2404) Understanding Peter (1 of 2)

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7th century painting of St. Peter, at St. Catherine’s monastery, at the foot of Mt. Sinai


     Peter makes more appearances and has more to say than any other disciple in the four Gospels.  In the last hours of Jesus life he is again the one we read about the most.  He appears at five significant points in the story.

     Peter’s actions, though not always very noble, are understandable.  In fact I usually find myself saying, “I might have done the same thing.”

     It is less than twenty four hours from the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday evening and Jesus’ death and burial late the next afternoon.  The first of Peter’s five appearances is Thursday at supper when Jesus makes the prediction that all the disciples will abandon him that very evening.  Peter, as always, cannot keep quiet, and says, “Lord, even if all fall away on account of you, I never will…  Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”  (Matthew 33-35).

     I can understand Peter saying that.  First of all, look at the sacrifices he has already made.  He has left home and family, he gave up his fishing business, and for three years has been following Jesus.  He obviously believes in the importance of following Jesus.  Peter was indeed a man of courage and he told Jesus that he would stand by him no matter what.  That is a strong statement, but I would hope that if it came down to giving up my faith or giving up my life, I would give up my life.  After all, life here is going to end sooner or later anyway, so why, for the sake of a few more years on this earth, why would one want to give up on Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?  Christians should all hope to be as courageous and firm in faith as Peter, willing to give up life itself rather than give up on faith.  Many Christians around the world today are being called on to do just that– in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Indonesia, and many places in Africa to name a few.  In these verses, Peter, willing to do that very thing, is at his very best.

       The next time the story mentions Peter is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus and the disciples went there after supper to pray.  Jesus asks them to pray with him, and then he goes on ahead a bit to be by himself.  Three times he returns to where the disciples are, and three times he finds them all sleeping.  Jesus is in his deepest agony, and the disciples cannot even stay awake to support him.  Jesus finds them all sleeping, but he speaks directly to Peter to express his disappointment.  Peter was his chosen leader, and the one who just spoke with such courage.  “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” Jesus said (Mark 14:38).  Jesus was disappointed, but again, I can understand.  We have all had the experience of being so very tired that our eyes will just not stay open.

     Finally, the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, and then everyone does wake up.  Peter here shows his courage by taking out a sword and taking on the whole mob.  Peter had to have known it would be a lost cause, so it is clear he meant it earlier when he said he was willing to face even death for Jesus.  Peter got as far as cutting off an ear before Jesus stopped him.  Jesus healed the man’s ear, told Peter to put his sword away, and told the soldiers he would go peacefully.  Then, says the Bible, everyone deserted Jesus and fled. 

     Again, I can understand.  I am not sure I would have been willing to enter the fray with sword flying, like Peter.  But I understand why he and the rest of disciples ran out of there afterwards.  What would have been the point of hanging around?  Jesus told the soldiers to arrest him and let the others go, and the soldiers seemed willing to do that for now.  Why wait to see if they would change their mind?  There was nothing more the disciples could do.  Jesus seemed determined to allow himself to be arrested, and the disciples were confused and afraid.  I understand.   

     Perhaps you have known that feeling of confusion.  Faith is easy when you are in Sunday School and just learning good old Bible stories.  But then you get older and things happen.  People died when you prayed to God that they would live.  Things don’t work out, even after you prayed so hard that they would.  Church involvement, which is sometimes a comfort and support, is sometimes a headache and a hassle.  You try to do all the right things, but still end up sad and troubled.  Where is God in this mess anyway?  Why doesn’t God do something?  The answers do not come and you stayed confused.  That is how I imagine it was for Peter on that first Maundy Thursday night.  So Peter loses his confidence, gives up on his faith, and runs out on the one who was about to die for him.  Peter did not know part that yet, and there is much we do not yet know.  We will one day get the answers we seek and receive the fulfillment of all God’s promises; but not yet.

     Peter’s fourth appearance is the most memorable.  He follows the mob at a distance, and then joins a crowd gathered around a fire in the courtyard of the high priest.  That was where Jesus was taken for his first hearing.  It was here where he was recognized by some of the others around the fire.  He was asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  It was then that he denied even knowing Jesus, thus fulfilling that disturbing prophecy made just hours before. 

     Can you understand Peter’s failure of courage here?  Have you all, always taken advantage of every opportunity to share your faith in Jesus with someone who may not be a Christian, or who may even be hostile to faith in Jesus?  Peter, who a moment ago went overboard defending Jesus even to the point of violence, now, will not admit to a poor servant girl that he even knows who Jesus is.  These two extremes can symbolize the tension in our relationship with others who may not believe as we do.  If we are too forceful and arrogant about our beliefs, coming on too strong, they may turn away.  But if we say nothing at all, they may never be given the opportunity to respond.  We live in a culture that is increasingly unfamiliar with the story of Jesus, and Peter’s denial of his Lord can serve as a warning to us about being too reluctant to share what we believe.  (continued…)