The Peter Principle


In 1969 a man named Laurence Peter came up with what has come to be known as the Peter Principle: In any organization employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. St. Peter has reached his in this text; yet he's above us in some ways, but still not high enough in all ways.

It's easy to see Peter's incompetence in this text. Right before it Peter is the only disciple to answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ the Son of the living God." What a competent disciple Peter was! He was above the rest. But as soon as Jesus began to speak plainly about what it meant to be the Christ, rejection, suffering, dying, Peter showed how incompetent he was. He presumed to teach Jesus! He rebuked Jesus!

Peter is a favorite whipping boy during Lent. We trot him out as the bad disciple, the weak disciple, the cowardly disciple. See how awful Peter is. Repent of being a Peter. Jesus redeemed you from being a Peter. Now get out there and be better than Peter. That's the typical Lenten Peter Principle, but I'm saying, 'You've got it wrong. In this text Peter is above us.'

Peter at least listens to the Words of Jesus. Even though Jesus says in Luke 10:16 that when you listen to me you hear Him, how many of you even know what I said in the first paragraph? Better yet, how many of you can tell me what the Gospel reading said? Peter at least listened. He heard what Jesus said about suffering many things, rejection by the Church and State, and being killed.

Luther often spoke of people who year after year hear God's Word but are no different at the end than at the beginning. You think you've done your duty by sitting in a pew like a block of wood for an hour. Never mind that you don't listen; never mind that your mind wanders not just in between sentences but words. You think you've done what God wants just by being present where God's Word is read and proclaimed. Well, Peter at least listened to it. You can tell he did because he reacted to it. Sure it was the wrong reaction, but not hearing the Word at all is worse.

Before we tie Peter to the whipping post this Lent for daring to turn Jesus from the cross, let's admit that at least Peter takes the horror of the cross seriously. Peter is appalled that the Christ, the Messiah the Church had waited thousands of years for, would be rejected by the Church. Peter could see the elders, chief priests and teachers of the Law grumbling against Him the way the Old Testament Church had grumbled against Moses. And they might even talk about stoning Him, as they did Moses, but to reject and ultimately kill the One they had waited so long for, never!

Peter listened to Jesus' words, and he was horrified at what killing Jesus referred to. In Peter's day the State not the Church executed. Rome killed robbers and rebels not rabbis. The thought of Jesus nailed to a cross, hanging there helplessly till He died, was too much for Peter because Peter took those words seriously. How about you?

You hear Jesus say He will be rejected, suffer, and be killed; you even hear how He is slapped, beaten, whipped, mocked, ridiculed, and nailed to a cross, and what? Been here, heard this. You know you're suppose to take this seriously, but do you? You took that Passion movie seriously. For once it became real to you. But the words were in a foreign language you don't remember. Good thing; those words might have taken root in your heart, and you might've carried them around forever. How about those images? Well, you have to see them again, don't you? But guess what? See the Passion again this year; rent it next, but soon you will need ever more gruesome pictures to get the same kind of response you first had. That's why I referred to the movie as 'spiritual pornography.'

See, that got a response out of you. That made you flinch. Yet, I can talk all day about how Jesus the Messiah was rejected by the Church, made to suffer by the Church, and killed by the State, and it's all just blather to you. Yeah, yeah, I know all that preacher. Tell me something I don't know; make me feel something I haven't felt; educate me; entertain me.

For all that Peter does wrong in this text, at least he actually takes the Words of Jesus to heart. Jesus doesn't deserve what He says will happen to Him. Jesus is innocent before God and man. Neither Church nor State could have any real case against Him. Peter has lived with Jesus for 3 years. He knows this Man. Jesus never spoke an ill word about anyone, and not only has He never hurt anyone, He helped many. Peter dares to rebuke Jesus because what Jesus says will happen to Himself is totally out of the question to Peter. It would be a heresy for the Church and a crime for the State to act this way toward the Son of the living God, the Messiah!

How about you? You hear Jesus' Words, and you think this is suppose to happen. It's Jesus' job to die as Paul says He did for the powerless, the ungodly, those who are still sinners and enemies! It's not that you're too pious to rebuke Jesus; no, it's just natural to you that Jesus should suffer for you. You don't rebuke birds for flying or fish for swimming; why should you rebuke Jesus for saying He is going to do what you expect Him to?

