The World Today
Have you ever had an encounter that left you with a lasting impression? It might have been a famous athlete, singer, movie start, or politician. Maybe it was an ordinary person who extended an extraordinary kindness to you. Possibly it could have been an unexpected encounter that caught you outside of your comfort zone.

I had such an encounter years ago with a gentleman named Louis Burton Lindley, Jr. You’ve probably never heard his real name, but I’d be willing to bet you recognize his stage name – Slim Pickens. He portrayed many characters in Hollywood movies, but my favorite was his role as a bomber pilot in the 60’s movie, “Dr. Strangelove.” As his plane approached its target, he realized the bomb bay door would not open. Sitting atop the nose of the hydrogen bomb, he was able to fix the problem but unable to move to safety before it was released. As you see it falling to its target, with him atop the warhead, he removes his cowboy hat, waves it in the air, and lets out a celebratory “Yahoo!”

For Slim Pickens, that hat was more than just a movie prop, it was who he was. I had the privilege of meeting him in my role as an escort for actors and other well-known personalities who appeared in the annual Telethon for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center. Through the course of several years, our first stop upon his arrival was always a local western wear store. There he would have the hat he was wearing steam-pressed, purchase a new one, place the old one in its box to be auctioned off that night, and wear the new one for that appearance. If a movie he was working on interfered with his Telethon appearance, he would stop production until he returned. Such was the degree of his love for the Rehab Center, the people it helped (especially the kids), and the opportunity he had to help raise money for it.

Today, we consider the Apostle Peter’s encounter with Jesus on the evening of the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest. Peter was a fisherman from Galilee. From what we know of him from Scripture, history, and tradition, Peter was a typical Galilean male: quick-tempered, impulsive, emotional, adventurous, and loyal to the end. Yes, we’re talking about the same Peter who walked on water, was one of the Savior’s “inner circle (along with James and John), and, on the night when Jesus was arrested, denied Him three times! You see, on that night, Peter was afraid to speak up for Jesus and let Him down. If such could happen to Peter, it can and does happen to us. How do we, like Peter, fall away from Jesus?

The Word Revealed
1. Our confidence becomes deceptive. Jesus predicts Simon Peter’s denial, telling him, “‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.’ Peter said, ‘Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you, and even to die with you’” (Luke 22:31-33, NLT). You see, confidence is good. But, for us, as well as for Peter, when distorted to the point of overconfidence, confidence is deceptive.

2. Our prayers become distracted. The disciples accompanied Jesus to the Mount of Olives. At one point, Jesus asks them to stay behind and pray for Him. Upon His return, Jesus notices that Peter and the others were asleep. He challenges them, “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation” (Luke 22:46, NLT). When we don’t pray, it’s a sign that we don’t take God seriously enough. Like Peter, we feel that we are in control, that we can handle anything life throws at us. But, it is only through prayer that we can more fully draw closer to God. When we fall from God, the first thing to suffer is our prayer life.

3. Our following becomes distant. When Judas arrives with the soldiers, the disciples scatter. “So they arrested him and led him to the high priest’s home. And Peter followed at a distance”. (Luke 22:54, NLT). Like Peter, we are often more concerned about blending in than standing out. We just want to go along with the crowd, afraid to acknowledge or talk about Jesus publicly. Sometimes, we’re even reluctant to pray in public. We call ourselves “Christians,” but we don’t want to stand out.

4. Our loyalty becomes divided. Peter was much more comfortable amongst the crowd than standing against it. “The guards lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat around it, and Peter joined them there” (Luke 22:55, NLT). Like Peter, when our spiritual passion and enthusiasm declines, we value the approval of others more than we value the approval of God. Revelations 3:16 warns of a lukewarm faith that’s neither in or out, neither for or against in its commitment to Christ. It admonishes us to stop riding the fence in our faith.

5. Our faith becomes diluted. The servant girl recognizes Peter. “But Peter denied it. “Woman,” he said, “I don’t even know him” (Luke 22:57, NLT)! To deny as Peter did is to refuse to recognize. Faith diluted results in apathy; apathy leads to rejection; rejection results in the denial (refusal to recognize) of our faith.

6. Our walk becomes destructive. “But Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed” (Luke 22:60, NLT). With the third denial, the rooster crows, Jesus exchanges a glance with Peter enroute to another trial. “And Peter left the courtyard, weeping bitterly” (Luke 22:62, NLT). In spite of the events of that evening, in spite of all we have done to fall away from Jesus, there is Good News for Peter and for us. John 3:16 reminds us that God sent his only Son, Jesus, to bring Peter back, and to bring us back, to a right relationship with Him! Peter’s repentance through faith in Christ resulted in his reinstatement as a leader of the disciples of the Early Church.

His example begs the question of us – where are you in your spiritual journey? Are you following at a distance or willing to go the distance? Is your faith the real deal or are you living a double standard? To answer these questions requires us to consider – how does one fall in line with Jesus? Where do you find yourself in these four levels of growth in one’s spiritual journey?

