What makes us carry on?
The story of Peter
This is the first of three reflections for Passiontide, based around the stories of Peter, Judas and Jesus. They are based on reflections for Good Friday, delivered at St George’s Preshute in 2017.
Peter’s story is one of falling and standing up, falling again and standing up again. It was Peter who was one of the first to recognise who Jesus was when he said to Him: ‘You are the Messiah’. But it is only moments later that Jesus rebukes him for not understanding his teaching, and says: Get behind me Satan!
‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you’ (Matthew 26.33). I imagine that Peter genuinely believed those words when he spoke them. Not so much because he felt superior to his fellow-disciples and others, but because at the moment he spoke them, Peter was convinced that nothing could separate him from God; nothing could make him desert or deny that what was most important in his life: his friendship with God through Jesus.
Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, gets it right many times, but gets it wrong at least equally often. In these last few days of Jesus’ life too, Peter goes from faithfulness to failure. He shares in bread and wine, is one of the three disciples whom Jesus invites to join him to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. But he also, just like the other disciples two falls asleep, and as we know, will deny Jesus three times, as Jesus had predicted.
Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. The significance of this is not so much that Jesus knew the future, but much more that he knew what it is like to be a human being. I think it is fair to say that what happened to Peter could and would have happened to each of us. Because like Peter’s story, the story of our lives is one of falling and standing up, of falling again and standing up again: this is what makes us human.
Bishop Michael Perham has written a short book about Peter and Jesus, which has the title: Growing in friendship with God. The idea of our friendship with God is based on the insight of one of the early church fathers, that the only thing truly worthwhile pursuing is friendship with God. Indeed, as Bishop Perham writes: ‘The one thing that never seems to falter in the story of Peter is love. The love of Jesus for Peter is never in doubt, but nor is Peter’s love for Jesus. Even when Peter says the wrong thing, it is out of deep affection. When Peter denies, what makes it so awful is that this is the man whom he loves. This is the man he wants to call his friend’.
It is true: from our own experience, we know that it is painful to say the wrong thing, to upset someone. But it is even more painful when we do it to someone we love, to someone we care about. Yet, time and again it happens, time and again we make the same mistakes. And it can be difficult at those times not to doubt our love for the other, and even our love for God.
I think it is true to say that many of us find it more difficult to accept our love for God than God’s love for us. Somehow, God’s love for every human being, for all that he has created is a given. But when we look at our own lives, we find it harder to see that same love for God through our many failures and mistakes.
Did Peter feel able to believe in his love for Jesus, after he had denied him? And how about Judas, after he had betrayed him? And we ourselves, are we still able to believe in our love for God when again and again we turn away from Him? When again and again we do wrong or fail to do right.
It is then that we need to remind ourselves that God’s love for us comes first, and our love for Him is a response to this love. And although we are called to follow Jesus and imitate his example, also we need to realise that we are not gods ourselves. We are human beings, who make mistakes, who get things wrong. Again, that is why Jesus knew that Peter would deny him three times: because he knew what it was like to be human.
Jesus was right, Peter did deny him three times that evening. When Peter realised he went out and wept bitterly. Yes, at those times that is the only thing we can do: weep bitterly. There are times when there is nothing to be said, nothing to be done to make things better. We have done the wrong thing, and we need the patience to live with that knowledge, and yes, that will make us weep bitterly.
It was not until a good few days later that Peter and Jesus meet again. When we read in John’s Gospel how Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and then gives him the commandment ‘follow me’.
Although we know that the story doesn’t end on Good Friday, at this moment Peter and the other disciples don’t. So, I wonder where Peter was when the Crucifixion happened. When the person he so dearly loved but had denied, had died. When it seemed to be very clear that this was the end, and there was no more opportunity to make it right. How do we live with those moments? What do we do when we find ourselves in Peter’s position? When all hope of reconciliation, of making things better seems to be lost? Do we weep bitterly? Do we hide our faces, from others and from God?
Maybe most importantly, what made Peter come back, what made him stick with it? Was it the presence of the other disciples? Or did they actually make it more difficult for him to show his face? Was it that deep down he knew God’s love for him, and the unconditional promise of forgiveness of sins? Or was it that God carried him, without Peter knowing himself?
And for us? What does make us carry on?