Eastertide: Peter

The Apostle Peter was a curious character. If Mary Magdalene was the faithful, loving and devoted one, then Peter was the reactive hothead who raced around in a whirlwind of his own enthusiasm and then flamed out, spiralling into a pit of shame (before becoming one of the great leaders of the early church of course).

He’s a man of extremes.

Peter was a young fisherman, minding his own business, following in his father’s footsteps into the fishing trade. And along comes a mysterious Jewish rabbi who invites him to follow along. So he leaves everything, his livelihood, everything, to follow this Jesus of Nazareth. And his journey is a wild one. Peter is the first disciple to say out loud that he thought Jesus was the Christ – the Messiah that they’ve been waiting for. This is a big deal as in Peters mind, a first century Jew, he’d be expecting this Messiah to help lead a revolution. How exciting! To get to be in the inner crew of the future king of Israel! 

And then in the very next passage Jesus say that he’s going to be executed in Jerusalem. And Peter, having just said out loud that he thought Jesus was the Messiah, now tells Jesus that he’s wrong because this will never happen. And so Jesus says ‘get behind me Satan’.

Later, Jesus mysteriously tells the disciples that he will go somewhere they cannot follow, but Peter is resolute; he says ‘I will lay down my life for you!’ But Jesus claims that Peter will deny him 3 times before the rooster crows.

After Jesus is arrested and taken away Peter is waiting outside the trial, standing by the fire to keep warm. When people ask him if he’s a follower of Jesus, he keeps denying it. When he’s faced with the overwhelming pressure of others, all of his confidence and enthusiasm has evaporated, and suddenly he is just a scared young man. Trying to be brave – but in the end, he’s too afraid to be what he thought he could be.

And the rooster crows, and then Peter fades from the story for a while.

As we know, Jesus is ultimately executed, but then that’s not the end either. The risen Christ appears to his disciples, finds them out fishing, and cooks them some breakfast on the beach. 

John 21:15-17

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

There’s only two places in the entire New Testament that uses the Greek word for a charcoal fire (anthrakia). The first is in John’s story of Peter warming himself by the fire and denying Jesus three times, and the second is in this story of Jesus cooking Peter breakfast on the beach, where he asks Peter three times if he loves him. The two stories go together.

Peter had returned to his fishing, and so we find that his knowledge that the Christ had resurrected was not enough – for Peter, belief and knowledge did not equal transformation. Belief on its own, is not enough. Christianity is ultimately not a religion that is about believing the right things. Of course there are things that many Christians believe, but believing the right things is no good, unless we are able to enter into the work of transformation.

So we are invited into reconciliation, face-to-face conversation with one another over food, working through our issues. Forgiving and being forgiven. Loving and being loved. This is where transforming takes place – not just in knowing and believing. I think this is why early Christianity found itself centred around the practice of the Eucharist, rather than the reciting of a set of ideas. It was the practice of eating together, in light of the reconciling work of Christ, to live in communion with God and one another. 

What we also see in this story, is that Jesus doesn’t say – See! I said you were going to deny me, I told you and you said you wouldn’t but you did! Instead, he invites Peter through a series of questions, to be confronted with something he already knew had happened. There was no one more aware of what Peter had done then Peter. He didn’t need it to be named in front of everyone, but he did need to come to terms with it. To accept that this was a part of his journey but it didn’t have to define the rest of his life. That Jesus was still calling him. Jesus hadn’t decided that Peter wasn’t up to it (even if Peter had).

There are many parts of my own life that I would rather erase. I don’t want them to be a part of my story. But if I don’t come to accept my past self as well as my present self, then I find myself living in avoidance, in reaction, and in shame.

And so this story gives me courage to accept that whether I like it or not, this is my story. God is not waiting to jump out and say – see, I told you you’d mess it up. God is waiting on the beach with breakfast saying come on, sit down, have a feed and lets move forward.

Michael Frost