I was fortunate enough to spend the Easter weekend away in a place called New Norcia – a small monastic village not too far from Perth. A great weekend get away, particularly for such a special occasion as the Easter period which was enriched by the spiritual and historical aspects of the town. Highly recommend for anyone to visit.
There was a small library in the hotel that had a book titled “The Illustrated History of the Popes” by Charles Phillips. I started to read into Saint Peter who was one of Jesus’ close disciples and made the first Pope of the Catholic church. I’ve always been captivated and interested in Peter, particularly to see how a significant component of the Church started from just a simple fisherman that chose to follow Jesus.
The beautiful thing is that I’m sure we can identify a lot of ourselves with Peter, as after all he was just an ordinary man. But the true extraordinary ways Peter lived out his life was shown from his decisions to accept Jesus for who He was (acknowledging He was the Messiah), and following Him.
I couldn’t help but directly quote from the book that “Peter was impetuous and generous, with a propensity to great elation and deep depression. He was loyal. He could be rashly courageous, but at times was humiliatingly frightened” (p.11). He had a lot of a lot of polarising ups and downs in his life which are well recorded in all Gospel accounts.
Without noting all of these examples down comprehensively, I’ll cover two main areas in Peter’s life which I feel is very relevant to all of us:
1. Fall from Grace
This is a story that might be very familiar for some of us. Jesus was warning the disciples about His nearing arrest and crucifixion. Peter fervently said to Jesus that he would follow him until death and never deny Him:
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:30-35) (ESV)
But as the story of the Passion continues after Jesus’ arrest…
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.”And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
(Matthew 26:69-75) (ESV)
The Bible doesn’t nearly capture the emotions of this scenario, as a good novel would – but we can only imagine the remorse, shame and guilt that Peter felt all culminating in this moment, as his failings (and what Jesus preempted) all dawned on him.
How many times have we been there? How many times have we been in positions where we have sworn to do something? Sworn to follow Jesus but haven’t? Haven’t faithfully testified to God’s work in our lives, or denied being a Christian for example? How often do we think we’ll do something, say something or stick by something but fail terribly? I can tell you I’ve been in all those positions many times, just as Peter was. Peter walked with Jesus, and even despite Jesus having told him earlier about the outcome, Peter didn’t believe Him and still failed.
2. Restoration and redemption by Christ
Despite Peter’s failings (and ours) there is redemption. Like there was for Peter, it also exists for us. We serve a loving and compassionate God who gives us mercy! He knows all our failings before we’ve even done them and the best thing we can do is keep coming back to Him!
In the Gospel of John, the narrative follows a few of the disciples fishing after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus approaches them and specifically takes Peter aside:
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 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 grieved because he said to him the 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
(John 21:15-19) (ESV)
The English Standard Version (ESV) has an entry in the concluding verses noting that what Jesus was referring to with Peter, in that “him stretching out his hands” was a reference to the kind of death he was going to glorify God with. Please don’t misread this scripture as a call for us to be martyrs, although this is a side issue I will cover in another article.
The three-fold question obviously recalls Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus, and so it is not surprising that Peter was upset when Jesus questioned him for the third time. Could you imagine if Jesus came back and said: “What the heck Peter, I forewarned you that you would deny me and you still did?!” No, quite the contrary. Jesus is compassionate and empathetic to Peter as He is to us.
It is from this dialogue that Peter is restored by Jesus for every denial he made. We can only imagine how he felt in this moment. Face to face with the risen Christ. The realisation of Jesus’ enigmatic and parabolic teachings throughout His ministry finally coming to a reality with the climax of His resurrection. From shame to redemption, from disgrace to restoration.
Having experienced all this would certainly qualify any of Jesus’ followers to confidently preach about the risen Lord and the Good News for all – and that’s exactly what they did. This experience perfectly prepared Peter for his new commission to take on his pastoral role (“tending the Lord’s sheep”) and finding his way to Rome.
The painting attached with this article is the “Crucifixion of Saint Peter” by Caravaggio. I’ve also attached it below just in case you can’t see it too well. This painting was present within the book I was reading and something I’ve seen before. I can’t explain how moving it is to me when I saw it for a number of reasons, namely those mentioned above, but I’ll elaborate further…
From his redemption, Peter knew the love, mercy and grace of Jesus to a whole new level, not experienced in the three years walking side by side Jesus. With this, Peter knew that this was a message worth sharing, even if it did cost him his life – which it did. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome around 65AD. The message of a loving, forgiving and restoring God – why wouldn’t you want to share this news?
I can’t even imagine the feelings and emotions of Peter while he was crucified. But to be honest, without sounding askew, I know there would have been a solace and comfort in knowing where he was going.
In Jesus’ death, and resurrection it shows us the defeat of death – and life afterward which is a hope for us. A reality Peter knew as he decided to take this good news all the way to Rome. A simple Jewish fisherman that had a message that was worth dying for.
I know that death is something that daunts a lot of us, even Christians. But for Peter, having met the risen Christ, being redeemed and spreading a message resulting in crucifixion speaks volumes of what lies for us in the next life.
Could I say that I would go to my death for Christ? Sure, I would probably say it three times as well. But whether I could or not? This is only speculation.
I pray that what Saint Peter did to bring us the Gospel message (and not just in his death) can inspire you in your journey to have faith, courage and boldness.