Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saint Peter

Before I left for Haiti, I finished reading the Gospel of John to my son Sam. Though it was ostensibly written by John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, I feel like Peter is the apostle we get the best picture of in this and the other Gospels. I started thinking a lot about Peter one day; here are my reflections.

In most of the Gospel stories, the disciples in general are always sort of dumb, like comic relief interspersed with Christ's heavy messages, or at least the vehicle by which Christ spells things out. Christ always starts by talking in symbols, parables, abstract concepts. But whoever is listening always misses the point, and makes a comment of the form, "So do you mean XXXX?" which is almost invariably not what Jesus means at all. So Christ always ends up having to get very specific and explicit, to explain and expound on the poetic, abstract language he'd used initially.

Peter is the best example of this theme. Most of the time he's totally clueless. When Christ symbolically humbles himself to wash the feet of his companions, Peter is shocked and doesn't want to partake. When Christ explains the importance of his washing the apostles' feet, Peter then enthusiastically requests, "Then wash my hands and head too!" He completely misses the point both times. In general Peter has lots of enthusiasm, but he is weak, dumb, cowardly. He makes a big show of defending Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, cutting off the ear of someone sent with the lynch mob. As ever, Jesus has to fix Peter's messup, patiently healing the other guy's ear and scolding his eager disciple. Then immediately afterward, Peter denies even knowing Christ, and abandons him on the cross.

None of what I'm writing is a diss to Peter. Christ lays out time and again that Peter is his chosen envoy to lead the young Church, even as Peter shows himself feeble and impetuous. To a merely human eye, Peter in no way merits his title of "rock". But Christ sees differently than we do, he sees better and more truly, so if he designates Peter to lead the Church, if he calls him his solid rock, it is for a reason. Perhaps we'd do well to model our faith on Peter's, and realize that we aren't going to be anywhere near perfect or coherent in our faith, but that that doesn't exclude us from Christ's love or from our responsibilities to follow him. Maybe Jesus chose the most fallible person to lead his Church, in order to remind us to be humble in our aspirations to sanctity, and to remind us that God's evaluation of us is different from human judgment.

Indeed, the Popes and even pastors of other denominations would do well to remember that their forefather is bumbling, earnest, imperfect Peter, and not grave, self-sure, sanctimonious Paul.

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