What’s not to love about Simon Peter of Bethsaida and then of Capernaum? He is a loveable rogue, a rough diamond and a salt of the earth kind of man. He is impulsive and brusque in his manner, yet soft as putty in the hands of Jesus. For all the external bravado, he is as genuine as they come. You can’t help loving him for promising the world, and can only love him more when his fragility betrays him as much as it denies Jesus and his bitter tears reveal the brokenness of his life.
What do we know of his biography? He was martyred under Nero in 64 AD. This might actually roughly have been his age. If Christ ascended into heaven about the beginning of the decade of the 30’s, it makes sense that Peter would have been at the helm of the nascent Church for a solid period of time to get it established. We know he had a brother, Andrew, was married and had a mother-in-law, but no mention is made of his parents or indeed of his children. If Jesus called him not long after he was married, there may have been none; if he married young, there might have been one or two, though it’s perhaps strange that they are not mentioned explicitly. Perhaps they are mentioned implicitly if we are to interpret Jesus’ words about the rewards awaiting those who have left everything to follow him as including them.
He was a fisherman by trade and had a business in partnership with Andrew and their friends, possibly cousins, James and John. His skills were fishing, owning a business and, from later in the Gospel, we know he was a swordsman of sorts. He could read and write, since we have two of his letters in the New Testament. His personality and character reveal a man who was direct, brash, impulsive, sincere, liked to be in charge and take control. He was both humble and proud, courageous and cowardly. He probably experienced the mixture of opposites in himself as a source of confusion about who he was.
The principal person and even event of his life was his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. The light of Jesus showed him up in all his strengths and weaknesses which probably did not matter too much to him, so long as he could experience the power and magnetism of Jesus’ love and friendship. With Jesus, he would know that he was accepted totally and loved completely and that, in time, Jesus would heal his whole person. The drama of his life and identity unfolds in relation to Jesus. Simon is called Peter by Jesus. That was easy, you could say. Equally, Simon is led to become Peter by Jesus. That was not so easy.
Let us take a look at the key points in Peter’s life as it unfolded in relation to Jesus.
- First, there is the call to follow Jesus. Why did Jesus call Simon? Surely, he did not just turn up on the beach by the Sea of Galilee and call the first people he met? One reason might be that Jesus had already met him at the river Jordan when he went to be baptised by John. We know that Andrew was a follower of John and that John had said to Andrew of Jesus, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” According to the Gospel of Saint John, Andrew followed Jesus and the next day told his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. This would mean that the meeting at the lake was not the first time Jesus had met Simon.
It is also possible that between the first and second meetings, Jesus had asked about Simon from other people in Capernaum or elsewhere. Simon would have been well-known locally. A third reason is the prayer of Jesus. We know that he spent the night in prayer before appointing the Twelve. I am convinced that Jesus would not have called Simon and the others without conferring with the Father. We know that the great prophets were destined from before birth for their mission. Simon was created at that time because he was destined to become a great, the greatest Apostle.
We must not overlook, though, the response of Simon. Jesus forced no-one to follow him. Simon responded freely in a positive and immediate fashion. Certainly, the power and attraction of Jesus would be strong. It is also possible that something very deep and undefined in Peter, perhaps even the grace of predestination, recognised the voice of Jesus as the voice of his Creator, as a sheep knows the voice of the Shepherd.
St. Luke gives us a more down-to-earth reason for Simon’s acceptance of the call. First, the miraculous draft of fishes. With this miracle, Jesus hits home using Simon’s language: catching fish. He shows Simon that his power surpassed all Simon’s professional skills. Simon’s response is one of being overwhelmed and of unworthiness, but Jesus reassures him, affirms him, and Simon leaves all to follow him.
What we can say, then, is that Simon’s acceptance of the call of Jesus was not born from hearsay or curiosity, but from an overwhelming and most personal experience of the mystery of Jesus’ person, his irresistible attractiveness, his power, his love and the simple fact that such a person would want his company.
- The second key point is Simon Peter’s pre-eminence over the other apostles. In all of the Gospels, this pre-eminence is marked by listing Peter as first, or in other ways showing that Jesus wanted him to be first. His actual appointment, if you like, as the first among equals is at Caesarea Philippi when, in answer to Jesus’ question about who he was, Simon speaks up and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The priority treatment that he had been given by Jesus is here proven true. But, of course, we mustn’t attribute this to Simon’s own human tendency to jump in first, or to his intelligence. The reason that Jesus then says, “You are Peter”, is because of what he says before that: “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, for it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, Simon is the object of a direct intervention by God the Father in revealing the divine identity of Jesus to him. For me, this proves that Jesus did not call Simon by chance but only after himself discerning that the Father wanted him to be called.
