts Jesus in his greatest time of need – he’s nowhere to be found as Jesus hangs in agony on the cross.

And worst of all, as Jesus predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times to save his own skin.

Jesus knows all about Peter and yet Peter still gets the job. Jesus knows that Peter can be dense. Jesus knows that Peter can be a coward. Jesus knows that Peter is capable of betrayal – is capable of evil – and yet Peter gets the job.

The sad fact is that all of us can be dense, all of us can be cowards, and all of us are capable of evil – betrayals of God and one another, betrayals both large and small. I don’t know if any of you caught Rick Warren’s interviews last week of Barack Obama and John McCain. I didn’t see them myself but I’ve been reading about them and in particular the questions that Warren – pastor of a well-known megachurch and author of The Purpose Driven Life – asked about evil. He asked the candidates if evil exists and, if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

An interesting question and it provoked very different answers from the candidates. But as I’ve thought about it I wonder about the premise of the question. Warren seems to assume that if evil exists it exists out there somewhere. And evil is out there. But, unfortunately, evil also exists in our hearts, just as it existed in Peter’s heart.

Jesus knows all about Peter and yet Peter still gets the job.


Peter gets the job because Peter is open enough to God to get the big thing right. No matter is other mistakes – both past and present – Peter gets the big thing right. No matter the evil that exists in his heart – Peter gets the big thing right.

When Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter is open enough to God that he gets it. Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Despite all his bumbling and mistakes and betrayals Peter gets the big thing right. Peter recognized who Jesus is. And so Peter gets the job – a job much bigger than I’m sure he ever bargained for.

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

And here this morning, on behalf of Matthew Patrick, his parents Rob and Cheryl are open enough to God to get the big thing right. On behalf of their son they are saying to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And all of us gathered here, despite our own faults and imperfections, our bumbling and our betrayals, we have the chance to be open enough to God to once again to get the big thing right. As we say these prayers, as we renew our own Baptismal Covenant, as we pray for Matthew Patrick as he begins his Christian life, really we are like Peter. We are getting the big thing right. In front of everyone we are saying to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”