All Jesus had said was “follow me”. He was just a stranger, walking alone. He sounded like he was local, like he was from Galilee, but there was something behind his voice when he spoke that was like the sound of waters, like many waters. And Peter followed him. He followed Jesus from the very beginning, if only to understand who Jesus was. But Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about himself. He asked questions and he spoke in riddles, and he was always saying that God’s kingdom was very very near.
And when he taught, it wasn’t the same as listening to the scribes, those squinters who saw all of the parts and none of the whole. When Jesus taught the Law it was as if the Law was a living breathing person whom he knew, an old friend he could tell stories about all day. Peter was there for all the bright wonderful days when huge crowds would listen in rapt attention as Jesus taught. And think of Peter’s pride that he was in the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, that when the crowds went home and the spotlight turned off, Peter would still be there with Jesus ready for another day. But following this man Jesus was not just a speaking tour booked solid for weeks. No, there were days when the memory of adoring crowds must have seemed far away. There were days that were terrifying, haunting. For one thing, there were the demons; those tormented and dangerous people who screeched and howled and did terrible things to themselves. They seemed to carry death around on their shoulders. Those poor devils recognized Jesus somehow, and they were afraid of him. Jesus would speak a word to them, just a word and the tempest inside them was stilled. They had been living in Hell on earth and were delivered back into life because that voice like many waters had said, “come and be a human being again. Come out”. What is Peter supposed to say about that? Just who is it that he was following?
Then there was what happened with that girl. That young girl who had been sick. Jairus had been her father’s name. She was at death’s door and Jairus had begged Jesus, begged him to hurry. But when they got to the house, it was already too late. Jesus went in to the house to see her body anyway, and brought Peter and James and John, leaving the rest of the crowd behind. The girl was dead. That was plain. She was in the grip of that utter still, that once it is seen, can never be mistaken. Jesus sat down, took her hand, and said “Talitha, cumi” (Little one, get up). And that utter still took a breath. She got up and Jesus said to stop staring and give her something to eat. Give her something to eat like she was coming back from school. The girl had been dead and now she was alive, and all because that voice like many waters said “get up”. What was Peter supposed to say about that? Just who is this man he was following?
A lot of people had wanted to know that. And a lot of people had been whispering all kinds of different theories, some saying he was one of the ancient prophets from the scriptures, some saying he was John the Baptist, some that he was Elijah come down from heaven. One day on the road, Jesus asked the question straight out, not pulling any punches: “who do you say that I am?” And Peter, who had seen things that cannot be forgotten, Peter said, “you are the messiah”. Yes. Yes. But then for the first time, Jesus began to talk about himself, about this movement he had begun and where it was going. But it was not what Peter had been expecting. Jesus was talking about terrible things happening to him. What he said was to come was worse than the demon screech, more terrifying than that girl’s sharp and shuddering breath. Jesus said that the priests, the very ones who would want to know that the messiah had come; Jesus told them that the priests would reject him. And the scribes would reject him. And the elders would reject him. And he would be executed on a trumped up charge. And that after three days in a tomb, after three days in the grips of that utter still, he would rise again. This was too much. This could not be. Peter took Jesus aside. No! No! It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Then that voice, the voice like many waters that had made Peter drop his nets and leave his life behind, that same voice turned against Peter like a knife, “get behind me Satan”, set your mind on higher things, instead of wallowing in the muck. And then Jesus was back to form, teaching like no one else could—lose your life and you’ll keep it, simplicity is wisdom, pride is shame, it was some of Jesus’ most insightful preaching but if I were Peter, the last word I would have heard was Satan—tempter, liar, nemesis.
All he had said was follow me. But it was sure turning out to be a lot more complicated than that for Peter. Following Jesus had meant that he was confronted by all the disturbing things of the world. It meant looking squarely at the faces of those whose bodies betrayed them, whose minds were infested. It meant not being able to look away anymore. Following Jesus has meant that Peter could no longer avoid the powerful people who ran his small corner of the world as if they owned everything. It meant Peter couldn’t hide behind his work, catching fish and mending nets and living quietly while the world went passing by. Following Jesus was turning out to be anything but simple.
Then six days pass. Six days in which Peter must have wondered what his future was with Jesus. But then Jesus called for James and John and Peter to come with him, and this is where our reading for the day began - with James and John and Peter walking up a mountain. The last time Jesus took these three aside, it had been for that day with the dead girl. And here they were again following Jesus away from everyone else, up a mountain, up and up and up to the peak. And there on that mountaintop, something happened to Jesus. Peter saw time and place begin to bend and ripple around Jesus and a fantastic brightness sprung from him and infused the air itself so that everything was light. And there were men there with Jesus, talking with him, and even though it was crazy, even though Peter could never possibly have met them, he still knew that these two men were Moses and Elijah. They couldn’t be there. Each had lived centuries ago. They couldn’t be there. But they stood and talked and the heavens bent down and the earth stretched up so that the mountain could be not just one place but all places and the moment could be not one snatch of time but shot through with eternity. And into that bend and fold a voice spoke, another voice from around and within them. And in that voice was something familiar. In that voice was the many waters, the many waters of Jesus’ voice were beneath this other voice, a voice that had hovered and brooded over the deep places when the world was only a dream. And when the voice spoke it spoke about Jesus “this is my son, the beloved, listen to him”. Then it was over and gone like the feeling of thirst after a long draught. Jesus the son of God walked down the mountain, and Peter followed him.
And we who have heard the story before know where that path down the mountain leads. It leads to Jerusalem. It leads to the cross. Lent begins on Wednesday. And in Lent we journey with Jesus and Peter as they travel to the cross. And it would have been too much for Peter to take, too much to stay with Jesus on that journey if it had not been for what happened on that mountaintop. Because there on that mountain, Peter learns something that he hadn’t understood even though he knew the right word to say. Peter learned what it meant to be the messiah. Peter learned what had been hidden from the genesis of the world, that secret that leaked out into prophet’s visions. Peter learned God’s plan. God’s plan was to put an end to hatred and hunger and death. And the way that God would do it was not by force or by strength, but by weakness. God planned to suffer, to give up a son, the beloved son. Peter had been told that Jesus was going to be killed, but he objected because it seemed too awful to lose a great man like Jesus. For a great man to die needlessly that is a tragedy and it is right to mourn a tragedy, right to work to prevent a tragedy from occurring. But for God’s own son to walk knowingly into death is more than a tragedy. It is so much deeper than a tragedy that it bursts from the other side of the tomb of grief and becomes joy too wild to be contained. God has proven that there is nothing in this world that you need fear because the greatest power in this world, the power of death, is the most paltry shadow of the power of life and love. And God has proven that there is nothing you can do that will make God stop loving you. God did not abandon us when we killed Her son, so God will not abandon you, she has proven that.
So there is nothing that we can’t face, Christians. Not because we ourselves are strong, but because the one we follow turns weakness into strength. We can be like Peter who followed Jesus even among the screeching of demons and in the face of sickness and desperation and death. We can be like Peter and follow the son of God into hospitals full of those who are needlessly sick or dying or dead. We can follow the son of God into warzones, where children pay the cost of old men’s foolishness. We can follow the son of God onto the street corners where children of God, the poor devils, are killing themselves with drugs or pills or liquor. We need not turn our faces away from those things, as if ignoring them would make them go away. Instead we can work and live and love. The Messiah has come. Death has been defeated. Love has won. Hallelujah!