Upon This Rock…

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you to where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

                                                                                     John 21:17-19

            The story of the Apostle Peter has long held my fascination.

            Peter, originally known as Simon, was born the son of a fisherman named Jonah. It was Christ Himself who gave him the name ‘Peter’, by which we know him today.

            The word that Jesus used when He dubbed Simon ‘Peter’ was the Aramaic cephas, which means ‘rock’. The gospels, however, were written in ancient Greek so that the early Church could easily understand them; ‘rock’ in Greek is petros, which in English is Peter.

            It would seem that ‘Peter’ was a nickname or a term of endearment, since the word cephas was never used as a name.

            My belief is that Jesus had a twofold reason for bestowing such a name upon Simon. I believe that He saw in Peter great potential, potential for strength of both spirit and character. I think that the moniker was also the manifestation of Jesus’ gentle sense of humor, as Peter was indisputably the most hardheaded of the Disciples/Apostles.

            Peter was among the first chosen by Christ to be part of His ministry; when he first encountered the Messiah, he was fishing with his brother Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. That was a perfectly normal thing for a man to be doing. Scripture doesn’t say that Peter was a deeply spiritual man, or learned. Quite the contrary; it says that he was a fisherman, and when he met Jesus he was just… well, doing what fisherman do.        

Scripture says that those who believe do so by Grace. Peter, in this sense, was immediately granted Grace in unbelievable measure. This Jesus just walks up and shouts out, ‘Hey! Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men.’

If someone were to shout that to you or I, we’d probably laugh and throw a fish at Him. Maybe some of the other fisherman did; Jesus got picked on a lot like that.

But Simon simply answered, ‘Okay’. He dropped his net and, along with Andrew, went ashore and threw his lot in with Christ. I’m betting some other fisherman stole his abandoned boat and I don’t think he really cared, for such was the finality of his instantaneous decision to follow the Lord.

Peter was in many ways a weak man, more than a little impetuous and somewhat arrogant. I think he was also a man of extremes; his great, awe-inspiring words and actions were almost always followed by behavior that earned him much-deserved rebuke.

For instance, it was Peter who first made that legendary confession; ‘You are the Christ (or Messiah), Son of the Living God’. At which point Jesus praises him mightily; ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys to of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind in earth will be bound in Heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.’

What a touching statement of faith, and rewarded with such a sacred charge.

But Matthew chapter sixteen does not even become chapter seventeen before Peter catches it. That ‘blessed are you’ promptly becomes ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Peter’s sin? Challenging the very words of Jesus Himself, whom he’d just confessed as God. 

‘Blessed are you… Get behind me!’ Peter’s life, both in and apart from the physical presence of Jesus, seemed plagued by both extremes.

I chuckle when I think about Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus is being arrested prior to His crucifixion. Someone (note the sarcasm) struck Malchus, the servant of the high priest, in the ear and cut it off. At which point Jesus restrains Mr. Sword-Happy, and heals the ear.

There seems to be a great reluctance on the part of the Disciples/Apostles to rat each other out. For instance, Matthew records the incident as ‘one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.’

Mark, whom I see as being very straightforward and matter-of-fact, would’ve been my first guess for the tattletale. But even Mark hesitates to spill the beans; Mark says the attack came from ‘one of those standing near’ – making his account even more vague than Matthew’s.

Even Luke – the doctor, the man of science – chooses to be most un-exact, as well as quite unscientific when he records the incident. Luke writes that ‘one of them’ struck the servant of the high priest.

No, it is not Matthew, Mark or Luke who drops the dime.

It is John, of all people! John, the ‘Disciple of Love’, who started some of his most famous writings with ‘my dear friend, whom I love in the truth’ and peppered them with such phrases as ‘my dear children’. It is John who boldly points the finger and writes: ‘Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)’

When Jesus sent out the twelve to spread the Gospel, He ordered them to drive out demons, to cure diseases, to preach the Gospel and to heal the sick. I don’t think ear-chopping was part of the job description. When Jesus later sent out the seventy-two, He sent them out ‘like lambs among the wolves’.

