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Have You Met Jesus?: The Man Who Was Both Saint And Sinner

Luke 5:4-11, 22:54-62

I suppose that the one New Testament figure, aside from Jesus Himself, with whom most people are vaguely familiar is a man called Peter.

Of course, Peter was not his name. His mother and father had given him the name Simon—in fact, his full name was “Simon bar-Jona,” Simon the son of John. Peter was his nickname, and it was a nickname given to him by Jesus. You can read about it in John 1. There we are told that Andrew brought his brother Simon and introduced him to Jesus. Jesus looked very carefully at Simon and then said, “So you are Simon son of John. Well, I am going to call you Cephas.” Now that word “Cephas” was the Aramaic word for “Rock,” and since the New Testament was written originally in Greek, “Cephas” was changed to the Greek form “Petra,” which then came into English as “Peter.” But what Jesus was actually saying to Simon was this: “I am going to call you ‘Rock’ (or as we might say ‘Rocky’)—that is going to be your nickname.” Now when Jesus said that, my guess is that those nearby who knew Simon must have collapsed with laughter. They knew him to be impetuous and impulsive to a fault. He was anything but steady and solid as a rock. Calling him “Rock” as far as they were concerned was a joke. It would have been like the nickname “Tiny” applied to a 300-pound defensive tackle, or the nickname carried by the old basketball star “Curly” Neal, who in fact is as bald as a cue.

But Jesus did not give Simon that nickname as a joke. To be sure, Jesus saw Simon’s problems, but Jesus also saw Simon’s potential. That’s why Jesus gave him that nickname as a challenge. Many people have to try to live down their nicknames, but Jesus was calling Simon to try to live up to his. That would prove to be anything but easy, and there were times when he was anything but what his nickname implied. However, in the end, he did become a strong, stable, steadfast leader of the early Christian church. That’s why I choose to call him “the man who was both saint and sinner.” As I ponder his life, three words come to mind: valiant, vacillating, victorious. Take them one at a time . . .

First, Peter was valiant in his service to Jesus Christ.

No doubt you remember the story. Jesus encountered Peter and his fellow fishermen along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus then said to them, “Put your boat out into the deep water for a catch.” Peter, who certainly was expert in his chosen occupation—Peter said, “It is too late in the day for fishing.” But Jesus insisted and so they went. They let down their nets, and so great was the catch that they had to summon another boat to help them haul it in. Now in the face of that awesome demonstration of Jesus’ power, Peter fell on his knees and said, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinner.”

Now that was a valiant thing to say when you stop to think about it. It is not the kind of thing we say readily today, is it? In fact, today most people go to great lengths to excuse their conduct rather than admit it. There is even one popular school of psychology which takes the position that you can never really be held responsible for anything you do—it is all a matter of genetics or environment. As a result, all too often today people end up sounding like the character in the play “Westside Story” who says, “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.” Yes, all too often today people say, “Everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.” But that’s precisely why I label as valiant Peter’s open and honest declaration, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinner.” He had what I like to call “the courage of his imperfections.” He was saint and sinner all in one.

Walter Underwood tells us that when Leonardo DaVinci was painting “The Last Supper,” he found an angelic-faced young man who sang in the choir of the Milan Cathedral and used him as a model to paint the face of Jesus. Years later, DaVinci was working on another painting, and he searched the streets of Rome for the face of a sinner. He found a man whose face told the story of vice, greed, and dissipation. Leonardo asked the man to pose for him, and then he asked the man his name. The man replied, “Oh, you know me. I posed for your painting of ‘The Last Supper.’ I was the face of Christ!”

Well, that’s a parable of life. All of us are a mixture of good and bad, saint and sinner. Peter’s story is our story. Peter openly and honestly acknowledged his shortcomings, and that’s why I call him valiant. God help us to do the same.

But then Peter was vacillating in his service to Jesus Christ.

Just before his crucifixion, Jesus sat with His disciples about the table in the Upper Room. Suddenly, He shocked the group by declaring that in the time of crisis, the disciples would turn away from Him. At that point, Peter—good old impulsive Peter—cried out, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison or even to death. I will never deny you.” Jesus wheeled around on Peter and said, “Before the cock crows tomorrow morning, you will deny Me three times.” And so it was. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and Peter watched the torches of the troops as they led Jesus away. The Bible says that then Peter followed them, but listen to what it says: “Peter followed at a distance.” He didn’t want to get too close. He wanted to remain in a position of safety.

