When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be
Where you can see
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be
Where everybody knows your name.
Most of you will recognize those lyrics as the chorus of the theme song from the popular sitcom Cheers. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the original broadcast, it’s been in syndication for about a hundred years. The song insightfully cuts to the core of most human behavior. Everybody wants to be known, understood and heard. Everybody wants to belong. Everybody wants to know that when they walk into the room, all their friends will shout, “Norm.” (Unless your name is George or Carl or Fernando. Then hearing “Norm” would be a little disconcerting. But if you watched the show, you’ll get the point.) Nearly all human misbehavior is linked to issues with identity. If only everyone knew our names, we are sure we would be fine.
In biblical terms, a name is more than just a label. It identifies the essence or the character of the thing or person named. It is an expression of identity at the deepest level. There are frequent references to God giving people new names as their identity changed. Abram (Exalted Father) became Abraham (Father of Many Nations or Father of a multitude). Jacob (Usurper) became Israel (He Who Has Struggled With God and Men and Overcome).
The apostle Peter underwent a similar change. His name was originally Simon, which means “reed.” A reed was unstable and inconsistent, easily shaken by the wind. His experience with Jesus the Messiah changed him and he became Peter, which means “rock.” The name change reflected a change in identity. In the language of this study, his core belief system changed from the deep conviction that he was destined to be shaken by every circumstance and eventually broken by pressure to the inner conviction that he could stand strong even in the face of torture and death.
We don’t know enough about Peter’s early life to know where that core belief came from, but we see evidence of it in his adult life as the Gospels describe him. He was passionate, emotional and inconsistent. Fortunately for us, Peter’s life illustrated many of the challenges we face in the process of transformation.
When Jesus first met Peter, almost his opening comment focused on the name. At the time, he was Simon. As is usually the case with most of us, Jesus saw potential in Simon that Simon himself was unaware of.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). (John 1:42)
(Cephas is the Aramaic version of Peter. To avoid confusion, I will use Peter exclusively instead of Cephas. They both mean the same thing.)
Jesus still continued to call him Simon, in spite of the prophetic promise. But Simon at least had the thought placed in his mind that something could change. The actual change would take a while.
The first glimpse of a change came one night in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. As the disciples struggled against adverse winds, Jesus walked by them, strolling across the water like it was a footpath (Matthew 14:28-31). As soon as they realized it was Jesus, Simon shouted, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
Sermons on this passage usually focus on the miraculous aspect of Jesus walking on the water, the faith of Peter who also walked on the water, and the detrimental effects of Peter looking at his circumstances (the wind and waves), losing his faith and sinking. I’ve never heard anyone ask what seems to be an obvious question: Who in his right mind would want to climb out of the boat when he didn’t have to? What if it wasn’t Jesus, and whoever it was lied and yelled, “Yeah, it’s me. Come on out.” The boat wasn’t sinking. Jesus didn’t command it. He only acquiesced to Peter’s request. What was Peter thinking?
It occurs to me now (and this is a little bit speculative, so take it for what it’s worth) that Jesus infused a vision of change in Simon, telling him he would become Peter, and Simon associated that change with becoming like Jesus. He left everything to follow Jesus. He believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Perhaps when Jesus told him he would be transformed from “reed” to “rock,” he thought of the Messianic prophecy in Daniel 2:34 which spoke of a rock cut out of a mountain that broke metals. If Jesus was the rock, the Messiah, then for Simon to become Peter meant doing everything Jesus did. If Jesus walked on water, Peter could prove himself worthy of his new name by doing the same thing.
Identity issues invariably drive people to seek inclusion or acceptance. Peter, like most of us, may have been compelled by the instability of his core belief system to prove to Jesus that he really was Peter.
And Jesus, either to test Peter’s progress or to demonstrate the futility of that kind of performance-based bravado, replied to Peter’s request with a single word, “Come.”
