Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, so bold and courageous, testifies, “better for us to obey God than men!” Even with strict orders not to preach, in the rattle of menace from high priestly interrogation, he remains intrepid. He proclaims the risen Lord who “brings repentance and forgiveness of sin.” Despite further threats, Peter and his companions leave the arena, happy that they were worthy of ill treatment.
How did Peter ever get over his failure? Such a calamity. The embarrassment alone should have incapacitated him. Three times, we are told, he denied even knowing Christ. (In my earliest school days, this somehow seemed the greatest crime. The Russians—or Romans—would come, breaking down our doors. All we would have to do to win safety was deny that we were Catholics, deny Christ. With such a high standard of faith, would we even have allowed the likes of Peter into our classroom after his betrayal?)
Peter, nonetheless, must have been used to failure. Even his first admission of sin brought not rebuke from Jesus but, “Follow me.” (Mt 16:16) So he followed. He later scaled the heights. With his famous profession of faith—“You are the Christ, the son of the living God”—he got his name: Rock, the sure foundation (Mt 16:18). Had Jesus been a bit ironic? Within moments, Peter was refusing to accept Jesus’ destiny. Not Jerusalem and death! No ignominy! It will never happen! The rebuke was enough to stop a truck. “Get behind me; you have the thoughts of Satan.” (Mt 16:23) But Peter, who was perhaps too thick to register the reprimand, just got behind Jesus and continued to follow.
His thickness, or maybe the fact that he was used to his own inadequacy, allowed him to continue following, even after the catastrophe of his denial and his Lord’s death.
They navigate the sea of Tiberius, Peter and the gang. “I’m going fishing.” How must he have felt, especially at that instant when he and his fellows were challenged about their fishing? The voice from the haze undoubtedly breached a dike of memories from earlier days. “Children [“Lads,” the Knox translation puts it], have you caught anything to eat?”
As before, there was nothing. And as before, the sheer power of Jesus’ presence was felt on the waters. When they cast the nets on the other side, there were so many fish they could not haul in the catch.
On hearing “It is the Lord,” Peter plunged into the water to find him once again. Next we see the fire, the fish and bread, the disciples still stammering about who he might be. Then come those wondrous words spoken to Peter.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me?”
“Feed my sheep.”
And yet a third time, “Do you love me?”—which, we’re told, hurt Peter. I wonder why.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Pause a moment. There is something great stirring here. Have you or I ever uttered those words to another? “Do you love me?” Most of us, once beyond childhood, are terrified at the thought of asking such a question. It is hard enough for some men to tell the beloved she is loved. But it can be excruciating to ask, “Do you love me?” How often have teenagers, sometimes eager to profess their love, been found to ask whether they are loved. To ask it. Has one ever asked a friend as much? A brother or sister?
I could think of scores of questions Christ might have put to Peter. Do you promise never to betray me again? Will you finally be more modest in your claims? Do you now, at long last, after having denied me, amend your life? Will you please modulate your vaunted professions of faith? Now do you see why I had to wash your feet? Well, big-mouth?
But none of this. This God-made-flesh is interested in one thing, the heart and face of the one before him. The gift of a person, even tarnished, so like unto glory, was the only image of God that God allowed. The human “yes.” The affirmation, uttered in all its hurt and frailty. The turning of the spirit that won back God’s very heart to the Israelites time and time again. The movement of will that quickened Mary’s fiat. The surge of hope that rises with every human longing.
Jesus said only, “Do you love me?”
What manner of God is this that we worship? What wondrous love has become incarnate to live and die in Jesus Christ? What splendid manner of man was he? How could we not “glory” in such a God?
The Book of Revelation chants, “Worthy is the Lamb. ... To the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, be praise and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”
It turned out just as Jesus said. Peter became the kind of man who learned to glorify such a God, even in his death.