Let us pray: Heavenly Father, whether your way is easy or hard, your word comforting or disturbing, your will welcome or difficult to accept, teach us to listen and to follow faithfully, through Christ our Lord. Amen. In 1967, Laurence Peter published his book called The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. The "Peter principle," as it was called, become something of a standard explanation for problems in business management. It suggested that people tend to get promoted just past their level of competence-in other words, they keep rising in management until they get just a little beyond what they're really capable of doing. And then, of course, they fail. (I personally think it also applies in politics as well.)
We have to wonder if the Peter principle might apply to our own Simon Peter in today's gospel lesson! Just last week we heard Jesus praise him, and call him the rock on which he would build the church. Now in this passage, he messes up so badly that Jesus calls him a stumbling block, and worse!
But of course, Peter is so human, and so representative of all of us disciples! Let's look at this story this morning and see if we can derive our own set of "Peter principles"-- things we can learn by observing and taking to heart what Peter says and does. Peter Principle Number 1: "Don't let it go to your head!" Maybe that's what has happened to Peter. He's gone from a rock to a stumbling block in four verses because he's allowed Jesus' praise of him to go to his head. Jesus has told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem, where he would suffer, be killed, and then be raised from the dead. Peter, the text says, "took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him." Sounds to me like Peter was full of his own importance. "I'm the Rock," he must have thought. "I'm Jesus' chief advisor, his secretary of state, maybe even the vice-messiah! Jesus needs me to tell him what to do!" But the first of our Peter Principles is "Don't let it go to your head." Christians do that! Christians have a way of thinking that they have it all figured out, and no one else does! I read one time about a church that lured inner city children with a promise of free pizza, but then wouldn't give them any pizza unless they submitted to baptism. You don't know whether to laugh or to cry at such misguided arrogance.
But we Christians often think we know the truth. It's a bit complicated, because on the one hand, we do. We have the truth of Christ; we confess, with Peter, that Christ is the Son of the Living God, and we believe that there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved. But we're so quick to take a leap from that point, to the idea that we know the truth about just everything.
Ole Rolvaag's great trilogy about Norwegian immigrants tells the fictional story of Per Hansa and his wife Beret, and the struggles and triumphs of their family. In one of the books, their son Peder faces the transition of the immigrant generation as they become American, and one issue on which there is conflict is language. Peder is thoroughly American, and English is his native tongue, though he speaks and understands Norwegian. His mother, Beret, so heroic in the first novel, has become rather cranky and irritable in the sequel; and when this issue comes up, she is certain that Norwegian people should speak to one another and especially to God in Norwegian. She is incensed when she learns that the pastor has given her son an English Bible. The very idea! How can a Norwegian boy read God's word in an alien tongue? How could a pastor encourage it?
She is so sure she is right! But of course, we can see how misguided this is. Yet don't we often do the same thing? We are so sure we know what God wants, that we'll fight anyone who has a different idea. Jesus' words to Peter are a sharp reply to us: "Get behind me"-- meaning, "Follow me, let me be the leader, let me call the shots. Don't jump to conclusions. Yes, I called you the Rock. Yes, I have taken you as my own. Yes, you are my beloved child. But that doesn't make you always right. Look to me for the truth, follow me. Your faith is strong, but don't let it go to your head."
Now we not only often think we know better than anyone else, we also often think we know better than God. So here's Peter Principle Number Two: "Our ways are not God's ways." Peter illustrates this very well when he says, in response to Jesus' words about suffering and death, "God would never let this happen to you!" The Greek here is difficult to translate, but its sense is that Peter is certain that God would never allow such a thing to happen. But of course, he's wrong. His ways are not God's ways.
So often we try to make God into our own image. We have our opinions, and they may be very good, moral, even godly opinions; but we stumble when we assume that God must think the same as we do. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln often dealt with people whose view of things was a lot more certain than his own. Once a woman told him she was sure the Union would prevail, because God was on their side. After all, this was a fight against the great moral evil of slavery. But Lincoln wasn't quite so sure. "Madame," he replied, "I'm not so concerned whether God is on our side, as whether we are on God's side." He had his finger on an important point. It is much too easy for us to think that we know just how God should do things. More often than not, we turn out to be misguided.
Luther spoke eloquently about this very point. Again and again, he comments in his sermons that if he had been God, he would have done things differently. But always, he points out, God's ways turn out to be the best-even if they are inconceivable to us prideful human beings. Peter's problem here is that he has his own ideas, and even when Jesus directly contradicts him, Peter is sure it must be Jesus who has misunderstood things. So here in his stumbling, we see this second Peter principle: "Our ways are not God's ways." Closely related is Peter Principle Number Three: "Listen to the whole story!" Did you notice something here? In this passage Jesus says he is headed for Jerusalem, where he will suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Jesus has told that familiar passion story in outline, kind of like it does in the Creed: "crucified, died, buried, the third day he rose again from the dead." But what has Peter heard? He hasn't heard the whole thing, has he? He has stopped listening after “suffered and died.” He's missed the part about resurrection! The story Jesus is telling is a story of victory, but Peter has only listened to the part that sounds like defeat.
And how often we stop listening before we hear the good part. We miss the promise! The Christian life, the life of a disciple, is tough. There is suffering. There is cross-bearing. There is death. But there is resurrection--and if we don't keep listening all the way to the end of the story, then we miss the whole point.
Often in life we face discouragement. It is then that we need the third Peter principle: "Listen to the whole story." You cannot, if you follow Christ, escape the cross. But there is more to it. There is a cross, and there is a crown. If we listen long enough to hear about the crown, then the cross doesn't seem quite so daunting or so threatening.
Poor Simon Peter! He learned the hard way, and I suppose that's what we must do as well, most of us. But at least we can read his story and learn these Peter principles: Don't let it go to your head! Our ways are not God's ways! Listen to the whole story!
Let us pray: Almighty God, open our eyes again to your greatness and remind us that your ways are not our ways nor your thoughts our thoughts. So, may we glimpse once more your glory, and, though we do not always understand, may we walk in faith, in Jesus’ name. Amen.