Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, G.A., on Apr. 26 2009.
Acts 2: 1-14.
I am going to tell you two stories to help make a point. The first story took place in a town about the size of Rome, Georgia. There was a performing arts series that would come to town and bring five or six productions throughout the course of the year. When a couple bought tickets for the performing arts series, the husband had no idea that Julius Caesar was going to be performed on the same Saturday as the Georgia-Tennessee football game. He also had no idea that the game would have enough delay in it that it would not be over before time to leave to go to the play. He listened to the game in the car as long as he could, and then did what any man would do in a situation like that. He took his little radio in and tried to look like Secret Service by plugging the buds in his ears. The play started and he was listening to the game. Like most good fans, there are all the non-verbal things you can do to indicate how you are feeling while you are sitting in the row with darkness and people around you.
His wife was becoming rather irritated, and in a great example of spousal non-verbal communication, gave him one of those light and quick elbows that caught him good. Finally, in frustration, she looked at him and mouthed, “How much more?”
He had the game turned up as loudly as it will go in his headphones and he had evidently lost track of the fact that the crowd noise he heard was not for Julius Caesar. He looked at her and thought she said, “What is the score?” So he said rather loudly, “Georgia is down by two with less than a minute, but they are in field goal range.”
Of course, every head in the place turned and he tried to sink down into his seat. At the intermission, there was not a guy in the place that would come near him. From a distance, they all asked, “What happened?” A couple of women actually approached him and said, “You should be embarrassed for acting like that.”
It was a small town and all the people knew one another. At church the next morning, he heard all the laughing in the hall. The kids called the next day and the wife answered the phone and said, “Ask your father what he did last night at the play,” and he had to re-tell it.
Over a period of time, he got over it. By the time Thanksgiving came around, he could even tell it and embellish it a little and make it funny. It was not very funny at the time, but he could joke about it later.
The second story is about a young woman in Europe who had a talent for singing. Everybody in her town told her, “You can sing. You really need to make something of yourself.” In Post-War Europe, she decided she would make her way to Paris to try to have a singing career. Having lived in Nashville, I have seen the same dynamic play out. A lot of people come to the place where all the musicians are thinking they are the best and they find out there are a lot of really good musicians. For her, it meant singing in the back alley cabarets trying to work her way up, hoping somebody would discovery her. Finally, one night a man did. He came to her after it was over and told her she had a real gift and he wanted to help her. All she had to do was, “Do what I ask you to do.” What he asked her to do was to live with him. Because she really wanted the career, she did.
Along the way, he would ask her to do other things. Occasionally, they would encounter someone who could help her career and he would say, “You need to stay with him,” and she would. It did help her career, and slowly she worked her way up. She never liked it, but she worked her way up. Finally, she had a headline or two.
There was a night when she was going to be singing in the largest venue yet, but she didn’t show up. They looked for her and found her on the sidewalk outside of her hotel where it appeared she had fallen from the fifth story window where her room was. As they investigated, they discovered that she had not fallen—she had jumped. In the bathroom there, she had taken lipstick and written on the mirror, “I am filth,” and then she jumped.
The man at the Julius Caesar play was embarrassed and the difference between these two stories is that the young woman experienced shame. There is a difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is when your face turns red and it takes a while to get over it. You hate to see people who are going to remind you of it but it doesn’t become your life-defining moment. Shame is embarrassment that moves in and takes up residency. Shame is that sense about yourself that now helps you describe yourself. It is the way you identify yourself to people. It is the way you think of yourself.
The man who was listening to the football game described himself as a fan, but if you asked him who he was, he did not describe himself as the person who sat through Julius Caesar and spoke too loudly. But if you asked the young woman, she no longer would have said she was a singer. She had another word. The shame gave her a new permanent identity.
We have all been embarrassed. All of us have said things we wish we had not said in places we wish we had not said them. We have laughed a little too loudly at an inappropriate time, but not all of us have experienced shame in the same way. But have you ever experienced shame where it became the way you understood yourself? Whatever you had done, it became the way you thought of yourself all the time.
This leads us to Peter’s story. They used to call Ronald Reagan “Teflon Ron” because if something bad happened, it didn’t seem to stick. It just slipped right on off. I think Peter is the “Teflon Disciple.” Most of us have a pretty good image of Peter. Peter is one of the inner circle. Peter is one of the disciple heroes. He gets lots of glory.
When Jesus was asking the disciples, “Who does everybody say that I am?” he was the first one to answer, “I get it. You are the Christ.” When they went up on the mountain to pray at what we call “The Transfiguration,” Peter was one of the disciples who went up there. When Jesus needed a guard of disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was one of the ones there. He was one of the first ones to say, “I am going to stand with you forever.” On the night when Jesus was betrayed when he said, “One of you has betrayed me,” Peter was one of the first ones to say, “Not I.”
We always think about Thomas. We have just come through the Easter season and Thomas was the one who said, “I won’t believe unless I can stick my fingers in the wounds.” Thomas gets a bad rap, but do you realize that Peter failed more than any other disciple?
