How do you picture Saint Peter?
Is he a saintly figure, complete with halo, eyes raised heavenwards, hands folded in prayer or holding a huge bunch of keys – the keys to the kingdom of heaven with the authority to judge whether or not we may enter that kingdom?
Is he a remote figure beyond our reach, part of an élite inner circle of saints who are especially holy?
Or do we see the human Peter:
Simon son of John, the Galilean fisherman;
Simon Peter, the devoted disciple of Jesus’;
Peter the rock – strong and solid but also at the same time vulnerable
and sometimes very wobbly.
And isn’t that a glorious expression of how things are in God’s Kingdom?
Simon, an ordinary, fallible, flawed man, who often fails to engage his brain before he opens his mouth and puts his foot in it, is called and claimed by God and through grace and some tough lessons becomes the foundation of the movement that seeks to bring the kingdom of heaven into this world; to turn this world’s values upside down and re-form it into the world God intended it to be.
Like Simon Peter we too are called to follow Christ and like Simon Peter we set off on a journey into the unknown and have to learn bit by bit, day by day what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
And on my journey I take an enormous amount of comfort, inspiration and hope from reflecting on Simon Peter’s story. He is consoling, encouraging, challenging and understanding because he knows what discipleship means and what it feels like on good days, not so good days and downright bad days!
Because sometimes Simon Peter gets things so right:
“You are the Messiah” he declares “the Son of the living God.” And in that moment of God-given clarity and vision Jesus gives Simon Peter his new identity as the foundation stone on which the church will be built.
But then, almost immediately afterwards he seems to get it so wrong,
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” he protests when Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem, suffering and dying. And suddenly Peter the rock is Satan! “Get behind me Satan! You’re a stumbling block to me. You set your mind on human things rather than divine things”
I wonder how Peter felt then? Is it so very wrong to want to protect someone you love, to prevent them being harmed?
It’ll be a long time before Peter understands the nature of the self-giving love that will go on loving, giving and forgiving no matter what the cost and it may well take us just as long to grasp it for ourselves.
Along the way Peter asks a question that perhaps we ask God as well:
“If someone does me wrong, how many times must I forgive him or her? As many as seven times?”
“Not seven times but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven depending which version we follow)”
Really? 490 times we have to forgive? 490?
Actually, of course, we’re told to go on forgiving without counting how many times we have to do it.
We go up a mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John. We see the brilliance of a light that is almost blinding and we see the figures with Jesus. Somehow we know they are Moses and Elijah and we are amazed at this vision. But suddenly we’re distracted by good old Peter who can’t just let things be. He starts running round in circles chattering about being useful and building shelters! Oh Peter, why could you not just be still and know that “God is” in this moment?
When we experience mountain-top moments in our lives do we react like Peter? Do we try and hang on to that moment, wrap it up and keep it, record what we hear, photograph what we see. If so, maybe we need to learn to be fully present in that moment of revelation and insight, to listen carefully for the voice that speaks from within the sound of utter silence, be open to receiving the message God has for us.
It might be the message Peter hears: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Or it might be a deeply personal message meant only for us.
Maybe it’s simply a moment of awe and wonder, lifting us up out of the everyday ordinariness of life. Then, like Peter, we have to leave the mountaintop and he knows what it’s like to come back to earth with a bump, or a crash!
But our lives have still been touched by the God of transformation.
We have so much to learn from Peter because we recognise so much of ourselves in him.
He’s impulsive and courageous too, up to a point. When he sees Jesus walking on the water he wants to have a go – “Call me” he says. He’s prepared to step out of his comfort zone in the boat and risk taking a step of faith. And we can admire that in him. We just need to learn from his experience that if we’re willing to risk stepping out of our comfort zone we need to keep our eyes and minds on God to hold us and not be overwhelmed by waves crashing around us – not an easy lesson to learn.
And Peter finds it so hard to receive with grace the grace of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he declares near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.
And “You will never wash my feet” he protests in the upper room that fateful night. But then he goes to the other extreme: “if I have to be washed in order to be part of you then wash my hands and my head too”
And after that Peter lives through his darkest hours: sleeping when he’s supposed to be watching and praying; running away when he said he would stand and protect; denying all knowledge of Jesus when he said he would die rather than desert him. No wonder he went out and wept bitterly and no doubt went on weeping bitterly for days and nights after that dreadful night and the horror of the day that followed.
When we are broken, feel ashamed and guilty, despair of ourselves and believe that we cannot possibly be loved by God Peter is right there beside us with his Lord. Together they understand what it is to be the deserted and the deserter, the betrayed and the betrayer, the lover and the one who can’t be loved, and together they show us there is a way back from that separation, isolation and despair.
While Peter is still broken Jesus comes to him and gives him another chance, or three chances, to make declarations of loyalty and love. While he still feels guilty, Jesus forgives him and while he still thinks he’s a total failure, Jesus re-commissions him to feed his sheep.
If we can see our story of broken humanity in Peter’s story surely we can also find encouragement, hope and an assurance of God’s love and his amazing grace which will lead us into becoming the people he wants us to be just as he led Simon on to become Peter the Rock.
Thanks be to God