You're sufficiently rebuked now. Repentance is thick in the room. Now you'll listen to Jesus' words; now you'll take them seriously; now you'll value the suffering and dying of Jesus more. You know where this is going to take you? Right where it took Peter, to incompetence. Peter "rose" to rebuking Jesus, being Satan, minding the things of men not God, and denying Christ! Yes, Peter is above us in this text, but he's not high enough. Doing as Peter does or even doing better than Peter does is not the answer to how weak, wretched, and worthless of a disciple you see yourself to be in this text. The answer is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Peter heard Jesus' words, but He didn't take them as divine revelation. Jesus was being a 'gloomy Gus' looking at a glass as half empty not half full. Peter took Jesus' words seriously but not as reality. Jesus was preparing him for what would certainly happen, but he did as we do. Jesus tells us that, "all who live godly in this life will suffer." Jesus tells us, "It's through many tribulations you must enter into heaven." Jesus tells us, "Don't think it strange when you suffer many afflictions." But what do we do? These words of Jesus don't tell us what will happen but only what might happen.

Peter heard the Words of the cross as horrible but not as reality. Therefore, the word of resurrection wasn't real either. Peter couldn't see the glory of Easter for the tree of the gory cross he was staring at. The horrible picture of Jesus being rejected and put to death burned his retina so he couldn't see anything else. The Passion, the Passion, the Passion is all Peter could see. The suffering of Jesus became a horrible, meaningless end in itself, an end that Peter would never let happen.

We chafe against the bit of sorrow, the bridle of affliction, the weight of annoying people, spouses, parents, and kids, because such sufferings don't mean anything. They are pointless, useless things in our life that prevent us from getting to the real business of living. In Peter's mind the rejection, suffering, and dying that Jesus spoke of could only get in the way of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. The truth is these are what it meant to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son. Likewise, the sufferings, the afflictions, the annoyances which our sinful flesh rebels against for getting in the way of our real life, they are the Christian life.

But you'll never see that until you push through what Peter didn't. Peter heard Jesus' words about rejection, suffering, and death and knew that Jesus deserved acceptance, accolades, and life, so what purpose, what point, what good could come from them? But the sufferings were not for Jesus at all. They were for us and our salvation. We deserve each blow, each slap, each lash that Jesus suffered. By His punishments we are healed. Every blow Jesus took means I don't get one for my worried thoughts. Every slap Jesus suffered spared me from getting hit for my unbelieving actions. Every lash that ripped His holy body means that my prideful, lustful, insatiable body is not whipped. The blood that flowed freely from Jesus hands, feet, head, back, and side justified us, forgave us, cleanses us from all, not some, not most, but ALL unrighteousness.

Now the blood, sweat, and tears of Jesus look different, don't they? And so do our sufferings, afflictions and frustrations when we see them reflected in the silver bowl of the Baptismal font that sprinkled us with Jesus' blood or in the golden cup of Communion where we drink that blood. This change came over Peter too. You see how he recoils from the cross here. You'll hear on Wednesday how he denied Jesus out of fear of the cross. But read 1st Peter written years later. There Peter warmly urges his flock to embrace the cross. He tells them since they've been sprinkled by the blood of Christ, they can accept suffering even to the point of shedding their blood.

Why? Because they're afflictions and frustrations are no less purposeful than those of the Lord Jesus. Jesus was rejected, suffered, and killed to rescue us from sin, death and the devil. The trials, the pains, the seemingly pointless problems we face are laid on us because we've been rescued from sin, death and the devil. The death of Jesus won our sonship says Galatians. The chastening of the Father is the proof of it says Hebrews. Every pain you feel, every frustration you bare, every sickness you suffer is proof positive that you're a sibling of Christ the Crucified and a much loved child of God.

Who can get their head or heart around this? It's the Peter Principle again. We've reached the level where no sinner is competent. That's why the Gradual all during Lent bids us fix our eyes not on Peter, not on self, but on Jesus. Our saving faith, our eternal salvation doesn't depend on our competence, but on Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Amen.

Rev. Paul R, Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Second Sunday in Lent (20060312); Mark 8: 31-38