This primacy of faith given to Peter and accepted by him is then crowned by Jesus with the further primacy of love. Despite Peter’s denials of Jesus during the Passion, and because of Jesus’ consoling forgiveness of him during a one-to-one encounter after the resurrection, Jesus wants Peter to love him “more than these others.” Remember the scene? They have finished breakfast by the same lakeside where Peter was first called. A number of the other apostles are there. The denials of Peter must have been the elephant in the room, or on the shore. The other apostles, possibly sensing a slight tension in the air due to Peter, were probably wondering what would happen next.
Jesus knows that he and Peter have already made up, but he also knows that the other apostles’ trust in Peter, and even in Jesus’ own judgment for making Peter the first of them, was shaken. And so, with unutterable and inimitable grace and tenderness, and yet with firmness and clarity, Jesus invites Peter to purge his sin a little more and with humility in front of the others. He asks him three times if he loves him more than they do, and Peter, visibly upset yet fully aware of the significance of the thrice repeated question, responds yes. This scene is so full of meaning, yet one of its finest points is that by this very act of humility Peter is not only restored to his place as holding the primacy of faith: he now also holds the primacy of love.
Jesus shows us all, through Peter, how his love not only does not hold any grudges, but confers even greater grace and glory on the one who humbly confesses his guilt.
- A third key point is Peter’s mission. Being made the top man in faith and in charity is not a decoration. With honours come the onerous responsibilities they entail. Christian honour is always a share in the glory of the Cross, otherwise it is purely human. The mission of Peter can be seen in two things that Jesus said to Peter. The first is: “On this rock I will build my church. The gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.”
With these very solemn words, Jesus piles on Peter an enormous weight of responsibility. Jesus builds his church on Peter, not only on Peter’s faith, but on Peter himself. Not on Simon, but on Peter. This stability and immoveable quality of Peter shares in God’s own unflinching fidelity to his people. It is a visible sign of it and a visible share in it. Some say that Peter is the new Abraham, hewn from the rock of Abraham’s unassailable faith in the Lord God. Just as the grace of Christ continues in the Church for each passing generation, so the grace of Peter, of the Petrine solidity and ministry, continues in the Church for each passing generation in the Successor of Peter, the Pope.
Peter is told that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This is not the work of Peter, but of the power of God. Whether the powers of hell are unleashed against the Church from outside or from inside, they are utterly powerless against the power of God. So, Peter is given a guarantee by God himself that, come what may, the Church will prevail. This is as important in our own time as in any other. We are naturally dismayed, discouraged and even scandalized by what hell has managed to do to the Church and in the Church. But our personal suffering and misgivings must not suffocate our faith in God’s sustaining power. Remember that that power is the power of the Resurrection, that is, of final victory over hell, sin and death. We will be purified. We will be humiliated. We will be diminished in numbers and influence. But none of these things will in the end prevail. In fact, they might do us some good.
Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This is an enormous responsibility for Peter and his successors. The power to bind and loose, to open and close, is the power to declare what is worthy of the Kingdom and what is not. It’s a power that can only be used in close union with Christ and in close union with the rest of the Church. It is a power to detect what is of God and what is not of God. It is therefore the responsibility to declare, for the sake of the salvation of souls, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the life of faith and of morals. The keys can’t be put in a drawer, leaving the gates of heaven always locked or always unlocked. Peter has to give himself the bother to keep them in his hand and constantly turn the key, now this way, now that.
A second commission given to Peter by Jesus is to feed his flock. Peter is to be the Chief Shepherd’s image in history. He feeds the flock with the Word of Christ, with teaching and direction which flow from that Word, to give light to the minds of the flock, strength to their hearts, clarity of purpose and sureness of step. He must be prepared to lay down his life for the flock and to chase away the brigands and hired men who want to exploit the flock for themselves. Peter has to unmask the false shepherds, to call them out by name, to expel them where necessary. The wolves in sheep’s clothing come with their travesty of the truth, with their sweet-sounding and ear-pleasing deceptions. But the sheep do not listen to their voice because Peter is speaking loudly and clearly the Word of truth and salvation. Woe to him if he does not.
Peter also feeds the sheep with the sacraments of eternal life, ensuring that the sheep are ready to receive them, know how to prepare themselves to receive them, grasp something at least of the magnitude of the grace they contain, and live lives worthy of their reception.
