In which I have sympathy for Peter.

The Pharisees and Sadducees have got it all wrong. …Again. They want proof, signs, measurables. Jesus answers them, but not the way they want; he knows that the proofs being demanded of him are based on altogether the wrong questions.

The disciples, relieved to not be the Pharisees and Sadducees, take comfort in their close relationship with Jesus. The disciples want to do the right thing, to get it right, to follow and learn and stay in the circle of Jesus’ love. When they hear his warnings and urgings, they respond quickly – but they, too, get it wrong. They are focused on, distracted by, their own failures, their fears of falling short. They forget what they themselves have witnessed and learned, because of their worries about their own inadequacy.

When Jesus asks them to take a stand, a risk – to name aloud who they believe him to be – only Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Ahh, Peter. The same Peter who, just two chapters earlier, asks Jesus to command him to come walking across the water. When Jesus calls him, Come, Peter steps out of the boat, walks a few steps, and then sinks in fear.

Peter wants desperately to get it right. He wants desperately to understand, to get not just the answer but the reason behind the answer. He wants Jesus to command him, to call him, to count on him. This, Peter, is the disciple who first knows and names Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. What swell of emotion must rise as a wave inside of Peter at Jesus’ response! “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Peter got it right! He knows who Jesus is! He has found, has named, Messiah! O, Glory Halleluia, Messiah is here, right here, and Peter is with him! O, anywhere Jesus calls him to go, Peter will go. Anything Messiah commands to do, Peter will do. He is in the right place, with the right person! O, the joy and celebration!

Time to get to work! There is so much to be done! Oh, the urgency he must feel, mixed with the joy. Fighting against pride, swimming with certainty, ready to take on any army, ready to change the world.

Peter feels especially close to Jesus. He hangs on every word. He positions himself to be always close, always ready, always there for his Lord. And ahh, it is time now, he sees Jesus gathering the others, he knows Jesus will continue to teach them. Peter listens carefully, eagerly.

…Except that can’t be right. Jesus is talking about Jerusalem, yes, they expected that. But not this way…suffering? Being turned over to the elders and chief priests? Being given to those very same authorities who never did understand him, who still demand proof and measurables and toeing the line? That makes no sense. They’ve only just begun to understand who Jesus is – they’ve had so little time with him, and every moment is so precious. If he goes under the rule of the authorities, he’ll be crushed.

Peter shakes himself; he can’t be hearing right. Jerusalem, yes. The authorities…and suffering.

And death. Messiah’s own death? Peter is horrified; this is wrong! It must be wrong. They have waited, have prayed, so long for this time to come – the time when Messiah would walk among them and lead them. Now that time is finally here, and Peter knows it. He has felt the swelling of his soul, the bursting open of his heart, the scales falling from his eyes, because of this man. This Jesus, this is the one man who above all must be protected and preserved; Jesus alone can do what must be done to bring about God’s kingdom.

Peter’s grief and fear are now as strong as his joy had been. He speaks to Jesus, privately – privately, because Jesus knows Peter gets it, Jesus will surely listen to Peter. Tears in his eyes, dread in his heart, Peter tries to warn the man he loves and depends upon: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

It is Peter’s love which speaks, his love and fear, a fear born out of the joy he has been living. He wants to protect this man. He would give anything, to protect him. How can Jesus speak so freely of going to his own death?

How can one protect a person who insists on walking toward their own doom? How can these things be held in a heart?

Jesus’ sharp rebuke must surely have stung Peter, stunned him. He is only trying to help, to do the right thing, to protect Jesus, to serve the ministry. And this makes him a stumbling block?

This is the moment, Matthew reports, that Jesus tells his disciples (with Peter, eyes stinging, head reeling, heart breaking, standing off to the side) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Peter’s cross, I think, is his love for Jesus. Later, it will be more – Peter will indeed become the rock on which the Church is founded. But at this moment, the moment between knowing the joyful truth and knowing the hard road to come, the cross Peter bears is the depth of his love for the man he cannot protect and still does not fully understand.

Always, there is grace. Six days later, Jesus brings Peter, along with James and John, up to the mountaintop, where they witness Jesus transfigured, dazzling, joined by Moses and Elijah.

What has happened in those six days? What struggles have burdened Peter’s heart? What thoughts have chased their tails in his mind? Has he kept his distance from Jesus in that time, needing days to think, to heal, to become ready to trust again? What words might have passed between them? Words of forgiveness? From whom to whom? Words of reconciliation? Words sharing pain? Or perhaps no words at all; perhaps Peter has spent those six days trying to carve sense out of the hard exchange by himself. Perhaps he has been waiting for a word which has not come.

We will not know. We do know that at least by the time the three witness the transfiguration, Peter has either recovered or forgotten all in the wonder of this shining moment. He is himself again: Ready to jump in, ready to serve, first to get something right, and first to get the rest of it wrong. Ahh, Peter.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Advertisements