Well as they, “Denial isn’t just a big river in Egypt.”
There are two Peters offered us throughout the gospel: there’s the rock of stability, the pillar of faith, who sees the truth about Jesus and speaks it boldly … and then there’s the stumbling block, the well-meaning, shortsighted buffoon who, again and again, stands in Jesus’ way. And the two Peters are one guy … and there’s something for us all to learn from that. We belong to a church proud to identify with Peter the rock. We are so ready to embrace the solidity of Peter’s office but that very firmness of foundation makes it so easy to become Satan, Accuser of the faithful, an obstacle to the brave and foolish Jesus who walks a way to Jerusalem which only idiots can travel. The rock become the stumbling block. Much easier to remember the confidence Jesus placed in Peter and forget the repeated denials. But Peter was one man, not two. And we are one church. And Peter kept on changing. God always managed to get underneath his most stubborn denial and set his feet back on the path.
Ah but denial is much underrated. I’m in denial this weekend. You may have met Paul, my brother Jesuit, who’s been coming to church here over the last year. I’ve been walking with Paul, listening to his life with God through the year, sharing faith and breakfast at Bette’s diner from time to time, and marvelling at how God can surprise and delight and transform someone. His particular transformation has been a call, an invitation … a call to leave the Jesuits, the Company of Jesus as we call ourselves, and walk a road in company with Jesus along another path. And I’ve been blessed by sharing that journey with him, I’ve done my best to bless and support him in it, but yesterday when we said goodbye I felt more than anything that I couldn’t feel what I was feeling. I had followed the path with him but completely denied—in here—that it was diverging from my own. … So embraces made, gifts exchanged, promises spoken, I sat at my computer torn between denial and tears—and desperately not wanting to be alone.
No better tool of denial than the telephone! I try one good Jesuit friend—away doing a wedding. Blast! Auto-dial. Auto-denial! Try another companion of the heart! Away doing a retreat. OK! Last resort! The guy who’s been standing behind me for the last hour: “Jesus? Where the hell are you? Why do you give me limbs and then saw them off.” … And a surprising and clear reply: “Talk to Peter!”
Well denial is hard work! For eight hours I cleaned the fireplace, cleaned the bathroom, surfed the net, answered my mail, even read some theology. Oh did the laundry too. Then, at last, gave in and found Peter. Peter in tears.
“Hey Peter, big boys don’t cry!”
This one does! I don’t understand him at all. All I want is to understand him and walk with him. But every word he says say surprises me. “Who am I?” he asks. And, wherever it comes from, I can blab “God’s anointed” and amaze myself and get all that praise from him, the look behind his eyes—and that frightening proud burden. Then the next moment I utter some confident platitude to lighten him up and he blasts me: Satan, he shouts, snare, stumbling block. But why shouldn’t I wish him well? Why shouldn’t I try to keep his feet on a safe path? But he had to put my feet in their place—back behind him. In step. Going his crazy new way. But what if his way isn’t my way? What if its astray he’s going? What then? Well if he wants to blaze a trail to Jerusalem, if he wants death and glory, then let him have it! I’ve got fish to catch still. I never said I’d stay with him for ever. I didn’t! Just “follow me,” he said and I did. And I’m here and he makes no sense. So maybe this is the parting of the ways. Maybe I’ve got more sense than he has after all, anointed or not. Maybe I’m heading home. Cutting my losses. Staying put. Going home.
But, Peter, if your going home why the tears?
Because I have .. no .. home. He has stolen it from me. He has duped me and I have let myself be duped. The word of life burns in him. And now it’s burning in me—a fire in the heart, a prisoner in my bones. And I have to speak it or exhaust myself holding it in. Where could I run to anyway? Where would I go? Even the fish would laugh at me. All I can do is get back behind him. Trail after him. If he falls I fall with him. If he goes to the gallows I go with him.
Then Peter why are you telling me this?
Because you are me … and the word burns in you and you have no home but the road with Jesus.
Because Paul is me … and the word burns in him and he has no home but the road with Jesus.
Because ways diverge. Because paths cross and uncross. Because wasting your life with Jesus is all that matters. Because denial is more than a big river in Egypt—Denial is where the future begins.
But, Peter, this is a lousy homily! What is the point?
Ah, the point? Nothing matters but the place the next foot falls and whether it falls with Jesus or alone. Everything comes to that. No way is so sure it can be travelled alone. Not for you, not for me, not for the church built upon this shaky rock. Only his feet make the way.
August 29th, 1999