Author: Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
Our relationship to our God is the center of every major religion the human race has ever known. It is the focus point of worship, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, or another religion entirely.
We (as humans) wish to be known by the divine element. It is a potent driving force throughout human history: on every continent, in every age, in nearly every variation. It has led civilizations to tower to the greatest heights, and at other times has been hidden in shadows of mystery and unacceptability.
Histories are written down, sacred texts evolve, and something so small as a word–a name–a designation can reveal the hidden thoughts of a religious community.
One of these words, which is so often taken for granted in the modern Western world, is “Christian.” It’s a household term, so common we don’t really try to define it, and when we do, we often don’t quite get it right.
So, what is a Christian?
Books upon books have been written on this subject. I can guarantee you that if you type in the word to your favorite search engine, you will find disparate opinions and definitions.
(I must admit, I’m a little afraid to see what comes up.)
The term “Christian” is sometimes used interchangeably with “believers of Jesus Christ” (which is clumsier to say). In certain regions of the country, Christians are sometimes described as “Jesus Freaks.” To many, this is an insult. I wear the term like a badge of honor.
But if we look at the word itself, the nine letters strung together, we find a slightly different meaning. More importantly “Christ” + “ian”.
Christ is the translation into Greek of Hebrew Messiah. It is Jesus’s title, his designation, or (as most kids often understand it) his last name.
“Ian” is a diminutive (or roughly translates as “little”).
Placed together in a word, Christian literally means “little Christ.”
Thing is, a “believer in Christ” (as we understand Christians to be) is not the same as a “little Christ” – or, someone who endeavors to be as Christlike as possible in their lives.
The First Disciples From Jesus’s Perspective
What’s absolutely tragic (among other things, of course) about the life of Jesus, is that his disciples, his twelve Chosen, the 10+ men who were arguably the first “little Christs” not only never got the memo, but they didn’t understand the very little that they did know.
From a modern perspective, the disciples could arguably be seen as “just plain daft” (as I like to put it). They had all the puzzle pieces, and yet they couldn’t even figure out they were supposed to try and recreate the picture on the box. They were living with the Son of God, and they asked him the same questions again and again. Jesus rarely gave them a straight answer (he liked his riddles and his parables) but when he did, they just didn’t get it.
I find it easy to empathize with Jesus (which perhaps means I’m full of myself, the jury’s out). The disciples whined, they dined when they should be praying (The Last Supper, anyone?), and they complained. They never got the big picture because they couldn’t see beyond the fact that they were living in Roman-occupied Palestine.
To them, a future that may not involve the Romans was a beautiful fairytale, one to fight for, one to die for, but so far off that it could not be comprehended. The idea that Israel could extend beyond foreign occupation (Roman or otherwise) was (frankly) Biblical. The idea that a faith group born in Israel (now known as Christianity) could take over not over the Empire but the planet … well, it had never happened before. Why would it happen now?
Jesus (on a good day) most likely felt that his followers were more troublesome than the little children he prayed with. His followers, his closest, were so blinded, he doubted they could even get into heaven even if he gave them a stamped entry form.
In many ways, his entourage (and the disciples were an early version of the idea) hindered him more than they helped him. At some point, I can almost guarantee he thought about “firing” more than one of them.
How the Disciples Viewed Themselves
It’s a little difficult at times to say what each disciple was thinking and when they were thinking it. After all, there are twelve of them, and they’re not always mentioned by name. Some, of course, feature more heavily than others, but they’ve all been cast in various supporting roles in the gospels.
Of course, we know that Thomas doubted.
We know that John the Beloved watched Jesus died on the cross.
We know that Peter denied Christ three times before the cock crowed.
Those three examples are the first that comes to mind, the most famous (perhaps) of their reactions and thoughts, and they all occurred after Jesus was arrested for crimes against both the national religion and the occupying state.
… and when the disciples do speak or make themselves known, Jesus is more often than not completely frustrated with them — and, sometimes, outright ignores what they have to say.
Let’s just take a look at Peter in Matthew 16:21-23. For the sake of this mini-sermon, Jesus and his message are not at the center. Let’s instead think of Peter, think of what is going on in his mind, think of why he’s saying what he’s saying.
Who is Simon Peter?
Simon Peter is one of the twelve. He was named Simon, called Peter (and sometimes referred to as “Simon Peter” so everyone knows who exactly Jesus is talking to or about.). He was the brother of Andrew and he was a Fisherman.
He lived a very humble lifestyle.
Growing up in Galilee, he would have spoken a local dialect of Aramaic and possibly Greek. There is nothing to suggest that he was educated in any way, and if he was, it was in the very basics of Hebrew. He might not have been able to read or write very well, if at all.
It is almost certain that Simon Peter would not have the skills or education to walk into a synagogue, pick out a scroll, and preach from it (as Jesus famously did at the beginning of his ministry).
He was humble. He was a working class guy. And we know that he loved Jesus even though the man baffled him on many occasions.
The Well-Meaning Simon Peter
In this passage, Jesus is downright confusing (from an outsider’s perspective). From a reader’s perspective, two thousand years later, he makes sense. The states about Satan getting behind him have been analyzed, reanalyzed, preached upon, and dissected, so that we can basically guess with a decent amount of certainty what Jesus was going on about.
