Of all the people we encounter in the New Testament, I like St. Peter the best. It’s not that Peter is better or holier than anyone else in Scripture; it’s actually quite the opposite. He was capable of speaking some very profound theological insights but was also capable, from time to time, of sticking his foot in his mouth. Peter was a man of strong faith at times, but he also had his weak moments. The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles have numerous examples of the ebb and flow of St. Peter’s faith. This fluctuation of faith is something we each struggle with in our lives. Let’s look at a few examples of Peter’s faith struggles that the Gospels show us.
Jesus Stretched Out His Hand
The story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33) is one most Catholics are familiar with, although they may not be clear on all its details. This story tells of how the Apostles, crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat, get caught in a sudden storm. As their boat is tossed around, they see someone walking across the water toward them and are frightened, thinking the apparition is a ghost. When Jesus reveals Himself, Peter asks Jesus to command him to also walk on the water. Jesus calls to him, and he begins to walk on the stormy sea. But when Peter realizes how strong the wind is, he begins to sink and must be saved by Jesus.
This story emphasizes the fact that, just like most of us, Peter had faith that waxed and waned. It was strong enough for him to trust Jesus and take a few steps on the water, but his faith was weak enough for fear to get the upper hand, and he sank into the water. This example of Peter’s faith fluctuating between strong and weak in the same story is something that most of us can relate to. When our faith is strong, we feel God’s presence in our life. When it weakens, our fears and doubts can take control.
Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church
The second story that bears further reflection is found in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 16:13-23). It begins with Jesus asking a simple, straight-forward question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The Apostles respond that some people think He is John the Baptist, recently put to death by King Herod. Others think He is Elijah, and still others think He may be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets – clearly there is no consensus regarding Jesus’ identity. But He then asks the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies that they have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
If the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity ended at this point, Peter could have basked in the glow of Jesus’ reply: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My heavenly Father.” Jesus then tells Peter that he is the Rock upon which the Church will be built and that he is to be entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, soon after this incident, Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, be killed, and rise again after three days. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him for speaking this way, telling Jesus that no such thing will ever happen. The Lord’s response to Peter is swift and rather harsh: He calls Peter Satan and tells him that he is an obstacle for Jesus in carrying out the will of His Father in heaven. The reason Peter doesn’t understand Jesus’ true mission is because he is thinking not as God thinks but as human beings think.
This Gospel story indicates that Peter is capable of speaking with great insight, as the grace of God allows. However, he is also capable of saying things that demonstrate his true lack of understanding of Jesus’ mission, of why the Son of God came into the world in the first place. Peter is just like any of us: his words often reveal how he thinks things should be rather than how they must be.
I Do Not Know Him
The final Gospel story that demonstrates Peter’s weakness is the account of his denial of Jesus (Luke 22:31-34, 54-62). The story begins at the Last Supper when Jesus tells Peter He is praying that Peter’s faith will not fail because Peter must be the one to strengthen the faith of the other Apostles. Peter responds by telling Jesus that he is ready to go to prison and to die with Jesus. But Jesus tells Peter that that very day he will deny knowing Him, that before the cock crows Peter will deny Jesus three times.
His earlier protests notwithstanding, Peter is confronted by three different individuals in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and does in fact deny knowing Jesus. The cock crows, and Jesus looks directly at him. Peter recalls the words Jesus spoke to him at the Last Supper. And the Gospel tells us that Peter went out and wept bitterly.
Peter’s denial highlights the fact that the Apostles – those chosen by Jesus to be His closest associates – were not immune to the fears, uncertainties, and weaknesses that are part of the human condition. In other words, Peter and the other eleven Apostles were not very different from you and me. Peter was the first Apostle chosen by Jesus (Luke 5:1-11) even though he was an admitted sinner and possessed all the weaknesses that are part of the make-up of every person who has ever lived.
Peter: Apostle, Rock, Role Model
If Peter was such a weak and fearful individual, one who denied knowing Jesus and was too afraid to be present at Jesus’ crucifixion, why is he such a good role model for us today? The answer is that, although he was weak and fearful, he was able, with God’s grace, to overcome his limitations and follow Jesus’ command to proclaim the Gospel to all the world.
We know he overcame his fears and weaknesses because his activities and those of the whole Christian community are recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts tells us, for instance, about the Descent of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 2:4-6), where Peter’s role is central. It also describes Peter’s cure of a crippled beggar at the Temple gate (Acts 3:1-10) and how he stood before the Sanhedrin and proclaimed Jesus Christ to the Jewish religious leaders (Acts 4:1-20). These stories and many others in Acts chronicle the growth of the infant Church.
More specifically, Acts of the Apostles tells of the spiritual growth of St. Peter: how the one to whom Jesus entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom – who had previously denied knowing Him – became one of the most significant leaders of the Church, first in Jerusalem, then in Antioch, and finally in Rome. After the Resurrection, Peter hid in the upper room for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). Acts recounts how he overcame that fear and went on to boldly announce all that Jesus had instructed His followers to teach and proclaim. Peter not only overcame his fears in order to proclaim the Gospel to the nations, he also conquered his fears – as the history and Tradition of the Church tell us – to accept martyrdom for the sake of His crucified Lord.
Peter is an ideal role model for us today because we are very much like him, each in our own way. Like Peter, we too have been called by name – Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and each of us at our Baptism. Like Peter, we have often found it difficult to follow our call because of fear and weakness. And like Peter, we can receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. With this grace, we can find the courage to proclaim the Gospel.
If few of us will ever have the opportunity to preach the Gospel in foreign missions, all of us, nevertheless, have the opportunity to preach the Gospel in our neighborhoods and workplaces. Peter was chosen by Jesus as one of the first Apostles and later declared by Jesus to be the Rock foundation of the Church. We are chosen by Jesus to live lives that proclaim the Gospel and to continue building the Church, which sits firmly on that Rock. This is why Peter is a very appropriate and very real role model for all Catholics. There are many holy women and men who have been declared saints by the Church and who are fitting role models for us to emulate, but none is better than St. Peter.