Jesus was walking on the water and Peter said, “Let me come out.” Jesus said, “OK,” then Peter sank. Yes, he was part of the inner circle on the Mount of Transfiguration, but he wanted to stay up there. He wanted to build a retreat center where everybody could stay and Jesus had to say, “Peter, we are not staying here. We are going back down to do some work.”
When he was in the garden while Jesus was praying, he fell asleep. Even though he said, “I will stand with you forever,” he was the first to run. He was not only the first, but he was the second and also the third person to deny Christ that night. It is in Luke’s Gospel where Luke said that not only he denied him but there in the courtyard by that fire, he looked across the courtyard and he had eye contact with Jesus. Can you imagine not only failing but having eye contact with Jesus as he looked across that courtyard and heard you say for the third time, “I don’t know him”? I don’t see how you can read the New Testament and not recognize the failure of Peter.
This is reading a little into it. We don’t know for sure, but if you had to guess would you say that Peter was just embarrassed or do you think he was ashamed? I think he felt deep and abiding shame in what he had done. All the other times where he had failed in listening to Jesus probably came crashing back to him and he wondered, “Why did I ever leave that boat? Why did I ever leave Galilee? Why did I think I could do this?” Every time he turned around, he had done the wrong thing, and now when Jesus needed him most, he said, “I don’t know him.” I think his life was filled with shame.
Acts 2:1-14 is a story that takes place after the resurrection and after the ascension of Jesus. Do you recognize what has happened? Peter, the one who failed more than any other disciple, was there and the Holy Spirit came down. There was a miracle of preaching where everybody understood in their own tongue. People from all over the known world had come to Jerusalem for this feast and they all understood in their own language. How did this happen? It was a great miracle. There were eleven disciples who stood up (Judas was gone) and Peter was the spokesman. Peter was the one who proclaimed the sermon. Peter was the one who told them about Jesus. All the others had clearly deferred to him. All the others were waiting for Peter.
Peter, in the early church, was the leader and he was going to take this role. What on earth happened since that night when he betrayed Jesus three times and went out ashamed? The crucifixion and the resurrection were two things that had happened. The crucifixion in which Jesus died for everyone’s failures—my failures, your failures, Peter’s failures—and also the resurrection in which Jesus was raised from the dead. The power that had raised Jesus from the dead was beginning to work in the disciples of Jesus to tell everybody in the world what was going on. They saw it happen right in front of their eyes and it happened, in part, through Peter. It was God’s work. God’s work was happening and God was using Peter, the one who had failed so many times. But now instead of being ashamed, he had a new vision of what he could do. He had a new understanding and, I think, a new identity. Instead of seeing himself as the failed disciple, he saw himself now as a person that Christ had entrusted the ministry of the early church to, and he had to get up and do something. So he got up, and he preached.
I heard a profound line one time that I guess is the genesis for this whole sermon. It asked the question, “Was Peter a liar because he had said he did not know Jesus or was he a disciple who told a lie?” The way you see yourself is a pretty big difference. If you were Peter and someone asked you, “Who are you?” would you reply, “Well, I’m a liar”? Or would you say, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and I wish I had not lied.” That’s a big identity shift. The difference is shame in finding who we are, or grace, the grace of God letting us know.
We talk a lot about how God can make your life new and how God can make everything new. I think a lot of times people think that is just pretty talk, just church talk, maybe just a metaphor of some kind. It is absolutely real. God can change the identity of a person who describes themselves in terms that if I were to say them, we would all think, “I wish you had not said that in church.” We all know the derogatory names for different behaviors that people do or the things we may have done that we are tired of hearing. Our families and friends have told us. We have heard them whispered. Do we only think of that or do we understand ourselves to be a child of God, saved by Jesus Christ, and worth something?
I think there was something very important that went on here. Peter had clearly made a turn. I think there was responsibility on Peter’s part, and if we read all the Gospel stories, we probably saw it on the beach there in the resurrection story where Jesus was there by the charcoal fire and said, “Hey, Peter, feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” There was this moment where Peter recognized that he must indeed turn from who he was and now let Christ work through him. There was Jesus offering grace and forgiveness that was life changing, taking the one who was the biggest disciple and failure and giving him the lead role in the ministry of the early church.
Then, there was the church. There were other disciples who recognized that Peter had been given this gift. The other disciples were there, but they did not say, “Get Peter down. He is going to be an embarrassment to us. He is a failing disciple. Get him out of here. We need somebody else. Bartholomew, get up there and preach. Anybody but Peter.” They didn’t do that, did they? They became the context where the change wrought by God took place.
I think that is an important thing for us to remember as Christians. We need to remember that when God touches a life, we need to define that life in terms of what God is doing now, not what used to be. Do you understand what I am talking about here? It is very easy to keep on using the same old labels and try to keep the person in the same place, but when an individual follows the model of Peter and comes to Christ and allows Christ to do that work, and change and healing begin to take place, then there is a safe place to be known now by the way God describes you, not the way your shame has described you. All things are possible.
Was Peter a liar or a disciple who told a lie? We could ask that question about ourselves, couldn’t we? We are blessed by the grace of God that we are not defined by our embarrassments or shame, but by the way God has called us and redeemed us and the way God wants to use us, even now.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.