The man who stepped out of the boat that night was typical of conflicted believers in the midst of transition. In his mind, he was Peter the Rock. His confession was, “I am Peter the Rock.” His act of stepping out was Peter the Rock in motion. And the sheer force of his will power carried him for several steps. Unfortunately, his core belief system was that of Simon the Reed, and the pressure of circumstances brought the reality of Simon to the surface. Peter disappeared and Simon sank into the water.
The great lesson Simon learned was that Jesus is patient and is willing to keep unstable people from drowning. Jesus is not usually in as great a hurry for change as we are. He knows it takes time. There was more growing and learning and changing to come for Simon.
Another key moment came when Peter recognized that it wasn’t about changing his behavior. It was about changing his identity. I’m extrapolating a little, but the implications are there. The particular incident was a typical teaching session with the disciples. Jesus asked who people were saying he was.
A variety of answers were given, all highlighting some aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Some saw the miracles and thought of Elijah. Some saw the authority with which Jesus spoke and thought of the prophets. Some saw his compassion and they thought of Jeremiah. Some heard his chastisement of hypocrites and thought of John the Baptist. None of them quite understood the full import of who Jesus was. They saw only the external manifestations, not the core identity.
So Jesus asked, “What about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter, in a moment of clarity, realized Jesus’ identity was not defined by what other people saw or what they thought of him. Jesus was Messiah. He was the Anointed One of God. The things people saw were only the fruit of that identity, not the identity itself.
Peter also realized that his own identity was not defined by his behavior. Rather, his behavior proceeded from his identity. And his identity was Simon the Reed. If he ever wanted to be anything different, then he, like Jesus, must focus on the truth, that is, the identity he had from and in Christ. “You are the Messiah,” he said, “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Jesus responded with great enthusiasm:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19)
These verses have been often quoted and given diverse interpretations. Without getting into the controversies involved, I want to suggest a nuance directly related to Peter and his identity.
First of all, Jesus had previously told Simon that he would be called Peter. Now the prediction was apparently accomplished. Before, it was “You will be called Peter.” Now it became, “You are Peter.” The fact that there was still some transformation to take place didn’t seem to matter. Jesus believed that when Simon got an intellectual understanding, the inner change would eventually come. And that was good enough for him at that stage in Peter’s growth.
Secondly, much has been made of the differences in the Greek words used here. “Peter” is the word petros, which means a rock or stone, often designated in this verse as a small stone. “Rock” is the word petra, a cliff or protruding rock formation, or, in this context, a large stone. The implication usually pointed out is that the church is not built on Peter (a small rock), but on Jesus (a large rock), or on the understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One of God (also a large rock). Protestants feel great urgency in pointing out these definitions because this verse is used by Catholics to prove the concept of the church being built on the leadership of Peter, thus validating the concept of papal succession.
I want to suggest that perhaps we’ve missed an important point by our desire to prove that Peter was not the first Pope. The attention of this statement is directed at Peter and his personal transformation, not at the establishment of the church. Simon was now changed, and the change would be prominent, like a cliff or protruding rock formation, in establishing the church. Neither the context nor the meanings of those two words warrant making much more than this over the difference. In fact, Jesus probably spoke the words in Aramaic rather than Greek, and in that language there is no difference. They are both the same word. We might paraphrase Jesus’ statement this way:
“You, Simon, finally get it. At last, the Father has implanted in your mind the understanding that you will only become something different when you change your self-identity. And you will only change your identity when you start believing what I say about you, rather than what your circumstances, friends, family, past experience, that is, what your core belief says about you. I will build my church on a foundation made up of people who are transformed by their willingness to let go of their old identity and grow into the purpose, truth and identity I have given them.”
This was not the end of the change, rather it was only the beginning. There was still a great deal of learning, growing and letting go to come. But the glimpse Peter got of true identity gave him a goal that would ultimately transform everything about him.
In Part 11, we will continue to look at Peter’s life and see the ups and downs he still experienced. The rest of his life demonstrated that there is no formula for this kind of change and there is no particular timetable. Even what we intellectually understand still must be interpreted to everyday life, and that takes time.
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.