A First Person Sermon (Amanda Hecht)

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 12.58.18 PMOur Northern Seminary cohort was treated to this sermon by Amanda Hecht in the private garden next to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem last week.

[For those interested in reading on Peter, here’s my #1 recommendation: Larry Hurtado, Peter in Early Christianity. #2: Martin Hengel, The Underestimated Apostle. #3: Larry Helyer, The Life and Witness of Peter.]

Now to Amanda.

You have probably heard of me. My name was Cephas/Simon; but Jesus liked to call me Peter – the rock. Which is   laughable, really. Because, if you put together the pieces of my story, I am anything but rock-like. I am  more like the weather on the Sea of Galilee that I know so well, having spent so much of my young life as a fisherman there – unpredictable. Sometimes things go perfectly, and I get it oh so right. But, other times,  sometimes even the very next moment it seems, things flip, and I get it oh so wrong. You know that by the end of my life I was one of the leaders, the pillars, we were sometimes loftily called, of the followers of Jesus, the Christ-ones, the “Christians”, the “little-Christs” that carried on to tell the world about him when he went up into  heaven. And, to be sure, I dedicated everything I had in me to the community of Jesus Christ, just as I had dedicated everything I had in me to Jesus when he walked the earth. The thing is, if you continue to read my story, as much as Peter the Rock has in ways achieved a legendary status as a saint and leader of the church, you will also know that this leader definitely has feet of clay. I was far from perfect; I will be the first to admit it. You have all heard the story of how I denied my Lord, my God, my best friend, when he was on trial, just before he was condemned to die upon that cross. He was on trial inside, and I was outside more concerned with trying to save my own neck. It doesn’t get much worse that than!

And my friends, my fellow-workers for the gospel of Jesus – they know of all my flaws too. And, they wrote it down for the world to see. My friend Mark shows how inept I am. My friend Paul had to correct me, and  sometimes found me shallow and unconvincing. My friend John respected me, but pointed out that he was the  faster runner when we received the news that tomb that had held the body of our Lord was empty. How does that saying go? “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” But, in all truth, I am glad they told the truth about me. Of course, it is hard to see your flaws, your mistakes, the times when you got it wrong, your darkest moments, the things that you regret the most in your life, told for the world to see and dissect, to become the subject of sermons and devotionals and conversations for thousands upon thousands of years to come. Would you like your greatest    failures in life broadcast to the world, even if they also knew of your greatest successes? But I am glad that they      told the truth, because I want everyone out there to know this: “God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”[1] I know this to be true because Jesus called ME. Simon, whom he later renamed Peter. If Jesus can use a man like me to lead his community, if Jesus called a man like me to learn from him and to follow him, if Jesus entrusted the gift of the Holy Spirit to the likes of me (and my friends, who are less dissected, but dear friends with flaws all the same as well), with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth – then nobody    else has any excuses. God wanted me in his family. Jesus asked us to carry on the thing that he had started. And, if God wanted me, my friends, I can guarantee he wants you too.

I can’t say when it all started, not precisely. That day on the Sea of Galilee, was part of it certainly, though that wasn’t the first time I had met Jesus. But one day, Jesus came by my workplace – the shores of the Sea of  Galilee. There, he found me. Again, perhaps? It seemed that Jesus found me a lot throughout my life. Heaven  knows, I needed finding a lot in my life, for I was often lost. And then, one day, there he was, on the shore, with a  crowd around him. They wanted to hear him, to be near him, to learn from him. And so, he looked around, and saw me and my partners. Perhaps the most miserable fishing boats on the lake that day. Our boats were empty, after    having worked our hardest all throughout the night and catching nothing. I can’t explain why he came over to my  boat at that time – the sorriest fisherman on the beach. Was it because he recognized me from when he had  healed my mother-in-law? How I hung around and watched his every move when he was in our village? I don’t  know if he recognized me, but I knew I recognized him. And I was as surprised as anyone when he got into my empty, fish-less boat that morning, and asked if I would put out a little from the shore. But, I did as he asked, and I got a front-row seat that morning, as he sat in my own boat, and began to teach the crowds on the shore.

After Jesus had finished speaking to the crowd, there was just me and him in this big, old, empty boat. You know, the one that I had spent fishing in throughout the night, and not caught anything? With the matching pair belonging to my partners, still on the shore, also empty. And Jesus tells me that I should go to deep water and try letting out my net, to see if there might be a catch. After I had spent the whole night doing just that, to no avail.    Now, Jesus was a miracle worker. A teacher. Clearly, a man of God, with amazing powers, the likes of which I had never seen. But, did he know anything about fishing?

Still, I had seen and heard too much to just dismiss him. I told him about the disappointment of the  previous night fishing. But, then, I added, “but, on your word, I will let out the nets.” And so, I did. And, to my utter amazement, I caught not a couple of fish, not a dozen or so, but I found my net was so full of so many fish that I had to get my partners with their empty boat to come out and help me. We had so many fish that they filled up my boat, and their boat, so full, full to the brim, so that we nearly sank as we brought these fish into shore!

