Who Was Simon Peter?
April 10, 2016
Simon Peter jumps from the boat when he figures out it is Jesus who stands on the lakeshore. Eagerly he wades to shore. It’s as if this is the first reunion since the resurrection. It is a week following the empty tomb. What elicits this rash behavior?
Let’s review his life with Jesus. Simon is a fisherman who lives by the Sea of Galilee with his wife, his brother Andrew and his mother-in-law. People at the time work as a family unit, so the men and women of Simon’s family work together to catch and preserve/dry fish for export to the surrounding towns.
Simon meets Jesus through his brother Andrew, and is immediately impressed. Jesus calls him “Peter,” the rock — an odd choice of name since he seems to have been passionate and impulsive rather than solid, unmovable, rock-like.
Only a short time in their relationship Peter witnesses first-hand an unforgettable healing. His wife’s mother is gravely ill with a fever. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up from her sick bed. The fever vanishes. Not only is she cured — she is strong enough to get up and cook dinner for the visitors.
Peter is with Jesus all through the three years of Jesus' ministry — rock-like in his steadfast loyalty. He witnessed all the major events of this extraordinary time. For example, one night Jesus was on the shore while the disciples, including Peter, were out on the Lake of Galilee. The weather turned. The winds blew and the water lapped high against the boat. Suddenly the men in the boat saw a figure walking toward them over the water. It was Jesus. They shouted in fear, thinking it was a ghost. It is Jesus who called, “Do not fear.” Peter, always impulsive, stepped out onto the water. As long as he looked at Jesus he was safe, but when he noticed how stormy the water was, he began to sink. He called to Jesus for help. Jesus held out his hand and pulled him up to safety.
Another time Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah but then turned on Jesus when Jesus talked about death and dying.
Then there was a momentous event in Jesus’ life. Jesus, Peter, James and John went up onto a mountain. Something happened there that the disciples tried to explain to the others later on: Jesus had been transformed, and at the same time Moses and Elijah were there talking with him. A voice came from nowhere telling them that Jesus was the Son of God. Peter, always enthusiastic, wanted to put up tents and stay, but Jesus gently restrained him.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of each of his disciples. Peter objected to having his feet washed by someone he adored, but Jesus insisted. Jesus also predicted that his disciples would scatter and flee when danger threatened. But Peter contradicted him, assuring Jesus that even if everyone deserted, he would remain faithful to the end.
Peter’s promise is tested. When the soldiers try to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter unsheathes his sword and swings it at one of them. He cuts off the man’s ear.
Jesus is arrested and taken to the house of the High Priest. The house has an open central courtyard and Peter is there while Jesus stands trial. Up to this point, Peter is true to his word: he stays by Jesus when the others fled. But someone, a woman servant, recognizes him as a follower of Jesus, and challenges him. Peter said three times that he did not know Jesus. At once he was bitterly sorry for his own weakness.
I have often wondered about Peter. His faith journey, like most of ours, is so inconsistent. He gets it right and then gets it wrong. Peter is exasperating. The good news is that Jesus must not think he is, because Jesus never quits on Peter. Jesus keeps on trying to help him get it, even after he is resurrected.
I can only imagine how racked with guilt Peter must have been after three times denying his Lord. Peter wants to get it right, and I can relate to that. If I denied a friend once it would be bad. But three times? How did he live with himself after this? How could he have gotten it so wrong?
Was he scared? Afraid he would be arrested? Was he less than sure about Jesus? When it was all over I can imagine his prayer. “Dear God, I was so scared. I was scared of being arrested, of being hurt, of being tortured. I let fear keep me from doing the right thing. The loyal thing. I am racked with guilt for being such a wimp.”
And so here we are today. The resurrected Jesus comes to Peter at the lakeside. Peter jumps in the water and heads to shore with haste to see Jesus again. Is he hoping Jesus doesn’t know about the denials? Is he looking forward to making things right? As the breakfast of smoked mullet and fresh bread ends, the tension is so thick you can it. Awkward. Painful. Tense. Silence. They have not discussed Peter’s denial, Peter’s lack of commitment.
And then as Jesus did with Mary, Jesus calls him by name. It was a familiar name: the one given to him at birth; but a name he hadn’t heard in a while. “Simon.” Since that first encounter with Jesus three years ago, he has been called Peter. At least that’s how the story goes in John’s Gospel. For three years he has been Peter, but today he is back to Simon, son of John.
Simon, became Peter, now is Simon again. But Jesus is ready to restore his denying disciple. To start afresh, anew. Jesus asks Simon about love, about commitment, about following, about leading. Apparently Simon didn’t get it the first time. Or the second. Three times Jesus asks, perhaps to make Peter think a little deeper with each answer. It is then Jesus offers Simon the same welcome he had given Philip all those years ago: the same word that he offered to all the sheep who heard his voice. “Follow me.”
Peter hears himself admitting how much he loves Jesus. If I love Jesus, I must behave differently, I must feed his sheep. If I love Jesus, I must be willing to risk everything for him. If I love Jesus, I must follow him. If I love him I must be Peter, the Rock. This is what Love requires of me. And finally, Peter said, “yes, Lord, I love you. I will follow you the rest of my life.”