- A fourth key point consists of Peter’s denials and his recovery. Although Jesus conferred so much on Peter, he also knew Peter’s heart. He knew that the rock of Peter would only be finally consolidated after the trial of the denials. Every man and woman can tell themselves great stories about what they would be prepared to do for Jesus. And probably every single one of us would mean sincerely every word we speak. But the truth is that we so easily fail to perceive the full truth about ourselves. The narrative we tell ourselves can be flattery, a reluctance and perhaps even a fear or incapacity to detect the true fault line in ourselves. It is often sin itself which shades our inner eye, or a failure to pursue self-knowledge. Whatever the reason for it, only a real test of who we are, and not just of who we say we are, will reveal the truth in all its complexity and, at times, ugliness. We can be inclined today so much to emphasize positive thinking, and reward every child for next to nothing, that we cloud and weaken the capacity for a realistic self-appraisal and appraisal of others. Certainly, we must cultivate what is positive, but to deny or hide what is negative or deficient is not a positive thing to do.
And so, poor Peter says he will die for Christ. He imagines himself as a kind of knight in shining armour who will rescue Christ in Gethsemane from the mob. When he is rebuked by Jesus, he still follows him. But the shades begin to show in his heart, because he only follows him at a distance. Then when the light is shone on him and his moment comes to declare himself for Jesus, he is reduced to a grubby and pathetic little liar, capable only of swearing and anger, embarrassed by his own Galilean accent. For the truth was that his own life was still more dear to him than Jesus.
And what brings him to his senses? The unlikely happenstance of a crowing cock. A bit of squawking poultry pierces his heart more finely and sharply than any blade ever could. And then there pours out the bitterness of his selfish misery in tears that could probably have dissolved stone. I bet you he choked on those sobbing sighs, confused and dumbfounded by his own treachery, aghast that he was capable of something so foul and mean and tawdry. Something inside him will have died in that moment: the lie he had told himself all his life about who he was. His tears gave birth to the truth, and it was a truth he really did not like.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that in the instant the cock crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. What an exchange of looks that must have been! The look of Jesus will have been complex: full of compassion, yet humanly sorrowful that his dear Peter had in fact denied him; full of encouragement towards Peter not to despair as Judas had done, but rather to hope in Jesus’ own words to him earlier in the evening, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have recovered, strengthen your brothers.”
And Peter’s look towards Jesus, exposing the depths of his wretchedness, his cowardice, his falsehood, his hypocrisy, his incredulity at his own utter moral and spiritual collapse. And yet, somewhere through the mist and murk of his streaming eyes, he would perceive yet again the immensity and grandeur of the merciful love in the look of his very own Jesus, his dear, dear Lord. And in his shame and humiliation he withdrew from the scene and abandoned all pretence at being fit to follow his Lord to Calvary.
Both St. Luke’s Gospel and the first letter to the Corinthians tell us that, after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to Simon Peter on a one-to-one basis. It is difficult to imagine the intensity of that encounter. We can perhaps guess that Jesus’ first word to Peter was “shalom”, peace. It is difficult to think that Peter’s reaction would be anything other than to throw himself, as he did after the miraculous draft of fishes, at the feet of Jesus and say with more tears, “Lord, leave me. I am a sinful man.” “Do not be afraid, Peter”, Christ might have replied, and lifted him up in an embrace. The consolation Peter received from the Lord will have restored him a thousand times more than his abject failure had nearly destroyed him. The Peter that Peter thought he once was, was a fake Peter. That fake had to go, and the purging of it and the death of it came through his denials. Now the true Peter could arise, purified, recovered and restored.
- The fifth key point for Peter is really the rest of his life and his martyrdom. At Pentecost, Peter’s recovered humanity is invaded by the Spirit and he is again given the pre-eminent position of preaching the first proclamation of the death and Resurrection of Christ to people from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem. Peter’s leadership and authority are documented in the Acts of the Apostles and in other writings of the New Testament. They show that Peter still had to learn and grow into his ministry of faith and charity. The letters which he himself wrote show how his own experience and the gifts of Christ let him to a formidable degree of spiritual wisdom and insight. In the end, whether the story of Quo Vadis? is true or not, we know that he was crucified upside down on the Vatican hill in ancient Rome, out of love for the Christ whom he had denied but who had loved him to the end. The bones of Peter are in a casket under the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on which his current successor, Pope Francis, celebrates frequently the sacrifice of Calvary for the Church and for the world. Great St. Peter, protect and guide our Holy Father, and help us live for Christ despite, through and beyond our sins and failures. And when we die, use those keys of yours to open the gates of heaven for us and for all who have loved Jesus Christ in this life and have died hoping in his mercy.