Before we had St. Peter, we had Simon son of John, a married, knowledgeable fisherman whose friends and partners were other fishermen, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder. In Simon’s house lived his wife, family, his mother-in-law. He also had a brother, Andrew. All of these people would be drawn to an intinerant preacher of the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth.
What draws me to Peter is the simple exchange which happened between him and Christ after the Resurrection, and Peter’s words to Jesus: “Lord, you know everything; You know that I love you.”
These beautiful, humble words of our first Pope I pray often, as I relish the life of the great fisherman, who lived through astonishment, surviving his own big mouth, his brashness and exaggerations, his doubt, mistrust and fear, periodic serious lapses of faith coupled with sincere and intense declarations of love and faith, his cursing, repeated denials of the Lord with whom he lived so intimately for three years, to his final, humble protests of love which would lead ultimately to his own crucifixion upside-down because he felt unworthy to suffer and die in the same way that his Master had died.
We cannot begin to appreciate this, Peter’s prayer, unless we have the backstory on Peter. What is the everything to which St. Peter refers?
The Lord, Christ Messiah and Savior, knows EVERYTHING of Simon, son of John, who from the beginning Jesus calls Cephas, Rock, despite Peter’s over-confidence and eventual denial.
In John 1: 40-42 , we read: “Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
This seems to be the initial encounter. Jesus clearly already sees what Peter’s role will be, though Peter himself has no idea what is coming. Jesus’ popularity grows as hundreds of hungry Israelites are drawn to his fresh approach to justice, mercy, to Yahweh. Crowds have already begun to press in on this young carpenter to hear what He has to say.
At the same time, or maybe shortly thereafter, Luke explains in his Gospel 1:5-8: “While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. 2 He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” 9 For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, 10 and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”
The signs performed by Jesus are so great that these fishermen abandon their livelihoods, committing themselves to follow him. How powerful must be their experience that they toss aside their need to care for their families, their homes, their boats, the emotional entanglements which each of them surely has, to follow this man Jesus. None of them has any idea what His mission is at this point, but they must be convinced that He is being led by God. They have no idea yet that He is the Word of God in very flesh.
They see repeatedly that Jesus has a personal touch. His spirituality is not remote, but immediate, warm, and personal. He comes into their homes, eats with them. In Matthew 8:14-15 Jesus enters the house of Peter; and seeing Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever, He touches her hand, the fever leaves her, and she rises and waits on Him.
Though personal and warm, Jesus constantly gives evidence that He is so much more than the average man, teacher, or rabbi. Matthew 14: 25-31 provides this witness: “During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. 27 At once [Jesus] spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Showing himself at once brash and over confident, and wishing to show Christ his faith and trust, Peter is caught in this account between his relationship with a Rabbi whom he likes, admires, and respects, and a developing relationship with the Lord of all creation, a Savior and Deliverer, with the Son of Man who he would come to believe is the Son of the Living God.
Not only Peter, but others are hearing and seeing more from Jesus and of Jesus. Many are wondering, “What manner of man is this?” Jesus checks his apostles’ understanding at this time in Matthew 16: 13-19: “When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Peter has crossed a threshold here, from human faith in a man in whom he has come to believe and love, to the Anointed one, the Messiah, the Chosen one of God, the Father’s only begotten Son—Son of the Living God. To back down now, to retract this level of faith would be apostasy. There is no going back. At the same time, Jesus begins more and more to give privileged access of Himself to Peter, as well as to James and John.
For example, in Luke 8: 51 when Jesus enters a home to raise from the dead a little girl, He permits only Peter, James and John to enter the house.
Though Peter, James, and John clearly realize by now that Jesus is divine, that all things are possible to Him, they still do not realize that in His role as Messiah, He will be also the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:
“3 He was spurned and avoided by men,/ a man of suffering, knowing pain, /Like one from whom you turn your face,/spurned, and we held him in no esteem./4 Yet it was our pain that he bore,/ our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken,/ struck down by God and afflicted, / 5 But he was pierced for our sins,/ crushed for our iniquity./ He bore the punishment that makes us whole,/ by his wounds we were healed. / 6 We had all gone astray like sheep,/ all following our own way;/ But the LORD laid upon him/ the guilt of us all. / 7 Though harshly treated, he submitted/ and did not open his mouth;/ Like a lamb led to slaughter/ or a sheep silent before shearers,/ he did not open his mouth. / 8 Seized and condemned, he was taken away./ Who would have thought any more of his destiny?/ For he was cut off from the land of the living,/ struck for the sins of his people./ 9 He was given a grave among the wicked,/ a burial place with evildoers,/ Though he had done no wrong,/ nor was deceit found in his mouth. / 10 But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain./ By making his life as a reparation offering,/ he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days,/ and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.”
Consequently, Jesus begins to prepare the twelve for the truth of His mission. In Matthew 16: 21-23, we read: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. 22 Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” 23 He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Peter is hearing Christ, but not listening. He doesn’t want to hear this, so, as he has done before, he puts his foot in his big mouth. Like the others who are arguing on the way to Jerusalem about which of them will be greatest in the Kingdom of God [Luke 9:46], like the mother of James and John who asks that her two sons sit on either side of Jesus when He enters into His kingdom [Mark 10:35-45], they all think that Jesus’ role will be one of victory, honor, and glory—perhaps supplanting the power of the Romans who rule them, and whom they despise. None of the twelve are thinking the way God thinks, but as men think. The Passion of the Christ is inconceivable to Peter; ever extreme, he declares, “Never can this happen to You!”
