By Dorsey McConnell
I suppose the most honest place for me to begin this sermon on the confession of Saint Peter is to confess that I have a problem with Saint Peter, which is also the Church’s problem with Saint Peter, a problem that revolves around the question: just who was he? So much of the Church’s art portrays a white man in his senior years, halo and all, keys to the Kingdom in one hand, looking more like a Roman senator than a poor fisherman. His speeches in Acts are very much in the Greek of Saint Luke the Evangelist, which is polished Greek, even elegant, and the letters that bear his name in the New Testament have a ring of seasoned ecclesiastical authority, of the kind you hear later in Ignatius or Clement of Rome.
But the core of the New Testament witness points to a different sort of man entirely. Luke says, the Crowd was astonished that he and John were unlettered, simple men. We know he had a trade that he (arguably) wasn’t very good at. We know he was called by Jesus after the Lord facilitated a terrifying catch of fish that nearly sank Peter’s boat. We know he begged Jesus to go away, find someone else, protesting that he was the wrong person entirely for this kind of business, whatever that business was, which he wasn’t sure of and didn’t really want to find out. And we know, in spite of all of this, he followed Jesus: he dropped everything and followed him. Put this together with a few other details and what you come up with is a country lad, a dark-skinned, Palestinian Jew with a thick Galilean accent, aged maybe twenty-seven or thereabouts; think of someone who made it through third grade before he had to quit school to help out his parents— hear his speech as Armstrong or Westmoreland County; he is rough-cut, straightforward, less like what you might think of as a doctor of the Church, more like a man who is used to hard work with his hands — more like a plumber or a janitor, in one hand the keys to the Kingdom, in the other a pipe-wrench or a mop, this Rock of the Church.
It’s important to get that image in our heads, because Jesus is of precisely the same stock, humanly speaking, though his family might have been better educated and somewhat more prosperous. So when they are having the exchange recorded in Matthew, it starts out like talk among friends from the same neighborhood, among equals more or less in language and culture. Here they are, all of them, with a sudden and (for most of them) unexpected degree of fame, and for the first time in a long time, a few moments to themselves to reflect on what has happened with such dizzying speed, and where they have come from. In light of this, I wonder if Jesus’ opening question has a little mischief in it. Who do men say that I am? Could he be teasing them, a bit? I mean, he knows what people are saying and thinking, but he wants to hear it from them; he’s being playful, and they take it up, give it back to him, some of the ridiculous answers they’ve heard: one of the old prophets, Elijah, John the Baptist raised from the dead, man people will believe anything, won’t they?
Then, suddenly, Jesus asks, And you, who do you say that I am? And everyone gets very quiet, until Simon just blurts it out, You’re the anointed one, the son of the living God. It’s an answer that stretches him way beyond himself; the words are there, but even Peter, I think, doesn’t know exactly what he means by them. Based on somethings he and his friends say later, he probably has in mind a charismatic leader who will bring divine power to God’s beleaguered people so they can throw the Romans out and re-establish the throne of David, just like in the old days, you know: Make Judea Great Again. And Jesus, when he hears it, no doubt knows this but doesn’t explain or teach, he just praises him for getting something right. He gives Simon a new name, Peter, Petros, as if to say, “Good for you, Rocky.” And then he makes him an outlandish promise– that Peter will become the foundation of the Church against which not even the gates of Hell will prevail.
Considering what happens next, the promise is doubly outlandish. It isn’t just that Simon Peter is not the person you would probably choose to run a multinational mission organization. It is that, following the moment of his election as first among the apostles, Simon Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the Cross. We can surely understand this: here the Lord is, the most popular public personality in a hundred years, and Jesus says, basically, he has to lose in order to win, he has to die in order to live; not only that, but he has to die to win life for everybody else. So Peter reacts the way you might expect: he says, you have to stop talking like this, this is no way to win people to The Cause, and so forth.
