Simon Peter: A journey from fear to faith
Hespeler, 12 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 16:13-23, Matthew 14:22-33, Psalm 23
ear: there is not a single person here who has not felt it, struggled with it and conquered it in some area of your life. Fear is a part of life. As a matter of fact, it is often a very helpful and even a necessary part of life. If it is fear of what might happen that keeps you from jumping into the tiger cage at the zoo or running out into traffic, then it is probably a good thing and even a kind of wisdom. But that is not the whole story that we need to tell about fear.
I would like to suggest to you today that fear can be a major sinful influence in a person’s life. I am not talking here about the normal everyday fear that we all experience and that is often useful and can make us wise. I am talking about what happens when fear becomes a central, destructive and driving force in somebody’s life.
I’m talking about a fear that lies deep down at the root of a person’s
life and manages to infect just about everything about how they see and
interact with the world. When people are driven by fear, you have a problem and
it is a sin problem.
The church has traditionally recognized seven root sins that can infect a person’s life. The seven deadly sins are anger, pride envy, gluttony, greed, lust and sloth. I don’t know if you have realized this but over the past few weeks we have been working our way through that list trying to give a new perspective on an old concept. But I have added two more to that classical list of sins. A few weeks ago we added deceit to that list and today I want to add fear.
I do not believe that this is true for everyone, but there are people for whom fear is a powerful and distorting energy in their life. They are so governed by fear that they will tend to act in certain unhealthy ways. They crave safety and security so strongly that they will cling to just about anything that will offer it to them.
These people, for example, are great supporters of authorities and institutions. They look to authorities – government, civic, church or otherwise – to offer them safety. They have much the same attitude towards laws, rules and regulations. They are great supporters, in fact, of anything that maintains order because that makes them feel safer. And this, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Security is a good goal, but it is not the only one.
One problem that occurs particularly when large parts of a society become driven by fear is that people will just latch onto the most powerful authority figure that they can find hoping that it can save them. That is how tyrants gain power. It was the kind of thing that happened in Germany and Italy in the 1930’s as marginal people (like, for example, the Jews) were portrayed as people to be afraid of and the society’s response was to give unchecked power to people like Hitler and Mussolini. As you may have heard, it did not end well.
So this powerful motivating fear can have devastating effects on a society but it can also be pretty devastating on a personal level as well. People who are controlled by fear in this way often see the power of fear disrupting their course through life. They set out on a course of studies or a career path, but at some point they panic and are afraid that they won’t be successful and they drop out. Many will do this several times and continually regret what they see as their failures.
Their fear also often makes them look on others with suspicion. They hesitate to trust them and often talk themselves into believing that others are thinking and saying all kinds of bad things about them even when it is not true. This, as you can imagine, can cause many problems in their relationships.
You shouldn’t necessarily see these people as always completely paralyzed by their fears. That can happen, of course, but you can also see people who go to almost the opposite extreme. They become daredevils. They reject that deep internal fear by intentionally putting themselves in situations where they are in danger. This can become compulsive and, in the worst cases, extremely dangerous, though it can certainly feel pretty exciting until the paralyzing fear returns with a vengeance and at which point they will shut down. So the issue with these people is not that they are stopped by fear so much as they are controlled by fear.
You probably know people like this – people whose lives are controlled by their fears. They are actually a fairly common type in our society. And I don’t want you to think that I am here to badmouth such people. They are, in fact, wonderful people in so many ways. You know how I know? Because Jesus chose one of them for a key leadership role in the church.
Look at the trials and the ups and down of a disciple named Simon whom Jesus called Peter. He demonstrates all of characteristics of the kind of person I have been talking about. For example, think of the time when Jesus was asking his disciples what people were saying about him. The disciples, I think, were just joking around. “I heard someone say you were a prophet,” one of them said. “I heard you were Elijah” said another and then someone else said, “Get this: I heard someone say that you were John the Baptist come back to life.” I think that they all thought it was kind of hilarious.
But then, all of a sudden, Simon speaks up and he doesn’t think that it is a joke. He is all serious and he says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Now wait a minute, Simon, what are you all uptight about? Well, I’ll tell you what. This was serious for Simon because he was someone who was motivated by fear and the need for security. This was serious because he needed Jesus to be the ultimate authority figure and he couldn’t think of a more authoritative title than messiah.
