By Pastor Glenn Pease
Some years back a young girl was caught out in a thunder storm as she rode her bicycle. She made it to the top of the hill and then headed down as fast as she could go. When she got home she told a strange tale. Every time there was a flash of lightning blue flames ran across her handle bars. Had it not been for the rubber tires on her bike she felt she would have been electrocuted. This experience is rare for landlubbers. But for men of the sea strange happenings with lightening are common. The fiery glow of electricity is often seen on the masts of ships, and other pointed objects. Pilots see it on the wings of their planes also. This electrical discharge has come to be called St. Elmo's fire, and it has a fascinating history. It all ties in with our subject this morning because many Italian sailors call it the fires of St. Peter.
In the account of the second voyage of Columbus, written by his son, is this passage: "During the night of Saturday Oct. 1493 the thunder and rain being very violent, St. Elmo appeared on the topgallant mast with 7 lighted tapers, that is to say, we saw those fires which the sailors believe to proceed from the body of the saint." Seaman even developed poetry concerning this strange electric phenomenon.
Last night I saw Saint Elmo's stars,
With their glittering lanterns all at play,
On the tops of the masts and the tips of the spars,
And I knew we should have foul weather today.
It is of interest that Peter is connected with these phenomena of natural lightning; not only because of his being a fisherman and a man of the sea, but because it fits his very nature. If James and John, two out of the three in the inner circle of Christ's Apostles, were called sons of thunder, then nothing could be more appropriate than calling Peter, the third member of this trio, the son of lightning. The Jews have a proverb that says, thunder and lightning are inseparable, and this certainly holds true with the men Christ chose as the foundation for his church. Lightning comes before the thunder, and Peter was given first place as leader of the 12, even over the beloved John-the son of thunder.
Peter is like lightning in so many ways. He is as unpredictable. You never know when he is going to strike, and when he does he follows the path of least resistance just like lightning. Alexander Whyte says of Peter, "He was hasty, headlong, speaking impertinently, and unadvisedly...Ever wading into waters too deep for him...Caring little for conventional propriety, or for difficulties locking his way, Peter acted on the rule, when in doubt, speak." Peter's reckless tongue was like forked lightning, and nowhere do we see it more clearly than in our text. Peter is the only one of the 12 who was so quick on the trigger that he fired back at the Lord Himself with heated resistance.
Even in this setting where Jesus was filling the air with the most beautiful message he ever spoke, Peter is living up to this name as a son of lightning by creating all kinds of static. Jesus persisted with Peter, however, for he knew long before Benjamin Franklin, the lightning can be tamed. Lightning can be made into a powerful force for good if it is harnessed and brought under control. We want to look at the three stages Peter went through before the divine lightning tamer brought him under control. First look at-
I. PETER'S REFUSAL. v. 8
Who but this flaming, impetuous son of lightning would dare to give this heated response to his master-"you shall never wash my feet!" If ever a man was deserving of being struck down by the lightning of God's judgment, you would think Peter was well qualified. All ancient people's looked upon lightning as the tool of God's wrath. Zeus among the Greeks, or Jupiter among the Romans, or Allah among the Moslems are frequently portrayed as destroying their enemies with flaming thunder bolts from the sky. In the Old Testament there are references to the Lord's use of lightning. Psa. 144:6 says, "Flash forth the lightning and scatter them." Psa. 97:4 says, "His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles."
Our text says all things were given into the hands of Christ. This means that the lightning of God's wrath was also available to him, and he could have met Peter's hotheaded refusal with a bolt of judgment. Jesus does not handle things that way, however, for he understands Peter's problem. Jesus does not deal with us according to what we are, but according to what we can be when we are committed to him. Peter is blind and ignorant, and so he takes this stubborn stand with a good motive. His thinking is that no Lord of mine is going to wash my feet, for I respect his dignity too much to see it degraded. His refusal was based on a high respect for Christ, and we could admire Peter for this if it were not for verse 7 where Jesus said, "What I am doing you do not understand now but later you will."
