Last Thursday and Friday was the annual Global Leadership Summit put on by Willowcreek. This is my sixteenth time to attend, and it’s still two of my favorite days of the year. In honor of GLS, let’s talk about … well, let’s just talk and maybe we’ll see at the end what we talked about.
Today we’re going to look at a couple of episodes in the life of a man named Peter. Or Simon. Or Cephas. He had a lot of names (he wasn’t in witness protection as far as we know), but we’ll call him Peter from here on out. Peter made a living as a fisherman, but he’s best known for hanging out with a guy named Joshua or Yeshua or Jesus (He has a lot of names, too).
We learn about Peter in the first four books of the New Testament; there’s quite a bit of conjecture that the second one was written from Peter’s perspective by a friend of his named John Mark (who, like my dad and Brad Pitt, we know by his middle name).
The first episode we’ll look at is “The One Where Peter Almost Drowned,” found in Matt 14:22-31. Jesus has just fed the 5000, and He sends the disciples back across the lake while He goes off to pray. When He gets finished, He sets out to where they are, and being the Son of God and all, He walks out to where the boat is. On the water. As you might or might not expect, the big strong men in the boat (most of them fishermen) all start screaming like little girls. “Take courage,” says Jesus, “I am here”. Just a pronoun, no name needed. (Take note one-named celebrities — you’re not <em>really</em> cool until you just need a pronoun.)
Well, that changes everything. Peter decides to take advantage of the situation: “Hey, if it’s You” (still a pronoun), “tell me to come out and join you.” (Translated: “That looks awesome and I totally want to do it but my insides are still screaming like a little girl so I’m not going anywhere unless you confirm it’s You and tell me I can.”) There wasn’t any question about who it was (again, pronoun), so Jesus tells him, “Sure, come on in, the waters fine!”
And so Peter does. He successfully walks out to where Jesus is. And then looks around and notices how windy it is and promptly starts to sink. Jesus watches him flounder for a couple of minutes, looks up and says, “Why me?”, and just as Peter goes down for the third time finally helps him back up.
No, of course that’s not what Jesus did. Matthew says that Jesus <em>immediately</em> reached out and caught him, and asked him a very pertinent question, “Why did you doubt?”, thus giving Peter the cause of his sinking before Peter even asked.
I’ve heard many a sermon on this episode over the years, and all of them gave Peter grief for sinking. A few gave him a small nod for at least getting out of the boat, but everyone always comes back to the fact that he got worried and sunk.
But what if that was the point? What if Peter did exactly what he was supposed to do, or at least what Jesus knew he would do (which may amount to the same thing)? What if the lesson in this story isn’t what Peter didn’t do, but what Jesus did do — give Peter a safe place to fail while He was still there to save him, so he would learn and know what to do (and not do) when Jesus eventually wasn’t there. Consider that when Jesus tells the disciples that they will do greater things than He did (John 14:12), Peter is the only one who physically knows that that’s possible, the only one who has done something that (to that point) only Jesus can do.
The next episode is “The One Where Peter Gets In Jesus’ Face and Lives to Tell About It”, found in Matt 16:21-23 and Mark 8:31-33. Jesus has just asked the disciples who they think He is, and Peter has given one of the great confessions in Scripture. Having indirectly confirmed it, Jesus decides to tell them what’s about to happen: that He’s going to Jerusalem to die, but will be resurrected after three days.
Peter, at least, is aghast. He takes Jesus aside and tells Him in no uncertain terms (“rebukes” is the word that’s used) that that’s not going to happen, the implication being that Peter will see to it that it doesn’t happen. Jesus glances over at the rest of the disciples, who are no doubt watching the episode play out, and then turns and says something intriguing that we’ll examine a bit later.
The most important part of this story might be what isn’t said. What isn’t said is that Jesus had built a culture amongst the disciples where Peter felt free to upbraid Him. Remember, Peter has <em>just said</em> who Jesus is, “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter knows exactly who he’s talking to. While this may or may not be a failure on Peter’s part (more in a moment), it’s a resounding success on Jesus’ part, because He’s provided a place for His disciples to grow, even if at times that growth seems a bit … rough around the edges. Jesus isn’t threatened in the least by Peter’s admonishment, and, like the earlier episode, uses it to teach Peter something.
What he says to Peter is exactly the same thing He said to Peter after Peter’s confession — “I know you think it did, but that didn’t come from you.” With Peter’s confession, Jesus told him that “My Father in heaven” was the one that revealed it to Peter; here, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” In both cases, Jesus tells Peter emphatically that he (Peter) is not in control of as much as he thinks he is, up to and including his thoughts.
These two episodes show Jesus exhibiting world-class leadership. What looks to you and me like a bunch of bumblers are in fact students in the midst of life lessons that will prepare them for a future ministry that will cost all but one of them their life.
We are all leaders, you and I. Few believe that, but leadership is just influence, and we all influence others. It might just be our kids, or it might be a classroom full of kids, or it might be the people who sit on either side of us at work, or it might be our younger sister, or it might be an entire company, but we are all leaders. How are we leading? Are we giving them safe places to fail? Are we giving them freedom to express themselves, even if it makes us uncomfortable?
Are we preparing others for a new episode, “The One Where They Turn the World Upside Down?” (Acts 17:6)