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Open Book: I, Peter – How the Gospel heals your shame

Vatican - Jesus and Peter

NILS VON KALM reflects on the Gospel story of Peter…

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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to 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.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ – John 21: 15-19 (NRSV)

When I was about 18, the young adults’ group I was in did an exercise where we each had to think of the person in the Bible we most identify with. Cheekily, I wanted to say, “Jesus” because of His humility! 

I can’t remember the character I chose, but if I was doing that exercise today, I reckon I would choose Peter.

Vatican - Jesus and Peter

Jesus and Peter depicted in a mosaic at the Vatican. PICTURE: sedmak/iStockphoto

“Throughout the Gospels, Peter is known as the leader of the pack. Ever the outspoken one, he is the one who often answers first when Jesus asks a question, and he is the one who declares his undying loyalty to the Lord when the disciples are told that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die.”

The reason I would choose this outspoken leader of Jesus’ disciples is because I can relate to him so deeply. Not so much to his leadership abilities – I don’t see myself as a leader that much – but to his deep sense of inadequacy and guilt when he failed.

I have had numerous failures throughout my life, some monumental, others not so huge. It’s a rare person indeed who goes through life untouched by their own failures. Some of the most famous people in history had plenty of failures, but you wouldn’t know it based on what they became famous for.

Check out this list of famous people and the way they failed:
• The greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, was cut from his high school team.
• Walt Disney was fired from his job at a newspaper early in his career. They said he lacked imagination.
• Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times.
• John Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill, was rejected twenty-eight times.
• Albert Einstein had the label “mentally slow” put on his permanent school record.
• Henry Ford’s first two automobile companies failed.
• Oprah Winfrey was fired from an early job as a television news anchor.
• Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage in his first stand-up comedy appearance.
• Sir James Dyson suffered through 5,126 failed prototypes before he landed on the first working Dyson vacuum.
• Elvis Presley was fired from the Grand Ole Opry and was told to go back to truck driving.
• Colonel Harland Sanders of KFC fame was rejected over 1,000 times before finding a franchise partner.

If you ever feel down on yourself because of your own failures, keep this list handy to refer to. It will probably help you feel better about yourself.

But I reckon Peter is a better example than all of those in the above list. The amazing perseverance shown by the people above is primarily about their achievements. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think the example of Peter goes deeper. It goes to our very sense of identity.

Throughout the Gospels, Peter is known as the leader of the pack. Ever the outspoken one, he is the one who often answers first when Jesus asks a question, and he is the one who declares his undying loyalty to the Lord when the disciples are told that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to die.

The great thing about the story of Peter is that Jesus always sees right through his bravado and never shames him for it. In fact, as we shall see, Jesus uses this aspect of Peter’s personality for the furtherance of His Kingdom.

Peter’s bravado covers up a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. It’s really the question that every man faces: am I enough? Peter doesn’t really think he is.

We first see this in Luke 5 in the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Peter (at this stage still called Simon) is an expert fisherman, so when they haven’t caught a thing all night and Jesus comes along and tells them to go out into the deep water and let down their nets for a catch, Peter probably feels pretty insulted. But he is humble enough to take Jesus’ advice, and we know what happens next.

When they catch the enormous number of fish, why does Peter tell Jesus to “go away from me, for I am a sinful man”? It’s because he can’t handle the extraordinary generosity of Jesus; his outrageous grace. Peter’s first reaction is, “I don’t deserve this. Who am I to receive such generosity?” He can’t look Jesus in the eye. How often have we felt like that? I certainly have.

The main story of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s shame though comes after Jesus’ resurrection. It starts on the night before he dies, when Peter, again characteristically outspoken, declares to Jesus that he will die for him if he has to. It is then, of course, that Jesus has to deliver the awful news to Peter that before the cock crows the next morning, Peter will have denied Him three times.

As the events of that terrible night unfold, with the sense of despair that fills the air, Peter does indeed desert Jesus in the hour of His greatest need. Three times he tries to tell those around him that he has nothing to do with this would-be Messiah who is on trial.

Can you imagine the conflicting emotions tearing through Peter’s mind at the time? The fear and terror of what is happening is overwhelming. All the hopes of the previous three years are going up in smoke before his very eyes. Have you ever been utterly convinced of something only to find out it isn’t true after all? That’s how Peter is feeling. You can sort of understand him not wanting to identify with Jesus.

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Peter’s remorse upon his third denial is palpable. He breaks down in tears, completely ashamed. At the very time that Jesus needed him most, he wasn’t there for his Lord and best friend. The depth of his guilt is hard to comprehend.

Thankfully the story doesn’t end there. It never does with Jesus. After he is raised, we see this strange scene where they are having breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves Him. Three times! Is Jesus so in need of affirmation that He needs Peter to tell him three times that He loves him? Not at all. It is Jesus doing the affirming. His three questions correspond to Peter’s three denials on that fateful night just a few days before.

The wonderful aspect of this story is not just that it is about Jesus restoring and forgiving Peter. It is much more than that. After restoring and forgiving Peter, Jesus gives him a job to do: feed my sheep. Be the leader of this movement that will turn the world upside down. Rather than getting Peter to step down, Jesus gets him to step up.

Jesus shows Peter that He believes in him. The Gospel is about believing in Jesus, but I wonder if it’s equally about Jesus believing in us. Jesus says to Peter, “I know what you’ve done; I know you denied me three times, but it doesn’t matter. I want you back; I want to be in relationship with you. I know your heart; you’re a good man. Yes, you made a mistake, but that doesn’t matter. Don’t go on thinking and worrying about that. You are loved. The slate is wiped clean.” He says the very same to us.

That’s what forgiveness is. It’s a new beginning. The slate is wiped clean.

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Peter’s sense of shame at his failure. But the good news of Easter is that God doesn’t want us to live in shame; God wants us to be free, free to love the world because Jesus first loved us.



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