Now Simon was right, of course; Jesus was indeed God’s anointed one. Jesus praised Simon for knowing it and having the courage to say it. But just because Simon was right about who Jesus was doesn’t mean that he was approaching the question as he should. Clearly Simon was clinging to that title of messiah because it represented, for him, a figure of great power and authority.
But when Jesus went on from there to explain that, from his point of view, being messiah wasn’t really about having lots of power and authority but rather about being rejected and suffering and dying, Simon got really mad because, as far as he was concerned, what was the point of having a messiah if he wasn’t going to take over and get everything under control. This is a typical reaction of someone who craves security and is motivated by fear, they will latch onto any potential authority figure as long as they project strength and power but are the first to rebel when they show any weakness.
Simon Peter’s response to the fear that he feels inside is not usually to run and hide however. He is of the type that fights against the fear by living on the edge and becoming a bit of a daredevil. For example, when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane and the authorities came to arrest him, all of the disciples, I am sure, were terrified, but only Simon Peter (according to the Gospel of John) was motivated by his fear to do a very foolish thing by grabbing a sword and cutting someone’s ear off. He was also the only one who put himself in the very dangerous position of following Jesus and staying close by while he was on trial at the High Priest’s palace.
These are the kinds of overreactions to their fearfulness that people like Peter will often make. And it will often get them into trouble, as it did for Peter, as people began to ask him uncomfortable questions about who he was and why he was there until, in this mounting fear (and to his everlasting sorrow), he ended up denying Christ three times.
But perhaps the clearest example of his fear at work is in the account of Simon Peter and Jesus out on the Sea of Galilee. It is another situation where everyone is terrified. “When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea,” it says, “they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.” They are all afraid but Peter is the one who has an over-the-top reaction to his fear. Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter may be attempting to defy his own fears but he soon finds that they are overwhelming. “When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and [began] to sink.” No matter what he does, Peter cannot escape the power that controls him. He defiantly tries to master it by the sheer force of his will, but in the end it is about to undo him. This the pattern that people controlled by their fear go through again and again on their way through life.
So we have, in Simon Peter, a perfect example of a person for whom fear is a powerful root sin – something that infects his life with a controlling and deforming power. I have known a number of people who share that with Peter – a deep hunger for security and a controlling fear. They are people who often struggle because of their makeup, but I think that is wonderful how Jesus, throughout the gospel story, deals with Peter and helps him become the man that went on to do such great things in Jesus’ name. It is the work, I believe, that Jesus wants to do in the life of all people like Peter.
First of all, I would note that Jesus absolutely values Simon Peter for the man that he is. When Peter spoke up in front of the others and declared that Jesus was the messiah, I am sure that Jesus understood that he was speaking out of his insecurity and was looking for an authority figure of the type that Jesus was not interested in being. Nevertheless, Jesus does not only celebrate Simon’s correct answer, he also celebrates the man who gave the answer. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” he says. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
By giving Simon the nickname Peter (which means rock) Jesus is doing more than honouring Simon’s insightful answer. He is recognizing that the man will make an excellent leader – the kind of solid foundation that you can build a church on – because of who he is. In particular, Peter’s life has given him a deep respect for authorities and power structures that operate in the interest of the people. His own fear has given him this character trait but Jesus is announcing that God can use it to accomplish much good in the world.
So that is one way in which Jesus helps Peter. The second way is particularly on view in the story set during the crossing of the lake. When we last left Peter there, he was defying his own fear to step out of the fishing boat in order to pretend he wasn’t afraid to. Once he left that boat however, his fear began to overrule his recklessness and he panicked at the sight of the wind and the waves.
But Jesus responded to who Peter was in that moment by reaching out in care and compassion. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This is Jesus teaching Peter in that moment what he needed most of all, for Jesus knew that victory over the power of fear can only come through faith – by placing your trust wisely.
Jesus taught Peter well. He never forgot the fear that he felt inside, but he went on to live a life of extraordinary courage and faith. In the end, it is said, when a persecution broke out in Rome where he was staying, Peter could have run away but he didn’t, he turned back and chose to be crucified like his master (though, according to the legend that grew up, he chose to be crucified upside down in his own personal tribute to Christ.
Peter found his courage because people like him – people who mature in faith and understand their fears – have that ability. Their courage, when summoned, can be extraordinary – more than the rest of us can often muster. This is one of their gifts. So never underestimate what a person ruled by fear can become under the teaching of Christ.
God does wonderful things in the lives of those who will trust him. He did it for Peter, he can do it for anyone who struggles under the control of their fear. Thanks be to God for such transforming love!