But when Simon, who would be called Peter, heard all that Jesus had said and saw all that Jesus had done, he fell down on his knees and cried out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
As I hear his words this morning, I wonder if you, as I, find yourself pondering what it was about this encounter with Jesus that would fill Peter with such fear. What was it that could cause him to react in this way? After all, this was not how people usually react to Jesus in the Gospel stories. Sure, sometimes people are angered by what Jesus does and says. Sometimes people are bewildered by his words. Other times they are amazed or perplexed at his wisdom. And some, yes some, were threatened by what Jesus represented, by the works that he was working. But very few reacted to Jesus with the fear that Peter reacts.
What was it that caused Peter so much fear? I don’t think that Peter was scared or frightened by Jesus; I don’t think Jesus made Peter feel unsafe. It was something deeper than that. I think that in this encounter with Christ, in listening to Jesus’ teachings from the boat, in witnessing the miracle of the abundant fish in his nets, Peter understood that he was in the presence of a profound truth. I think that Peter was afraid of being seen and examined by this truth. I think that what filled Peter with dread in this encounter with Jesus was the fear being found to be inadequate. It was the fear of shame.
Mind you, we have no reason to suspect that Peter was an especially bad person. In fact, the author of Luke portrays him as a remarkably ordinary person, perhaps someone who would have fit in right here in our own community. He wasn’t wealthy, but he also wasn’t poor. Peter owned his own fishing boat and was in a business partnership with his friends, the brothers James and John. He probably would have struggled with the same challenges that many of us face or have faced in the past—keeping his business going, juggling the demands of family, and feeling somewhat bewildered and overwhelmed by the political complexity that swirled around their country and the world beyond their borders. By and large, Peter probably lived a relatively comfortable life, something close to what we might call a middleclass life today.
But Peter sensed something different in Jesus. There was something about him that led Peter to understand that Jesus was a holy man. And Peter felt Jesus calling him, calling him to a holy life. In one of those moments of blinding insight that Peter exhibits from time to time, he understood that he himself was not a holy man. Called into a holy life but believing that he could never live up to that calling, Peter was filled with fear. Peter feared that he would be found to be inadequate to this calling. The thought that he would fall short in this work filled him with shame. It was better that Jesus go away and forget that he had ever met him.
And the truth is that he was not adequate to the work at hand. By the end of it all, Peter would fall short. But that is story of the Good News for another day.
I think that Peter might be the most relatable of the disciples. There is something about him that is like a mirror and allows us to see ourselves in his shoes. I suspect that many of us here this morning can relate to the fear that he expresses in some aspect of our own discipleship. I suspect that there is some part of our own lives, some part of our own person, that we wish Jesus wouldn’t examine too closely, that causes us to wish he would just go away.
I bring all of this up because the recent announcement from Williams Lake about the discovery of more graves at the former St. Joseph’s residential school is yet another reminder of the cruel history and ongoing reality of discrimination against Indigenous peoples in this land. I bring all of this up because the so-called trucker rally taking place in Ottawa and now in cities across the country has featured signs and banners filled with swastikas and hate-filled slogans, highlighting the very real presence of xenophobia and white supremacy in our midst. I bring all of this up because the persistent stories of verbal and physical attacks against people of Asian ancestry in our region, especially since the onset of the pandemic, highlights a long history of abuse and discrimination the Asian community faces.
I bring all of this up because the ongoing work before all of us to face the problems and realities of race in our society, in our communities, in our churches, and in ourselves. And in my experience, there is no place that we can better relate to Peter’s fear this morning than when we are asked to talk about issues of race.
Like Peter’s plea for Jesus to just go away, we express that fear in unusual ways. Sometimes we do it through avoidance. We don’t engage in conversations about race, in fact we go out of our way to stay away from them. We tell ourselves that it isn’t necessary. We don’t need to talk about race here because we aren’t racist, and besides, there aren’t even any people of color here.
