Peter’s Failures

Monday, June 27, 2011 — Week of Proper 8, Year One

Cornelius Hill, Priest and Chief among the Oneida, 1907

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 972)

Psalms 106:1-18 (morning) 106:19-48 (evening)

1 Samuel 10:17-27

Acts 7:44 – 8:1a

Luke 22:52-62

There is something reassuring about the story of Peter’s denials. Peter holds a place of unique leadership in Christian history and memory. He became the leader of the post-resurrection movement. Yet part of Peter’s story is the remembrance of his failure at a crucial moment. When Jesus most needed his trusted friend, Peter denied him three times. Peter’s healing and restoration is a comfort to all of us who have failed, who have not lived up to our intentions and our relationships. It is also an inspiration to all of us who have been betrayed.

Sometimes we do not live up to our values. Under pressure, we sometimes cave in and do destructive things. Save us from the time of trial.

There is a temptation in failure to allow conscience and pride to turn a transient and momentary failure into something permanent and defining. Peter’s resilience is a model for us. Yes, his failure was great. Like Judas, he failed and betrayed Jesus. When his time of testing arrived, his courage withered. All true.

But Peter did not let that failure define him. He was able to reclaim his principles. He was able to stand tall again and act as a leader, with courage and confidence.

I like the story in John’s gospel when the resurrected Christ meets Peter on the sea shore (Jn. 21). There is an intimacy and poignancy in their conversation. Three times Jesus asks him, “Peter do you love me?” Three times Peter confirms his fundamental commitment, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Three times Jesus commissions him to service: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” The text says that Peter felt hurt when Jesus asked him the question for the third time. Maybe it was the memory of his three denials.

But the past is healed for him. He is forgiven; he accepts forgiveness. Peter is empowered for leadership. And there is a hint that he will not fail when the time of trial comes to him again in the future. Jesus tells him, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” I wonder if this is a allusion to the movement of the Holy Spirit taking a willing Peter into difficult and challenging places. The parenthetical interpretation in the text says that it is a commentary on Peter’s martyrdom. “After this, (Jesus) said to (Peter), ‘Follow me.'”

The denier is restored. The betrayed forgives. Full reconciliation and empowerment.

The facts of the past do not change. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter betrayed him three times. The meaning of the past and its effect on the future can change. Peter becomes the courageous leader of the Church, a paragon and inspiration. The Rock.

Hamlet soliloquizes “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” But repentance, forgiveness and the reclaiming of our virtue makes mountains of us also.

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