Jesus recognized that what he was doing was unique. It was contrary to all custom. The master never washes the feet of the servants. This is unheard of in any land, and so he prepares them by telling them that they will come to understand by progressive enlightenment. They would have to submit and obey him first, and later come to an understanding of what it was all about. The Christian life is like this because the Lord wants obedience above all else. If we can learn to obey his commands even when we do not fully understand, we reveal that we have truly made him Lord. The key to good discipleship is not understanding, but obedience.
So many people worry about whether a young person fully understands what they are doing when they get baptized at 9 or 10 years old. Of course, they don't fully understand. I didn't either when I was baptized at 9, but I understand now. We are baptized primarily because Jesus commanded it. It is an act of obedience above all else. To many we might appropriately say, what we do now you do not know, but you will understand later. When a person is old enough to obey what they understand is their Lord's command, they are old enough to be baptized. If you don't buy that, you are in good company, for Peter didn't either. Peter made a lightning like response and thought, I don't understand it now, and, therefore, I will not obey-you will never wash my feet.
This is just the problem with lightning. It is all speed and no thought. It is quick on the trigger, but doesn't take aim. Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet says,
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like lightning, which does cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens.
That is Peter all over. He doesn't bother to weigh any evidence, or hear any arguments. His mind is made up before any facts are presented, and he flashes forth with his dogmatic refusal. It is not a polite, "Can't we discuss this issue," or a courteous evasion," let's do it another time," but a rude, rebellious refusal, "never-you shall never wash my feet."
Peter is a real rebel, but he is all the more lovable because of it. We like non-conformists because they usually have the nerve to stand up and be different when everyone else is afraid to do so. Even when they are on the wrong path, like Peter is here, we enjoy them for their blunders make us feel more secure because we would never be so foolish. Peter's blunders are favorite sermon texts.
Preach about the other man, preacher,
The man we all can see,
The man who drinks and beats his wife,
The man who lends his hands to strife,
Preach about the other man,
Not about me.
The fact is, Peter is the representative man. When we preach on Peter, we preach on all men, for we are all more like Peter than we care to admit. We are all defiled with the same pride that lead to Peter's refusal. It is not easy for an man to submit to being served by a superior, especially when you respect that superior. Suppose you were invited to the home of some dignitary that you greatly admired, and the hostess noticed that your shoes were scuffed and offered to polish them. Not a man in a million would yield to such service. We would resist such an offer with all the dogmatism of the son of lightning. "Never, never, never! We would not hear of such a thing." Wild horses could not pull us into a position where we would let a person we greatly respect perform a lowly, undignified service for us.
Put yourself in Peter's sandals and you will better understand his refusal. You will understand that it is not only more blessed to give than to receive, but it is a whole lot easier. It is very hard to accept charity, but if we pay attention to our own theology, that is what we do constantly. All we have and are is by the grace of God. We receive the gift of life, salvation, guidance, and all gifts as charity. But when Jesus dramatizes this truth as he does with the feet washing we are shocked, and our pride resists. We have often heard that we can accept Jesus as Savior and not as Lord, but Jesus goes one step more and says, we can accept him as Savior and Lord, and still not accept him as servant, and thus, miss the best of all.
Jesus said to Peter, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." If we do not submit to his sovereign service, and learn to overcome all the pride and false dignity that keeps us from bending to serve others, we can have no part in his plan. He came into the world to minister, and his church is formed to minister. No one is truly a part of the body of Christ who has not learned this. When Peter heard the shocking rebuke he quickly changed his mind, and so we look secondly at-
II. PETER'S REVERSAL. v. 9
Peter reveals his kinship to lightning again by the way he changes his mind. His never lasted about 5 seconds. His dogmatic refusal to ever submit to being washed was reversed instantly to a plea for washing all over. Peter went from one extreme to the other in a few seconds. From never to now with the speed of lightning. You have to give Peter a lot of credit for this sudden reversal of his dogmatic stand. Very few men have the courage to abandon a bad decision as fast as Peter. He gets into trouble fast, but he also knows how to quickly retreat from a bad position. He is mighty in his mistakes, but equally courageous in his corrections.