Other times we express our fear by becoming defensive. We agree that race is something that needs to be discussed, but it is a problem that other people have, not us. Everyone knows that race is a problem in the States, not here in Canada. After all we went to school with people of all different ethnicities, we work—or worked—side by side with people of other races and never had any problems with them. In fact, we don’t even see someone’s race when we encounter them, we’ve become colorblind. Besides, we are even friends with a person of color, so we can’t be racist.
Sometimes we even express our fear with anger. We feel aggravated when the topic is brought up. Why do we even need to talk about race? Look at the kids today, they don’t even notice the color of the skin of their classmates. The issue of race is behind us, we snap, isn’t it time for us to deal with something more important?
The trouble is that our entire lives, from the time that we were little up to and including now, we have been taught to equate racism with the worst forms of bigotry and hatred. When we hear the word racism, images of white hoods, burning crosses, fire bombings, and lynchings flit through our minds. And if that is what racism is, then the thought that it is still in our communities, still in our churches, the possibility that we ourselves might be stained with the worst of human depravity and hatred fills us with terror. In our minds, racism becomes so big and unforgiveable a sin that we avoid it at all costs; we avoid being near it, we avoid acknowledging its existence, we even avoid talking about it.
Racism includes those things, yes, and racism encompasses so much more than that. Racism includes the ways that we consciously and unconsciously avoid contact with people who are different than we are. It includes the structures and systems that are in place that afford fewer opportunities—educational, vocational, housing, or financial—to people with colored skin. It includes the micro behaviors that we commit based on people’s race, sometimes not even recognizing them until after we have acted upon them, from locking the car doors when driving through sections of town populated by racial minorities, to walking on the other side of the sidewalk when passing a person of color, to feeling fear when we see a black person express any emotion that isn’t happiness. Racism includes the cultural messages that lighter skin is more beautiful, that straighter hair is more desirable, more attractive, and more professional. And racism includes the inherent danger, even existential danger, that people with dark skin face on a daily basis as they go about activities that most of us never have to think twice about, whether it is children selling lemonade in front of their home, families enjoying a cookout in the park, people walking home with their groceries, or individuals going through routine traffic stops.
Racism includes a whole spectrum of behaviors and systems with very long histories in our society that desperately need our attention, our compassion, and our action. What is more, each and every one of us have absorbed some aspect of this pervasive racism within ourselves; we can’t help it for we have been immersed in it from before we could even speak. But when we equate racism with only the worst kind of bigotry and hatred, then we close ourselves off from this important work for fear of having to address the racism that hits close to home in our communities and in ourselves. We close ourselves off from the world, from ourselves, even from relationship with God, crying out, “Go away from me Lord and do not examine me too closely!”
But Jesus responds to Peter, Jesus responds to us, “Do not be afraid.” These are not words of comfort. Jesus isn’t telling Peter that there is nothing to fear, that everything will be okay. And Jesus isn’t telling us to not be afraid because this will be easy work, that we won’t have to face things within ourselves and within our community that we would rather not face.
Jesus tells Peter to put away his fear, to set it down, for there is work to be done. For Peter was allowing his fear to be a barrier, a stumbling block, between him and discipleship. And Jesus is telling us to put away our fear, to set it down, because there is work to be done, and we are allowing our fear to be a barrier and a stumbling block between us and our discipleship to Christ.
My friends, Jesus did not go down to preach beside the sea so that he could find and call perfect and holy people to be his disciples. He went down that day to find ordinary people, people like Peter who sometimes struggled to get it, who sometimes fell short even though they had the best intentions, people who would make mistakes over and over again, and yet through it all, kept seeking to follow Jesus. And Jesus continues to call ordinary people, people who are broken, people who don’t always get it, people who have fallen short and will fall short again, people like me and like you. He continues to call us to follow after him, into discipleship.
Friends, we are all a little bit broken, and we all struggle with racism, and racism harms all of us. This is not something that we have to be afraid of, especially if that fear prevents us from seeking healing and wholeness. This work before us of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation is holy and important work.
Do not be afraid. Jesus stands before us and is saying to put away our fear. Now there is work to be done, and Christ will be with us always.