That was Peter’s first mistake. You see, when you follow Jesus “at a distance,” you are not in a position of safety but rather in a position of peril. When an army is marching through hostile territory, it is easy for armed bands of guerilla fighters to cut off groups of stragglers and eliminate them. That’s what happens to people who follow Jesus at a distance, who forsake the practice of daily prayer, who neglect the regular reading of Scripture, who attend worship just once or twice a month, who move through the week in the work-a-day world trying to disguise the fact that they are Christians. When you begin to back away from Jesus, when you lag behind in the Christian life, when you water down the standards of the faith, then you are headed for trouble. It caught up with Peter very quickly. He followed the procession to the residence of the high priest. When Jesus was then led into the house, the soldiers and the serving people sat down about the fire in the courtyard. Look at what it says. It says, “Peter sat down with them.” He became part of a group who were the enemies of Jesus.

That was Peter’s second mistake. When you associate too closely with those who do not claim Christ as Lord, you put yourself at risk. I want to say this very clearly: No evil person can be a good friend. When we put ourselves into the consistent company of such people, our resistance and our standards start to break down, and so we drink things we do not like to drink because we do not want to be rejected. We discuss subjects and we use language we know we ought not to discuss and to use all because we do not want to appear “holier than thou.” We slip into less than honorable business practices because we want to be accepted by others. When we associate with those who do not own Christ as Savior and Lord, we put ourselves under tremendous pressure. Peter collapsed under that pressure. When someone pointed to him as a follower of Christ, he cried out, “I do not even know the man!” You see, fearing rejection, Peter began to lie.

And that was Peter’s third mistake. When there is a discrepancy between what your mouth announces and what your heart knows, it is a lie. No matter how you might rationalize it, it is still a lie. How does the verse go?

O what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.

Peter got caught in that tangled web. And he wound up denying his relationship to Christ, using language he had not used since fishing boat days. His speech was profane. Those about the fire were so shocked by his volcanic outburst that they fell silent. And in that uncomfortable silence, the sound of the crowing of a rooster was as deafening as an air raid siren.

Peter’s mistakes caught up with him, and in a wrenching, personal agony, he turned to run away. But at that moment, by some terrible coincidence—or better by some magnificent providence—Jesus was led into the courtyard. Look at what it says: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” Let that burn its way into your heart—the way the eyes of Jesus burned their way into Peter’s soul. Oh, we know how miserable vacillating Peter would have felt in that moment, don’t we? God, keep us from the same.

However, in the end, Peter was victorious in his service to Jesus Christ.

When Peter heard the crowing of the cock and when he looked into the face of his Lord, he remembered to whom he belonged, and remembering, the Bible says, he wept bitterly. He cried his heart out.

I have heard all kinds of crying. I have heard the crying of a little child who was lost. I have heard the crying of a young woman abandoned by a fellow who made promises to her he never intended to keep. I have heard the crying of a boy longing for his father who was too busy to care. I have heard the crying of a woman whose husband walked out, leaving her to care for herself and their children alone. I have heard the crying of a mom and a dad at the graveside of their child. I have heard all kinds of crying. But the cry that moves me the most is the cry of a strong man like Peter. You say, “What’s the use of crying? Spilled milk and all that.” Not so. You see, nothing can wash away the stain of sin and wrongdoing like tears of true repentance. Peter’s tears helped to wash his sin away. And then, like the prodigal son, he came running back home to his Lord.

We see that so clearly in what happened at the end of Peter’s life. He was in Rome. Nero was on the throne. Christians were being persecuted and put to death in monstrously evil ways. Peter’s friends urged him to leave the city before it was too late. Peter followed their advice, but as he hurried along the Appian Way leading out of the City of Rome, he met one he had known before. The same eyes that burned a hole in his heart that night in the courtyard so long ago now were looking at him again. Peter cried, “Domine, quo vadis?—Lord, where are you going?” The voice said, “Back to Rome.” And Peter—good old impulsive, impetuous Peter—good old valiant, vacillating Peter—Peter turned around and headed back into Rome. Once more he remembered to whom he belonged. There in Rome he met his death. He was crucified. But he insisted on being crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord.

Simon Peter. The Rock. The man who was both saint and sinner. Jesus loved him out of the darkness and into the light. Jesus loved him out of sin and into glory. Jesus will do the same for you and for me. You see, in Peter’s life, we can find our strength. In Peter’s salvation, we can find our hope. And in Peter’s journey, we can find our way home—home where we belong—all the way home to . . . Jesus.

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