History is full of men who cannot, like Peter, fail successfully because they don't have the courage to admit they have made a mistake. F. W. Boreham tells of the celebrated doctor Sangrado of Spain who developed a simple remedy for all sicknesses. He and his assistant Gil Blas went from bed to bed applying this panacea to all the patients. The one thing that troubled the assistant was that without exception all the patients died. When he modestly suggested that they should modify their method of treatment Dr. Sangrado replied, "I would willingly do so provided it would have no bad consequences. But I have published a book in which I have exalted this wonderful system, and would you have me decry my own work?" "You are right," the assistant said, "It would ruin your reputation. You must not give your enemies such a triumph over you. Let us continue as we are."
Peter made mistakes, but he was not stupid. He never stuck with a mistake when he saw it for what it was. He was a great man just because he could retreat as fast as he advanced when he saw he was going the wrong direction. Jesus wanted that kind of man at the head of his disciples. No man is truly great who cannot change his mind when he makes a foolish decision. When Peter saw that his never would cut him off from Christ he switched to now immediately. Like lightning he joined the company of great men who learned to say, "I was wrong.."
In Boswell's famous biography of Dr. Johnson he tells of his visit to America. And admirer of his who felt he was infallible could not understand one of his definitions in his famous dictionary. He defined postern as the knee of a horse. She approached him with her problem and expected to get an explanation from some deeply learned source with which she was not acquainted. To her astonishment the great doctor made no elaborate defense, but said, "Ignorance madam, pure ignorance!" He was a great man because he could admit his mistake and retreat from it. It is no virtue to be faithful to one's folly. It is a virtue to flee from it.
Peter did just that with the speed of lightning, and so we learn that even lightning is not all bad. Natural lightning has its good side also. It causes a chemical reaction between oxygen and nitrogen in the air. It forms a substance known as nitric acid. This is brought down by rain and provides the earth with millions of tons of the finest fertilizer every year. Natural lightning can make a great reversal from being a fearfully destructive force to become a fruitfully constructive force. That is what Peter the lightning like Apostle did. His fruit became universal because of his great reversal. The third thing we want to consider is-
III. PETER'S RENEWAL. v. 10
Peter's reversal actually took him to an extreme beyond what the Lord required. Jesus said to Peter, "You don't have to be washed all over, only your feet and you will be renewed to your state of cleanness. This feet washing is symbolic of the fact that all Christians need renewal. This battle to get Peter's feet washed should make that clear. The head Apostle's struggle is recorded so all Christians can see clearly that if he needed it, then all need it. Studdert Kennedy wrote,
There's nothing in man that's perfect,
There's nothing that's all complete,
He's no but a big beginning,
From his head to the soles of his feet.
Peter was not a finished product, as no Christian is. We are in process of becoming what God wants us to be. All construction sights tend to get messy and dirty, and that is true for the Christian as he walks through this dusty world. He gets defiled and needs to be renewed constantly, or he will stop growing. Construction will cease, and he will begin to look like a unfinished project deserted and left to decay. If a Christian submits to constant reviewing of his life, and consistent renewing of it by confession and changing his course, he will, like Peter, go on to abundant and fruitful living.
When Apollo 12 took off, everything was perfect for 36 seconds. Then lightning struck the space craft and the master alarm sounded, and lights blazed all over the control panel. Dick Gordon said, "In all our training we had never seen so many alarm lights." Once in orbit their lives and the success of the mission depended on getting the guidance system realigned. Dick Gordon crawled down into the equipment bay and tried to sight some stars in order to get the space craft back on course. He looked through the telescope and couldn't see a single star. He actually wondered if the stars had gone out. But as his eyes adapted to the dark he saw the constellation Orion. He sighted on Rigal and Sirius, and Apollo 12 was back in business.
This true life event concerning man's progress in space is like a parable of the progress of the church of Christ. Lightning was threatening to throw the church out of control. It was necessary for Jesus to get Peter to focus his eyes on the bright and morning star in order to get the church again under the proper guidance system so it could achieve the purpose for which Jesus established it. Like Peter, all of us need to be constantly renewed by getting our eyes on Jesus so that we have the proper guidance to achieve his goal for us.