Because Jesus knows their hard hearts, because He recognizes the scandal that His passion will present to these men, He gives his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, the experience of the Transfiguration. The vision of His glory, the voice of His Father once again witnessing to His true identity, are meant to increase their faith, to strengthen and sustain them in the awful test of their faith in the coming trial that will test their souls.
Matthew 17: 1-6 –”After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. [About His coming passion and the events of the three days before His resurrection.]4 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.”
Rather than understanding Jesus’ intent in revealing His glory, Peter, spokesman for the three apostles, once again misinterprets, misunderstands, what this is all about. So dazzled is he by the transcendent light and the unexpected vision of Moses and Elijah, that he simply wants to stay there. He misses the boat once again.
Once down from the mountain, Peter sees the rich young man turn away from Christ because of his material possessions. We read in Matthew 19:23-28 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Once again, Peter shows his desire to be rewarded for his having left all to follow Jesus, asking: “What are we going to get out of this?” But be assured that he would again misunderstand Jesus’ response about “you who have followed me, in the new age….” They expect this glorious age NOW.
Jesus continues to prepare his apostles for His imminent passion, for the test of their faith. In Matthew 26: 31-35, we read, “Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’;32 but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise.”
Peter casts off Jesus’ warning. Ever the brash and over-confident leader, he believes that he is incapable of betrayal even though everyone else betrays Christ, even should he face death.
Jesus’ teachings intensify. When he promises His very flesh for food, and His own blood for drink, many of His followers abruptly leave Him. In John 6: 66-69 we read, “… many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. 67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter’s love and faith are strong, but he truly lacks self-knowledge. He does not know of what he is capable. He never doubts his sincere love and loyalty; he has no concept of his own weakness and self-serving interests. As Jesus would tell him later, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak [Mt. 26:41].
Our beloved Peter is truly a man of extremes. Have you noticed that? He says, “Even though everybody else denies you, I never will! Even though I have to die, I will never deny you.” As the beloved three, Peter, James, and John are seated close to Jesus at the Last Supper, he proceeds yet again to proclaim himself the extreme devotee of Christ in John 13:5-9 . “Then he [Jesus]poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
It is only when Jesus tells him, “Unless I wash your feet, you will have no part of Me.” Then—still the extremist, he declares, “Then wash ALL of me!”
Seeking the comfort of His inner circle, in Matthew 26: 36-40 Jesus takes Peter, James and John with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane to watch and pray, and ultimately to witness His agony; but when He leaves them a short distance away, all three of them go to sleep. Never has He asked a favor of His beloved friends, but to watch an hour with Him—and they fail Him. Peter, along with the rest, fails him.
We find our brash leader acting out once again in John 18:10-11 as Peter cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Thinking as man thinks, not as God thinks, completely oblivious to Isaiah 53, Peter’s idea of loyalty is to strike with the sword, so Jesus tells him, “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?”
Despite his view of himself as the loyal follower of Jesus, not only does he deny Him, but he does so vehemently, with oaths and cursing. He is too afraid to come close to where Jesus is being held and interrogated, so he follows at a safe distance. We read in Matthew 26:69-75 of Peter’s last denial: “As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.” 72 Again he [Peter] denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!” 73 A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.” 74 At that he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately a cock crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.”
As extreme as were his mistaken loyalties and denials, so too his extreme grief and sorrow over what he has done—acts of betrayal of which he could never admit he might be capable. Luke 22:61 tells us that when the cock crows, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” Peter remembers all that the Lord told him, how He warned him, and grief and penitence clutch his heart as his tears sweep over him in a storm of sorrow. Even his sorrow is extreme, larger than life, but utterly sincere. Peter’s great fall was inevitable because he lacked self-knowledge. The grace of this immense storm in Peter’s life was to lead him to self-knowledge, a knowledge he would probably never have reached had he not denied his Lord.
Just as Peter denies Christ three times, Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to affirm his love. After Jesus’ resurrection, the twelve go out fishing at night. Coming in weary and hungry early in the morning, John recognizes Jesus on the beach, “It is the Lord.” True to form, brash and eager, Peter leaps from the boat and swims to shore where Jesus has cooked fish for them.
In John 21:15-17, we read: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Peter is distressed that Jesus has to ask him three times if he loves Him, so on the third time, he adds: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Everything is all that has come before: all the ups and downs, the misinterpretations, the misunderstandings, the rebuke, the failures of trust, the fears, the denials, the brashness, the eagerness and over-confidence. If the Lord knows all of this, He also knows the sincere intensity of Peter’s love which remains after all of the failings.
We can all identify with our beloved Peter, our Rock, and how Christ uses flawed, often blind and mistaken, broken men in His Church, to be his inner circle, to be His beloved friends and victim souls. Let us often pray with St. Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love You.”
In The Simple Path to Union, we often meditate on self-knowledge: “We lack self-knowledge because we are afraid to see the truth, what requires a change in us. Instead of facing our wounds, fears and wrong-doing, we try to make deals with God, offering Him good works to appease our consciences. At the same time, we use many masks to hide our sins. We should not be satisfied having some superficial self-knowledge; we should seek to live wrapped in the gift of self-knowledge by humbly acknowledging our sins, our nothingness and our inability to do anything without the grace of God. St. Peter tells us: “Wrap yourselves in humility” (1 Pet 5:5). Jesus will then give us self-knowledge in surprising ways through people, situations, and Scripture [Simple Path, pp. 37-38] .
How appropriate that it is our beloved father, St. Peter himself, who admonishes us: “Wrap yourselves in humility.” God sometimes permits a mighty fall if only to give us the grace of humility, for it is only in humility, in being broken, that we can come to self-knowledge.