Learning from St Peter
(Acts 5:27-32,40-41; Rev.5:11-14; Jn.21:1-19)
Many people really love St Peter. They’re drawn to him because he’s so human, just like us. But what do we know about him?
Sadly, little is known of Peter’s early life, except that he was born Simon Bar-Jonah (‘Son of Jonah’) in Bethsaida, a village northeast of and near the Sea of Galilee (Jn.1:44). In Aramaic, his name was Symeon (Simon is Greek), and like his father and brother Andrew, he was a commercial fisherman. They worked the Sea of Galilee together with the sons of Zebedee, John and James, who also became disciples of Jesus (Mt.4:21-22).
Being a fisherman, Simon was physically strong. Most artists portray him as sturdy and thick-set with curly hair and a beard. [i] And like most Galileans, he spoke Aramaic and probably some Greek, but he was no scholar because he had no formal education (Acts 4:13).
Both Simon and Andrew were followers of John the Baptist. Once, when Simon was aged about 40, he and Andrew visited John in Bethany. Jesus was there. Andrew introduced his brother to him, saying, ‘We’ve found the Messiah!’ Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (Jn.1:35-42). Cephas is the Aramaic word for Peter, which means rock.
In other words, even before they had met, Jesus had plans for Peter.
By this time, Peter was married (Mk.1:30), had children, and lived in Capernaum with his family and mother-in-law. [ii]
Soon after they met, Jesus visited Peter at home and cured his mother-in-law of a fever (Mk.1:29-31). Jesus often stayed there, and with James and John, Peter became one of Jesus’ closest friends. In fact, Peter, James and John were privileged to witness many events no-one else ever saw, including Jesus’ Transfiguration, his Agony in the Garden, and his resurrection of a young girl, the daughter of Jairus.
The gospels tell us that Peter was impulsive, headstrong and outspoken (Jn.18:10), and he often blundered. For example, by keeping children away from Jesus (Mk.10:13), by refusing to let Jesus wash his feet (Jn.13:8), by denying Jesus three times (Lk.22:33-34), and by cutting off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jn.18:10).
So, why did Jesus choose Peter as the rock on which to build his church (Mt.16:18)? Wasn’t he more of a stumbling stone?
Well, Peter was human, just like us. But he had enough intelligence and humility to recognise his own failings (Lk.5:8), and he tried to fix them. Jesus also knew that Peter had a good heart and a strong faith.
Indeed, Peter had left everything to follow Jesus. He was the first disciple to recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Mt.16:16), and because of his trust in Jesus he even walked on water (Mt.14:22).
And in today’s Gospel, Peter is the first disciple to dive into the water when they recognise Jesus at Tabgha. Soon afterwards, they’re all enjoying breakfast on that pebbly beach. Then, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Each time Peter replies, ‘Yes, Lord’.
Here, Jesus is giving Peter a chance to undo the three times he denied him.
But Jesus also does something else. He repeatedly says to Peter, if you really love me, then ‘feed my lambs’ and ‘take care of my sheep’. In other words, he’s telling Peter to lead his universal Church.
We know that Peter takes this command seriously, because in today’s first reading he confronts the Sanhedrin, the powerful Temple leaders who crucified Jesus. Earlier, Peter had been terrified of these people; that’s why he denied knowing Jesus three times. But now he’s filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and he stands up to them.
Jesus believed in Peter, and gave him the time he needed to grow into a gifted preacher and a strong leader who converted thousands of people.
After Jesus’ Ascension, Peter worked for about ten years in and around Jerusalem and Antioch, and for his last 25 years he served as the first bishop of Rome.
However, the emperor Nero hated Christians, and in c.67AD he had Peter crucified upside down. He was buried on Vatican Hill where St Peter’s Basilica now stands. [iii]
St Peter was an ordinary, humble and imperfect man who became one of the greatest saints, and today he is a model for our own lives.
When Peter heard his call, he dropped everything to follow Jesus. He came to love and trust Jesus completely, even when he didn’t understand him. And although Peter did make mistakes, with Jesus’ love and forgiveness he learnt to do better.
St Peter teaches us that you don’t have to be perfect to be a saint.
You only have to be faithful, loving and loyal to Jesus.
[i] D H Farmer (Ed.), Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1997, 229.
[iii] Stephen J Binz, St Peter – Flawed, Forgiven and Faithful, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2015.