A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
April 7, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Peter, Peter, Peter, where did you get your courage? I mean, we know you’ve always been one quick to speak up and speak out; also, somebody who is quick to put your foot in your mouth. You’ve always had gall, but courage isn’t the same as arrogance, and we all know how well you passed that test. We know how you jumped forward at the Last Supper, the way you so often jumped to speak, and how you promised you were ready to go with the Lord to prison and to death. And we’ve heard what happened next. The way you didn’t so much follow through, how in the face of a servant-girl in a courtyard that night you went weak-kneed and lost all your nerve. How you renounced the Lord, not once but three times, again, then again, until the rooster crowed and woke you up from the paralysis of your courage.
We’re not rehashing these old stories to be mean, but we just want to know, what happened? I mean, what changed from then to now, because now you have strength to face the whole Sanhedrin and say without flinching, “We must obey God, rather than men!” Your tone has lost a bit of its competitive edge, yet you sound more sure than ever. Where did you find, or re-find, your courage? Is this the same courage as before, the same courage when you walked out on water, when you wanted to build tents at the Transfiguration, and that rather embarrassing moment where you tried to rebuke Jesus and he called you Satan? Is this is the same Peter that we’re getting now? Or has your courage been refined, purified, strengthened? When did you replace your boyish presumption with stalwart steadfastness, and what exactly did the trick? Arrogance is easy to come by. Courage is something altogether different.
You’ve been to prison by now, so there’s one fear you’ve faced and conquered. You witnessed an angel of the Lord open the doors of the jail, and that had to be pretty invigorating to your faith. As Will Willimon says, “Something about the Gospel renders prisons ineffective.” Of course, even bigger than that, you saw the Lord himself, risen from the dead after you watched him nailed to a cross. You also watched him forgive you and heard him ask you to feed his sheep, even after you denied him at his most painful moment. You’ve seen a lot.
I notice that when the Sanhedrin question you, they seem reluctant to name Jesus by name. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” they say, but they do not say the name. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” they continue, as if Jesus were to them the One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, or as if they don’t want to remember who he was, they don’t want to see his face in their mind, they don’t want to remember the look in his eyes, or the reality of his personhood by granting him the dignity of a name.
But you, Peter, are not afraid to use names before the Sanhedrin: Jesus, Prince, Savior. As I recall, you were one of the first to ever call him Messiah, but in the same breath you told him he must not speak of death and rising. How does it feel to call him Savior now? Now that the very things you railed against have come to pass, does the word Messiah ring differently in your ears, and how does it change the way you speak of him today?
A lot has happened in a short amount of time, and as you say, you witnessed all these things yourself, and I suspect what you saw remarkably transformed your center of courage for good. But there is one more thing you said to the Sanhedrin that day of which I am keenly aware. You said on behalf of yourself and your companions that you had all witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, but you also said, that the Holy Spirit was a witness of these things as well, and that the Holy Spirit has been given to you and to all who obey. Is Spirit the real source of your newfound power? It isn’t quite enough to be an eyewitness to the world’s most important miracle. It is even more crucial that the very Spirit of God beheld it too and has taken up residence inside you where it constantly gives testimony to your spirit about the things the two of you saw.
How else does one find bravery, except in companionship? No one really finds courage solo. But when Spirit takes you by the hand and says, “Friend, let’s do this work together,” suddenly you have a light you didn’t have before and a fortitude you didn’t think was possible. You’ve witnessed so many bizarre things you’re bound to start thinking you’re going crazy every now and then, but thank God for Spirit, for Spirit saw it too. You are not alone. I think it is this Comforter, this Advocate, this Ally, this Wind, this Voice of Truth, this Presence of Peace that restored your courage, Peter. It is the Spirit who speaks up and speaks out from within you now, and there’s no need for arrogance, not now that you’ve got authentic confidence bubbling up from your core.
Peter, you didn’t get to hear what Gamaliel said on your behalf, since you were made to leave the room, and truth be told, we can’t quite figure out whether he was secretly on your side, or whether he just wanted to close this case and get home. But what he said was that when God is with you, things are different. You can’t be stopped, you can’t be silenced, at least, not for long. Human plans, they fail all the time. Take Theudas, or Judas the Galilean, two men who accrued followers, but once they died, their groupies disbanded. But movements of God, those are different, those are unstoppable, those have an Energy that fuels them, some sort of Spirit that keeps them alive. And those who fight against it? Well, they fight against God.
So Gamaliel recommended that the Sanhedrin wait it out and see. Now that this man-who-the-Sanhedrin-do-not-wish-to-name is gone, the real power of his movement will become evident. Either the whole thing will fade into obscurity, or it will succeed and no one will be able to stop it. Either his followers will disband, or his followers will produce more followers. Either this man will eventually be forgotten by history and no one will so much as remember his name, or Jesus will leave a mark on this earth that will always be remembered and retold.
The Sanhedrin found this to be good advice, so you were flogged and sent away with orders not to speak in Jesus’ name. Of course, you didn’t know what Gamaliel said, so you didn’t know they would be watching to see if the flogging and the threats shut you down, that this was a test of sorts to see whether or not God was with you.
All you knew was, God was with you, and you counted it a joy to suffer for his name, so you kept going. I must say, it is a mystery to me that you would count your suffering a joy. I never come close to mastering that kind of joy, but I do note how different this is—your grand smile after a beating compared to the sour frown you gave that girl in the courtyard when you said the words, “I do not know Him.” I don’t think it is the actual suffering that fills you with joy; it is the fact that you remained faithful this time around. And, it is the knowledge that you were not abandoned in the dark hour, that the Spirit remained with you, even in your suffering, which was so radically different than the self-inflicted isolation a denial creates. And, I think your joy comes from the fact that you were counted worthy of this test, and from knowing that you belong with this Name, no matter what comes.
So, it was you, Peter, who proved it by your courage and determination, not just to Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin, but to us, that God is alive and God is moving . Okay, well, not just you alone. It was the other apostles too. It was Stephen. And Lydia. It was Paul. It was Priscilla and Aquila. It was every believer who believed and lived and loved by the Spirit of God. It was the person who taught me the faith and the person who taught each of you. Not just back then, but throughout the ages and all the way to today, it’s been through people of faith that the Holy Spirit continues to tell the tale: “God is alive.”
Notice how it was never the arrogant folks who gifted us with the faith. It was not the people who shouted their opinions or flaunted their apologetics or went to war against the culture or screamed at the opponents. It was the gently courageous folk who carried the aroma of Christ into their ordinary living that brought us to God and brought God to us. There was, you might say, a Spirit inside them that called to us.
Peter, we’re wondering if we might have a bit of that courage you came to know so well. Like you, we hope the way of the cross has purged us of conceit and opened up a roomier space for Spirit to dwell. May we share in your confidence, join you in your work, and grab hands with the Spirit, knowing that together we will witness many wonders. Amen.