February 7, 2016
Simul Intelligentium et Stultum
Martin Luther, whose questions about the medieval church’s system of indulgences began the Protestant Reformation in 1517, used a Latin phrase to describe the condition of humanity in the face of God’s grace: Simul justus et peccator—at the same time justified and a sinner. In other words, we are justified, saved, by grace through faith in Christ (or the faith of Christ, in a rather compelling alternate translation); but at the same time, our own human nature—what Paul called the flesh—is still inclined toward sinfulness.
As I read today’s text and thought about Peter, something else came to my mind.
I never really studied Latin, but Mike and I are both sort of fascinated by it, so I tried to come up with a phrase for who Peter is that was similar to Luther’s simul justus et peccator. With some help from Google Translate (which sometimes gets things wrong, granted), my description of Peter came out in Latin as my sermon title for today: Simul intelligentium et stultum—at the same time smart and stupid.
That definitely describes Peter in our reading for today. First he says, “You are the Christ”—showing insight that, in other Gospels, Jesus says had to have come from the Holy Spirit. Then, when Jesus says, well, the Messiah—the Christ—is going to be rejected and killed, then rise again on the third day, Peter can’t get his mind around that. He pulls Jesus aside and says, “Teacher, don’t you know your Bible? The Scriptures are clear that the Messiah is going to overthrow the Romans and bring the kingdom of God fully into power on this earth. Messiah’s reign is to be eternal—if you’re the Messiah, you’re certainly not going to die!”
And then they go up the mountain, and Jesus is transfigured, and Moses and Elijah—who represent the Law and the Prophets, but are also both figures whose deaths were mysterious—appear to talk to him. And again Peter’s mouth starts running before his mind is engaged, and he starts babbling something about building booths, so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah can get some shelter from the hot sun, maybe? But I doubt that I’d have made much more sense in a situation like that.
Honestly, I think I have a lot in common with Peter.
If I’m really paying attention to Jesus, to what he taught and what he did, and I am genuinely and prayerfully trying to figure out how to follow him here and now, I may well say and do smart things. But as soon as I set my mind on the things of the earth, I’m not so smart.
I get to thinking that following Jesus is about the rules I need to follow or enforce on others, not remembering that the only rules Jesus imposed on us had to do with loving God and one another. Or I decide that Jesus would support one political party or candidate over another, forgetting that when Jesus was tempted with the chance to exert political power, he said no. Or maybe I baptize my own desires and preferences, and assume that Jesus just wants me to be happy, live a financially comfortable life and drive a fancy new car—ignoring, as Peter wanted to do, the reality that Jesus was rejected, arrested, tortured, and crucified, and told us that if we wanted to follow him we needed to be prepared to pick up our own crosses. Or maybe—and Peter did this, too—when the going gets tough I say, No, of course I don’t belong to Jesus; I don’t even know the man!
I’m a lot like Peter in a lot of ways. Are you?
Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God; but he didn’t understand what that meant. Peter knew that the way of Christ was the way that leads to Christ; but when a cross loomed large on the path they were walking, he pretended he had never stepped onto that path.
And yet, after Jesus rose from the dead, it was Peter who emerged as the leader of the community that came to be known as the church. It was Peter who spoke boldly and even in defiance of religious and political authorities who tried to silence him. Peter followed Jesus even into unknown territory, when he welcomed the Gentile Cornelius into the church that had, until then, been entirely made up of Jewish believers.
Eventually Peter was martyred, killed because he followed Jesus and refused to turn away.
Peter, whose Latin motto could well have been simul intelligentium et stultum—at the same time smart and stupid—eventually managed to be rid of the stultum part of his nature, the part that presumed to correct Jesus’ Christology, the part that babbled in the presence of the transfigured Jesus, the part that denied ever having known Jesus when things got scary. And so can we all, in the same way that Peter did.
It didn’t happen by force of will—Peter did not change himself by vowing to be better and then gritting his teeth and working hard at it. On his own, Peter was still very human, and often very clueless.
But something happened to Peter that had nothing to do with what he could do on his own. That same something happens to each of us, when we make the decision to follow Jesus, to die to ourselves and live for him. It happened to Peter on Pentecost, and it happens to us when we come up out of the waters of baptism: We receive the Holy Spirit, who lives and works within each of us and among us when we gather as a church; and the power of the Spirit is what makes it possible for us to understand who Jesus is, what he did for us, and how to follow him in our own lives today…if we pay attention.