But, for a moment, let’s take ourselves out of the question. Our knowledge of the rest of Jesus’s life doesn’t matter. Our know-how on how Christianity became an international and, indeed, global sensation … doesn’t matter.
Instead it is a guy named Simon Peter with his teacher, Jesus, in their reality of first century Palestine … and nothing else.
If we look at Jesus, he’s being cryptic again (and a bit scary, if you think about it).
Most of us, if we have someone we love and admire (and even if we trust them implicitly) we’ll get pretty scared when this person goes on about their imminent death. We might be even more concerned if there is a political conspiracy etched in this tale (whatever we think of this country, of Russia, the the Ukraine, of China, of Iran, of elsewhere … it can be worrying when someone starts spouting a conspiracy theory and is taking it far too seriously). It makes us wonder if our loved one knows something that we should. It makes us wonder (perhaps to our shame) if our loved one is unreasonably paranoid. Jesus, in this case, even throws in a resurrection … which the average guy isn’t capable of then or now.
Everything Jesus is saying would constitute warning flags.
In modern day America, if people start talking like this in public, they’re scheduled for a visit with a healthcare professional almost immediately and then put on the waiting list at a psychiatrist or a facility.
In certain parts of the world, Jesus’s words would have had him checked into an institution against his wishes, the government stepping in and taking over.
Peter is worried. How could he not be?
If what Jesus says is true, then something horrible is going to happen (public shaming and humiliation, a fake trial with verdict previously decided, torture, and political execution). Never mind the resurrection, think of the suffering before.
If what Jesus says is a figment of his imagination, well, then the Disciples have some serious secret discussions to hold. (Should we take him to another faith healer? Why has John the Baptist been executed? He could have done it! Should we take him back home for his mother’s cooking? Is he a little overworked and just needs an honest vacation?)
Peter seems to believe the first. This could happen but (he reasons) if they know before it comes to pass, they can change it.
He takes Jesus aside and – in the eyes of Jesus – doubts God’s plan and words.
In Simon Peter’s own mind, he’s just trying to save Jesus’s life. In his mind, he’s being a good friend. In his mind, he’s pointing out the obvious.
Admittedly, he’s a bit clumsy about it, not very subtle or diplomatic, and it blows up (quite literally) in his face.
We see Simon Peter pull Jesus aside. We see Jesus exclaim, “Get behind me, Satan!” (believing Peter’s words to be evil if not the work of Satan himself).
But what we don’t see is how Peter then responds. Does he give up? Does he just stare blankly at Jesus? Is his entire brain on freeze and he can’t even be in shock? Does he shrug and move away? Accept it mentally, nod, and continue with his day? Does he trust in Jesus’s judgment or wonder why he (Simon Peter) is even hanging out with Jesus if he’s going to be treated like that?
Frankly, we don’t know what he thinks at these words.
To the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus and his life and his struggles are important, not how everything remotely played out. This is not a teleplay of a soap opera. This is not a sports commentary with every player is accounted for at every second. No, this is the story of Jesus — and Peter (baffled Peter) is not the leading man.
What we do know is that he stays with Jesus.
We do know that he goes to Jerusalem, that he is there at the Last Supper, that he fears for his life and denies Christ, only to repent in the early morning.
We do know that he is considered the leader of the Christian movement after Christ’s death, that he is (historically) the first bishop of Rome.
We know that he is at the pearly gates with the keys to open them.
Peter did not understand much of anything during Jesus’s short ministry here on earth, but he believed and repented and evolved and his faith grew. He was a “work in progress”, but then again – who isn’t?
Would You Have Acted Differently?
In the beginning of this mini sermon, I confessed my belief that the disciples were daft and utterly clueless, but I have the luxury of hindsight. I know Jesus is God the Son because I’ve read the Bible, I know he rose from the dead, and I know that he will come again. I have the benefit of history to fall back on and the disciples (including Peter) only had the benefit of the flimsiest of hope.
But even with the Bible, even with testimonials, sometimes faith just doesn’t seem to be enough. Sometimes our minds (beautiful in their complexity but sometimes too heavily reliant on facts and proof) just won’t believe, won’t accept. Often – especially in times of personal, emotional, or social turbulence – we just give up on God and on Jesus because they don’t appear to be physically present in our lives.
I have spoken to you about the still, small voice. I have urged you to search yourselves, but sometimes life and emotion and our own fragility is too great to overcome.
Today, I ask you to think on Simon, called Peter. Think on this man who knew Jesus when they were both men on this earth. Think on the man who loved Jesus, who followed Jesus, but who was frightened. Peter didn’t understand, he couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying, even though Jesus was physically with him, even though he could physically hear Jesus’s words and thought process.
Simon Peter blundered, but still he remained with Christ. He still served him, ate with him, gave him his friendship… he knew that he could not understand (or he knew that Jesus thought at, at least). He knew that there might be something more. It took him until Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection to realize what this “something” might be.
But the point, at least today, is that Jesus never abandoned him, never turned his back on his friend, even when he was so completely and utterly blind.
If he didn’t do it to Simon Peter then (and even rewarded him), imagine his constancy and his love for you today.