Then I received another e-mail message - this time from a friend I met at seminary. I haven’t seen him since 1978. He wrote me a nice note that included these two sentences:
Those two messages set me to thinking. I was struck by the fact that I received them so close in time from friends who don’t know each other and whom I haven’t seen in at least 30 years. Yet they said nearly identical things.
I do not bring up those examples simply to bemoan the fact that spiritual leaders fall into grievous sin. That much is evident from a simple reading of the Bible. There is Noah who got drunk, Abraham who lied about his wife, Moses who murdered an Egyptian, and of course there is David who committed adultery and then had a man murdered to cover up his sin.
The question I am asking is this: Why does God allow such things to happen? Why does he allow good men to fall in to sin - and what are we to learn from this? I’m sure we all know one answer already. God allows good men to fall into sin so that the rest of us will learn not to make the same stupid mistake. That’s true, of course. How many of us have heard bad news about a friend and said, “There but for the grace of God go I?” I have said that to myself many times - and so have you. It’s perfectly true that we can all take a lesson from the mistakes of others - and if we don’t, we may find ourselves wishing we had.
But there is much more to be learned and that is the burden of my message. I want us to take a look at the story of Peter who three times denied his Lord. Perhaps the place to begin is with a simple reading of the text. Listen to these words of Jesus spoken to Peter on the night before he was crucified. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). These words must have seemed strange to Peter, coming as it were out of the blue. It has been well remarked that Peter in many ways is the most human of all the disciples. He constantly gets in trouble because he blurts out the stuff everyone else is thinking but doesn’t have the guts to say. He is the man with the foot-shaped mouth, constantly promising more than he can deliver.
This night is no exception. When he hears these words of Jesus, he knows without being told that they contain a great rebuke - a prediction of personal failure that must have seemed impossible. But Peter is nothing if not brave at heart, so he replies foolishly but honestly, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). He did not know that years later he would keep that promise. But not that night. As he uttered those words, his moment of greatest personal failure - the blot that 2000 years cannot remove from his record - his threefold denial of Christ was less that five hours away.
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