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Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 2: How Distressed Should We Be?

Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. Matthew 10:32-33 NIV

A common exercise I do with leaders is to ask them to write out the names of all the people they know who failed spiritually in the last twelve months. Unfortunately, these lists have gotten longer in recent years. They include the names of pastors that we have learned from, Christian artists whose recordings we have listened to and friends beside whom we have worshipped. And there are more who are under the radar, but are just as much a loss as any recognized leader we can name.

I consider that even one name on my list has made it too long. And I feel this exercise is distressing. But we need to be distressed if we are going to face the truth about the church. We are a mess. We… I… you are a mess, not just the people on our list. Our unfinished spiritual business may not be as ripe as theirs, but we have the same ability to sin as greatly as they have. This is a troubling reality.

So it was for Peter. When he met Jesus, he was running a fishing enterprise. He owned at least one boat, which Jesus used as a teaching platform one day. When he finished teaching and dismissed his audience, Jesus encouraged Peter to cast his net out again, since he had fished all night without catching so much as an old boot. And what a load of fish was caught. Then Peter whirls around, falls to his knees and tells Jesus to get way, because he see himself  as a wicked man. I am sure he knew this before, but it mattered now. Jesus’ reply was to tell Peter he is going to make him a fisher of men. Remember this… because it matters to the rest of the story.

Peter became part of Jesus’ inner circle, along with James and John—you may know the last two by Jesus’ nickname for them, ‘Sons of Thunder,’ due to their hot tempers. Peter (Rock), also a nickname from Jesus, was more rocky than a Rock during his days following Jesus. He wanted to believe he was faithful and true, so when Jesus told him on the night he was betrayed by Judas that he, Peter, would be sifted by Satan, that he would be so unfaithful as to deny Jesus three times before the morning was crowed in, he must have been astounded. After all, wasn’t he carrying a sword to defend Jesus? Wouldn’t he go to death with Jesus if necessary?

The answer is ‘No.’ By the time Jesus was deep into his trek to the cross, Peter was cursing and declaring he never knew this so called ‘Son of God.’ On his way to another interrogation across Caiaphas’ courtyard, Jesus catches Peter’s eye. Peter’s words die on his lips.

Now I’m aware we all know this story well, because it is in all four Gospels. But why is this so bad? I think many people miss the point of this silent exchange between Jesus and Peter. Many hear this story and think that Peter was a fair-weather friend who would desert you at the worst possible moment—or a weak man in a tight place, trying to save his own skin. Many leave it at that.

Peter may be these things, but such a characterization misses the most critical point. In Matthew 10, when Jesus was preparing the Twelve to go out in the Jewish towns with gospel authority, he gave them explicit directions about what they faced and how to conduct themselves. He included this warning, “Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

We often miss the weight of this moment because we know the rest of the story. What Peter had just done as he hung around the high priest’s courtyard was disown Jesus before others three times. He had incurred eternal condemnation by his own lips. Peter had not merely failed Jesus, he had bailed out of eternal fellowship with him. You have to recognize this reality to prevent yourself from downplaying the gravity of Peter’s situation. If he had committed adultery or abused others or stolen money from the common purse, he probably could have come crawling to Jesus for forgiveness. But this—this was bad on the same level as Judas’ betrayal. He went out and wept. And he would struggle in the coming days, even after Jesus’ resurrection, about his future as Jesus’ disciple.

When you make your list of the names of people who have blown it, Peter’s should be on the top. And because he deservedly belongs there, what Jesus did next sets the bar for us who want to learn from him about bruised reeds and second chances.

To be continued . . .

-Steve Smith