“And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, ‘Certainly, this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are saying.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.”
And Peter broke. Everything that he had promised to his friend, to his Master, to his God, had come to nothing in the face of fear. Peter broke and went away bitterly weeping. Can we not see ourselves in this moment? Peter, the leader of the apostles, Christ’s chosen rock, denied Him three times. Have we never done the same?
In this monumental moment of failure, he weeps. Deeply, bitterly, with great depth and passion, Peter pours himself out. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement sums it up well, “he saw himself in the light of all his defects. That betrayal had made him more aware of all his other errors, of the fact that he was worthless, weak, miserably weak.”
I want to look at this deeper. Peter was the supposed leader of this band of apostles, the chosen head of Christ’s church! Yet, he denied the Lord at a critical hour. How can we look to him for example? Because in Peter we see ourselves. We see our own failures, our own struggles for sanctity with all the successes and failures of a broken people. We see a divine preference for Him within us, just as Peter had, which overcomes all failures, struggles and sins.
Giussani writes about St. Peter that his life “had been a stormy one, because of his impetuous character, his instinctive stubbornness, his tendency to act on impulse.” He was a simple man, a fisherman, a family man, who worked, breathed, went to sleep, woke up just as any other. But he was rocked by an initial encounter with a man he had never met before. His first moment with Christ was unlike anything he had ever experienced. So too is our first encounter with the Lord. An intangible movement in our hearts, a discovery that this may be the answer to our desires. And with a simple look and the words, “come, follow me” we, like Peter are changed forever.
Peter lived with Christ, but did not fully understand him. None of the disciples did. Simply put, their three-year mission with Christ was one of a daily discovery. They couldn’t comprehend this Messiah, but they knew Him to be right and thus followed. What we see is that Peter had an overarching preference for Christ—a wild, reckless, radical desire to be with him and to serve him. But in this fire of love, Peter blinded himself often to the call to childhood, to love. His successes and failures highlight this fact. Look at the moment where the children come to Christ and Peter shoos them away! Christ looks at him and says “let the little children come to me.” Christ calls Peter personally to a humbling of self, to a childlike innocence and love.
In his experience with the children, we see a great call to humility and a total submission to God’s love and will, but we also see a very broken, human leader. Peter is almost a constant contradiction to himself. At every turn he has an “ah-hah” moment only to follow it up with an immediate stumble. Several passages highlight this well. First and foremost is one of the most powerful moments in the Gospels. Christ looks at Peter and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This question should be a daily meditation that we pose to ourselves. Who do we say that the Christ is? Peter answers correctly and well, not because he understands the full message of his answer, but because his heart drives him to say “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” With grace and faith, he shows a great leadership in stepping forward to declare Christ’s glory!
This moment is profound. There is a recognition of Christ’s divinity, his power and glory to come. Yet immediately afterwards, Christ is rebuking Peter, saying “get behind me Satan! Whoever would save his life will lose it.” We see the beginning of a pattern with Peter, success and then failure. Look at the moment where Christ walks on water. Peter joyfully runs to meet Him, running on the waves to greet his Lord. Yet, his faith fails and he sees his own human weakness and sinks. Christ again rebukes him, “O you of little faith!” Trust ME! That’s Christ’s call to Peter and to us! TRUST ME, I won’t let you fall. And yet how often do we get so caught up in our own weakness that we lose sight of the fact that Christ is our success? We so often run on the waves of love to him, only to stumble in the knowledge of our own failures. Yet as His outstretched hand shows, our failures cannot and do not matter in such a great presence! “It is in Him that I hope, before counting my errors and my virtues. Numbers have nothing to do with this. In the relationship with Him, numbers don’t count, the weight that is measured or measurable is irrelevant, and all the evil I can possible do in the future has no relevance either.” Christ uses Peter to show us this truth! As he shows Peter, he also shows us, I don’t care what you’ve done! All I want is your love!
With this is mind we turn squarely to the greatest of Peter’s failures—the denial of Christ. Yet leading into the Passion, Peter is courageous and loyal! Lord I will never leave you, he declares. I will go to prison, even die for you! How often have you and I said that to Him in prayer? Yet moments later, Peter is asleep in the garden and we with him.
Even in his errors, one note and example we can glean from Peter is his passion. He doesn’t half-ass it in the Bible. He’s passionate about his successes, “YOU ARE THE CHRIST” as well as his failures, cutting ears off, almost drowning, denying his knowledge of Christ. All are extremes. Hot and cold. Never lukewarm, Peter is filled with such great passion! Only once is he lukewarm, and sleeps in the Garden. And Christ approaches him with great sadness. The lukewarm make Christ sorrowful, for they are far more lost than the hot or cold. Let us never be lukewarm! And it is with this sadness of such great love that Christ looks at Peter in his denial, and finally looks upon him at the seashore.
It is finally at the seashore that Peter “gets it.” In John 21, Christ reveals his message fully to Peter with three questions. “Simon Peter, do you love me?” thrice repeated. And Peter sees himself in the light of all his defects and flashes to his failures. He recognizes that same look in the eyes of Christ, from the moment that he said “I do not know him.” And realizing the love that is in those eyes, Peter replies, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Peter’s sins fall away, they don’t matter. His failures and denial are empty and nothing in the reflection of so great a mercy; a mercy that merely wants his love. The overarching preference in his heart culminates in his reply, “YES! I LOVE YOU.” And we too, must follow suit. Because as Giussani wrote in a meditation on this scene, “within this affection that emanates from You I learn, I learn to live, I learn to be a human being.” And every day, we too must reflect on Peter’s words, as Christ constantly asks us, “But you too, do you love Me?” And everyday we must follow that preference of our hearts to Christ, holding Peter as so great an example. Yes Lord. I love you. In that love we will grow, and the failures will fall away.