1. Come and see. “Jerusalem, Idumea, from east of the Jordan River, and even from as far north as Tyre and Sidon. The news about his miracles had spread far and wide, and vast numbers of people came to see him” (Mark 3:8, NLT). People from faraway places came to see what Jesus was all about. They had heard about Him. Now they wanted to see for themselves if what they had heard was real. This is what we refer to as the curiosity level. It reminds me of my first Sunday as your pastor, a Sunday many pastors refer to as the “look-see” Sunday. That’s the Sunday where curiosity leads many folks to come to church if only to get a “look-see” at the new pastor. It’s also the level where those new to the church come to check things out, to look for healthy relationships, and hoping to find authenticity, relevance, and a place to belong.

2. Come and surrender. The disciples had been fishing all night and had caught absolutely nothing. Jesus sees them from the shore and instructs them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. You can imagine how they must have snickered at the suggestion, thinking to themselves, “what difference will that make? We’ve been doing this all of our lives. What does He know? Peter was bold enough to initially voice their doubts, but then conceded: “Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again” (Luke 5:5). If you’re following along in your Bibles, underline the words “if you say so.” This is the level we refer to as the commitment level. It’s the point where we are willing to come under the authority of Jesus. It’s a teachable moment, a point at which we are no longer spectators, and are willing to get involved.

The chicken and the pig were talking about the possibility of opening a restaurant together. The pig asked, “what shall we name it?” The chicken eagerly replied, “Ham and Eggs.” The pig snorted, “no!” Puzzled, the chicken asked “why?” The pig stated in no uncertain terms, “I’d be the one who was totally committed while you’d only be partially involved!” Most of us stop at this stage in our spiritual journey, a level often referred to as the “casual Christian.” A recent survey conducted by George Barna, a well-known researcher in the area of religious beliefs and behaviors, concluded that two-thirds of US adults self-identified at this level. They exercise their faith in moderation without being radical, they feel religious without living out their faith in their daily lives, and they have no desire to get involved in changing the culture in which they live.

3. Come and share. Saul, whose name would be changed to Paul as the result of his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road was persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem. Fearful for their lives, many Christians fled Jerusalem to distant lands, taking their faith with them, to places where it had never been shared. “But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). As unbelievably devastating as the persecution of Christians was, an outcome of those many believers leaving the city of Jerusalem was the spreading of the Good News to regions far beyond the city far more quickly that anyone would have imagined.

Those responsible for sharing the story of Jesus and the Gospel He proclaimed were living out their faith in the commission level. It is the level at which we are ready to advance the mission of Christ, no matter what the cost. It is characterized by (1) a desire to seek and save the lost through our investment of our time, talents, and resources; (2) our behaving differently, where we “walk the walk” rather than just “talk the talk;” and (3) being unafraid to take Jesus with us everywhere we go – to our job, to our school, and to our neighbors.

4. Come and suffer. “Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Luke 9:23-24, NLT). Most Americans find it difficult to relate to this level, the conviction level. However, believers beyond our shores live at that level daily because of their faith and its practice, even at the cost of losing their lives. While news of the killing of Christians in the Middle East has been expansive in recent weeks, there’s an ongoing tragedy of death that is relatively unknown to the outside world in north Korea. A tragedy that spans three generations, an estimated 11 Christians per day are killed because of their faith. Conviction in such settings means the willingness to suffer because of your beliefs and follow Jesus, regardless of the consequences, be it the loss of your job, your family, or your life.

Applying the Word to the World
Our Take-Away from our consideration of Peter’s story, that simple truth or question that we take with us today and are challenged to apply it to our daily lives, is a question. The story of Peter’s multiple denials of Christ, his unspoken but understood repentance and Christ’s forgiveness of those sins, and his subsequent role in the birthing of the Early Church points us to an understanding that, wherever we are in our spiritual journey, forgiveness is possible for us as well, regardless of our sins. With those realities in mind, and an appreciation that our spiritual journey follows a progression of steps and levels of growth in our walk with Christ, our Take-Away asks the simple question – what’s your next step?

Are you at the curiosity level? Are you looking for answers to your questions about God and your   relationship with Him and this church? We’re here to answer your questions.

Are you at the commitment level? Are you ready to make a decision for Christ, for this His church, for His kingdom? That’s the opportunity that the Hymn of  Invitation offers – to take that step, to make a decision to follow Him, to join our church family, and join us in taking future steps together.

Are you at the commission level? Are you ready to take your faith into the marketplace? Are you ready to accept Christ’s commission to share Him with others?

Are you at the conviction level? Are you willing to recognize and accept that Christians are no longer the darlings of our culture? If so, then you must face two options in regard to the sin and darkness of today’s world: (1) to remain silent, to give in, to seek tolerance over truth at the risk of losing our religious freedoms or (2) wake up, stand up, and speak up about biblical values, regardless of the cost.

What is your next step? On the insert to your bulletin or on a piece of paper on which you can jot them down, take a moment to consider the four levels of spiritual growth. Circle the one where you see yourself today. Better yet, circle the one you feel you need to work towards and draw an arrow from where you presently are. Then, make the decision to pursue it and take that step, no matter the cost!