And that is the moment Jesus has been waiting for: yes, I do think he has foreseen this whole thing, and he seizes the moment in two ways. First, he sends the leader to the back of the line: Get behind me, you devil! Jesus tells Peter. And, second, he says, If you want to know what it means to follow me pick up your cross. You want to gain your life, then lose it; and vice versa.
It must be such a bewildering moment for Simon. All he wants to do is be faithful to his friend Jesus; he swears he will be, more than once, that he will even die with him if necessary; and then in the last hours of Jesus’ life, there is that terrible moment, in the High Priest’s courtyard, when Peter denies his Lord three times, and the cock crows, and he remembers Jesus had said it would all turn out just that way. Peter feels the gates of Hell close upon him. He went out and wept bitterly.
The rest of Peter’s mortal existence is a long and intentional discipline in losing his life. You might say that, given where he started, his humble beginnings, and so forth, he didn’t have much to lose, but everyone of us has everything to lose, at any moment, and we know this, and our whole lives are bent on making that moment count, coming to the end of our rope and feeling that, somehow, it has all been worth it, that we actually did something. And what Peter discovers, again and again, is a sort of re-creation of the moment when Jesus says to him, Take up your cross: You can do nothing, but I can do everything, and once you acknowledge this, you will know who you really are, and you will do more than you can imagine.
That discipline begins on the beach after Easter, in John 21, when the risen Lord greets Peter and his friends with breakfast for their hungry bodies and mercy for their guilty souls; Jesus pulls Peter aside and tells him to feed his lambs and tend his sheep, and says, cryptically, that the time will come when Peter will be bound and taken where he does not want to go. The discipline continues, through the day at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, in Acts 3, when Peter encounters a lame man lying there and, on the spur of the moment, finds he just can’t stand to walk past one more sick person with out doing something; so, instead, Peter declares, Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give you: the the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk. He reaches down, pulls the man up by the hand, and the man is healed.
From that moment, on Peter is in control of almost nothing. He loses his life again again, nowhere more clearly than on the occasion when the Holy Spirit — without even waiting for Peter to finish his sermon— falls on a room full of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius the centurion, and Peter finds himself embracing as brothers and sisters people who used to disgust him. Sure, he is not always brave about this discipline. He later vacillates so obviously on the Gentile question, that Paul fiercely calls him out. He is sometimes confused, uncertain and afraid, but in the end stalwart, in his own hesitating but finally committed way. There is a famous story that, during the persecution under Nero, Peter left his flock and fled Rome in disguise. He met Jesus on the Appian Way, going the other direction. Quo vadis domine? he is supposed to have asked: where are you going, Lord? And Jesus replied, To Rome, to die for you again. And Simon took the hint, turned around, and gave his life in the coliseum, asking to be crucified upside down, because he was not worthy to die in the same manner as His Lord. His sacrifice was mocked by the crowd, but he was the winner, knowing as he died, who he really was.
And perhaps, in the end, when we ask of Peter, or of Jesus for that matter, just who was (or is) he, the question we are really asking is who are we? There have been for some time now, signs, that our life as a society is more divided than we thought, that the barriers of race and class are more intractable, our tempers more vicious, our hostilities more fervent. In such a time, Peter reminds us that the meaning of our life does not depend on our wealth, our success, our intellects or skills. The meaning of our life depends on how we answer Jesus challenge when we turn it into a question: Are were willing to lose ourselves, as the only way to find ourselves? Are we willing— really— to lay down our lives for the neighbor or the enemy whom Jesus loves, willing to forsake our own will, and be bound to Christ’s will, so that we may be freed for his service; are we willing to endure shame or humiliation, so that the love of Jesus might be made more fully known, to give up the things we thought we could not live without, in order to find the life we never imagined we could have? The question burns as brightly for us as it did for Simon. We would love to find some other way, something less drastic, if at all possible, please, Lord? But Christ’s reply will always be in the same words he put before that original band of his rough-cut friends, just as hard, just as fearsome and beautiful: Take up your Cross, and follow me. And, lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.
The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.