I was amazed. My friends were amazed. Never had we seen anything like this before. We could hardly        believe our eyes. Who was this man? He could heal, he could teach and comfort and cast out demons, and now he knew where to find all these fish – he had bested all of us who had worked our tails off in the boats all night. I was filled with awe, and wonder.

The best way I can describe what happened to me that day, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is to say that I was captivated by Jesus. I was “swept off my feet” if you will. And not just me, but my friends and companions,  John and James – they felt the same way. Hearing Jesus as he taught, seeing Jesus at work, and the fact that he      refused to leave me, even though I felt totally unworthy of having him there – this captivated us. At his word, we    pulled our boats onto shore permanently, left everything and followed Jesus wherever he went.

Now, I have to say, very much has been made about my actions, and the actions of my friends on the          beach that day. We got up and left everything – even though it meant that we were leaving our livelihood, our         families, everything and everyone that we had ever known, to follow Jesus around. If I am very honest with you, I  am not sure that we had really counted the cost at that moment.

There were no shortage of moments when we were completely amazed at the things that Jesus could do, like how he could heal and cast out demons, or the time that he was transfigured on a mountaintop, and I got to    witness it. And there were no shortage of moments that scared us out of our wits – when were caught in storms    that seemed destined to end us, when Jesus was the target of religious authorities and other people in power over us, there were times when the crowds turned against Jesus. On the beach that morning, I knew none of the fear,    none of the worries that I would have. I never knew that following Jesus would lead me here to this very mountain, where I would be asked to watch and pray with my friend, my teacher, my Lord, as great tear drops rolled down his face as he prayed that he would not have to face the trial before him. All I knew was that I was captivated by this  man. The rest of it came later. And there were multiple times on this journey as a follower after Jesus where I could have turned back. But I didn’t. Being a follower of Jesus means that you keep saying ‘yes.’ Yes, I will fish where you tell me to fish. Yes, I will go into the villages on your authority .Yes, I will climb this mountain. Yes, I will stand by you when the authorities turn against you and the crowds go home. Yes, I will let you wash my feet. Yes, I will accept    your forgiveness after I have failed. And, there were times…lots of times, even, when I had to accept forgiveness    and grace so that I could continue. That is what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, to the Garden of Gethsemane….and beyond.

What I want you to notice about this story is not what I did, not what my friends did. Because in a lot of ways I simply felt that I could do nothing else. “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the ways of eternal life. And  we have believed and come to know that you are the holy one of God.” I believed that when I said it, and it was    what guided me through all the lows, and all the highs, that following Jesus my entire life entailed. I was captivated, what else could I do but follow the one who my soul loves?

What I want you to notice about this story is not the faith that I put in Jesus. What I want you to notice    instead is much more unbelievable than that. I want you to notice instead the faith that Jesus put into me. Into      Simon, not-yet-Peter, the one who Jesus called a “rock” even though I was throughout my life as unpredictable as    the waves and weather on the beach.

Jesus found me by an empty boat – me and my companions were the least successful fishermen on that  beach – which is the only reason my boat was empty so that he could borrow it to teach the crowds. Jesus didn’t    find me in a synagogue or at the temple, where the holy people hand out and work. He found me on the beach. I was not a priest, I was a fishermen. And yet, Jesus wanted me on his team.

I was not a holy person, not a person of learning. I was so shocked by what I saw that day with the catch of fish that I tried to send Jesus away. There is no way the likes of him should hang out with the likes of me. And yet, Jesus wanted me. Jesus called ME.

I did not follow perfectly. I have testified that I was captivated by Jesus, that he ‘swept me off my feet.’      And he did, he had. But, even so, I failed as much as I succeeded. Perhaps I failed even more than I succeeded. I      had to be convinced, restored, corrected, over and over and over again. I am not the perfect leader – and yet Jesus chose me to lead anyway.

That day on the beach, after seeing all the things that Jesus could do, I know to my core that Jesus could  do anything that he wanted, without help from anybody at all. The one who made the universe, the one who         makes the wind and waves obey, the one who can heal and even raise people up, he can certainly do anything that he wants, anything that he needs to do, without the help of people, who get in the way, who sin, who get things    wrong, who get tired and discouraged and confused, who snap at their families, who are insecure, who fret, who  don’t trust enough, who fall away, who give into temptation, who deny their Lord with their words or their actions.

And yet, and yet, he chose to partner with me. He wanted me on his team. He wanted these hands, these feet, this face, this mind, this heart, to help him out. And, he wants your hands and feet and face and mind and heart to do his work on earth even now. Even though the world that I walked in was very different from your world, this thing has not changed. Even now, God chooses to use people captivated by Jesus to do the work that God wants to do in this world.

What I want to you remember from my story is not what I did, but what he did. Namely, that Jesus put a lot of faith in an ordinary fisherman that he found on the beach, and swept him off his feet. And he still does the    same thing with people all over the world.

If Jesus chose me, He will choose you too. He wants you to be his hands and his feet, and to take the good news of Jesus Christ to your homes and families and friends and acquaintances, to your co-workers and the people you meet as you go about your life, and to the very ends of the earth.

[1] Quote attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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