St. Peter, Stumbling Inspiration

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April 11, 2009 by Daniel Stack

St. Peter Denying Christ (Public Domain)

St. Peter Denying Christ (Public Domain)

Poor St. Peter. He’s seen them all. He’s a constant presence in jokes about the afterlife. He gets to serve as judge and as tour guide. Right now it’s the very end of Holy Week in most Christian churches: the end of Lent and preparation for Easter. The apostle Peter plays a prominent role in many of the readings at this time of year.

Peter has a rough time of it in these Gospel readings. His main role is to announce to Jesus he’ll never renounce him, even at the cost of his own life. Jesus tells him that’s not the case, that he’ll renounce him three times before the rooster crows. Then Jesus gets arrested with the help of Judas. The apostles all scatter. Peter kind of tags along, following at a distance. Wants to see what’s going on. Probably wants to help if he can – after all, in some versions of the Gospel Peter whips a sword out and cuts off someone’s ear when Jesus gets arrested. But then some people think they recognize Peter. “You were with him,” they say to him. Peter knows where this will lead and denies it: “I do not even know the man”. They press. He presses back, denying being a follower of Jesus or even knowing him. He then hears a rooster crowing as morning breaks. This completes the prediction Jesus had made the night before. Peter feels awful and goes off to weep.

It doesn’t seem particaularly inspirational at first glance. But it’s not the whole story. Jesus has two main betrayers that night. Judas is the one that arranges for his arrest in exchange for money. Peter is the one who had been designated as Jesus’ successor. The one whom the keys to heaven would be given to. But when the going gets tough, Peter gets out of there as fast as he can.

Both Judas and Peter regret their actions. But their stories diverge. Judas hangs himself. Peter, on the other hand, lives with his failures and gets up again. Later the ressurrected Christ speaks with Peter, asking Peter if he loves him. He asks Peter this three times. Despite some bungling in the Gospels, Peter is no dummy and sees the parallel with his three denials and gets upset after being asked a third time. But Jesus never brings up the denials. Never reproaches him. But tells him to take care of Jesus’ sheep and to follow him:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

-John 21:15-19

This is to me the reason I’m a Catholic. Despite my issues with the hierarchy, despite my own failings, this is what the faith is all about. Peter failed, pretty miserably. But he got up to try again, to face the music, to be confronted by the friend he denied. Jesus shows how nothing has changed, Peter is still to be the foundation of Jesus’ church. What I take from this is while God would surely like perfection from us, it is not demanded. What is demanded is that when we fail we dust ourselves off and try again. Theodore Roosevelt had a secular quote from 1910 with similar sentiments:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Peter went on to do great things. Fortified by the Holy Spirit he performed miracles in the name of Jesus, healing the sick, driving out demons. He preached the Gospel of Jesus passionately despite the danger to himself in doing so. This from the man who fled in terror and denied knowing Jesus. He still wasn’t perfect. There is suggestion of conflict and disagreement between Peter and the more educated St. Paul. Yet Peter remained true to his faith and nearly all sources, historical and sciptural,  agree he died a martyr while a missionary in Rome.

Peter’s always been the most inspirational figure to me in the Bible. Maybe as a Christian Jesus should be. And while I see it as an ideal, my mind can’t grasp living out his life. But Peter, there’s a person I can see myself in. Discarding the faith when things get tough? Check. Not doing what I know to be right at times? Check. But getting up again? Now there is something I can appreciate. There’s the inspiration for me. You failed. Get up again. Try to do better next time. Even though you’ll fail again. And again. Keep getting up. That’s what’s asked of you.

When Catholics are confirmed it is traditional for them to choose a confirmation name, that of an inspirational saint or person in their lives. I think it’s a pretty special thing: it’s the only time in most Catholics’ lives when they get to choose a name for themselves. Even back then picking Peter was an easy choice for me. If I was (and still am) to live a good life, it’s not going to be being perfect and always doing the right thing. It’s to be by trying and screwing up again and again.

(If you find this subject at all of interest I strongly recommend the book Footsteps of the Fisherman: With St. Peter on the Path of Discipleship by Scott Walker. It’s in-print and available at, though geek that I am I have the Kindle version.)


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