Yet I get the distinct impression that Peter was thinking ‘Lamb, my eye! I got yer lamb right here, pal!’ And what kind of swordsman tries to lop off someone’s ear, for crying out loud?!

Let’s not kid ourselves; ol’ Peter was trying cut Malchus’ head clean in two. Fortunately, he was a fisherman, not a soldier, and apparently had lousy aim. Which is why Jesus simply healed an ear instead of resurrecting a corpse. Had Jesus been anyone but the Messiah Himself, I think He would’ve rolled His eyes in annoyance and said something withering. As it was, He simply rebuked His hotheaded and overeager disciple.

Peter seemed to do – and need done – everything in threes, probably since he was so obstinate. For instance, he denies Christ three times when questioned about knowing Him. Three times, and that before the rooster even had time to crow. 

We know that Peter was crushed with guilt over this, too. In his denial we see not so much distaste for his God as we do simple human weakness, weakness that Christ loved him in spite of. Or maybe not ‘in spite of’, but because of, for God loves to use the weak things of the world.

In either case, when Jesus reinstates Peter he asks him not once but three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter response is clear-headed and born of absolute faith, not weakness: ‘Yes, Lord. You know that I love you’.

It is Peter who addresses the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, speaking for the Apostles; Peter almost always spoke for them.

Yet it was Peter whom Paul had to rebuke sharply for not eating with the non-Jews, the Gentiles. In fact, it was Peter who argued fiercely with God Himself about associating with Gentiles to begin with.

On the flip side, it was Peter who performed the second recorded baptism on a Gentile, Cornelius the Centurion. (The first was the unnamed Ethiopian, baptized into Christ by Philip.)

Such a contradictory man, Peter!

            The Bible does not record Peter’s death, but most accounts put it around 64-68 A.D., in Rome under the emperor Nero. (If there were anyone I’d rather not die under, it would be Nero. Simply put, the man was cold-out crazy.)

            Some accounts say that Peter died ‘in the arena’. This could mean that he was eaten by lions. Or maybe the gladiators got him. Maybe he was pulled apart by chariots, or something just as horrid; use your imagination… because ‘in the arena’, the uber-decadent Romans would most certainly have used theirs.

With the possible exception of John, who might simply have died in exile, most accounts agree that all of the apostles were martyred. I tend to believe this, because I think that God was making a point by their deaths. Apostolic authority – the laying on of hands, the healing of the sick, or the divine authority to write Scripture – was meant to end with the Apostles. With the book of Revelation, John finished recording the Word of God. Thus Scripture – the perfection of God’s communication with man – was completed.

Therefore, Apostolic power – the deliberate, one-time ‘passing on’ of Jesus’ authority – ended with the original Eleven, Matthias, and Paul.

The more common account of Peter’s death is far more striking than ‘death in the arena’. It is said that he, like Christ Himself, was crucified. However, Peter protested that he was not worthy to die as his Lord did. So the Romans, perhaps reflecting the sadistic humor of their ruler, pretty much replied ‘Okay, smart guy. Let’s try something else…’

Such accounts say that Peter was crucified… upside down.

There we have, I think, the first written account of the upside-down cross as a blasphemy. But I think, if that was indeed how Peter died, his death held much more significance.

Peter who denied his Lord, Peter who argued with God, who rebelled against authority time and time again, earning reproach from both God and man… Peter who behaved arrogantly toward the Gentiles, who was violent and rash… It was Peter, called ‘the rock’ as much for his mulishness as his strength, whose utter devotion to Christ gave him the courage to face such a death.

In death he refused to deny the Messiah even once, let alone three times. In death he submitted utterly, doing God’s will instead of running or fighting. In death he showed more courage than he ever had in life, and more obedience, more humility.

The word ‘crucifixion’ shares the same Latin root as the word ‘excruciating’, and that in itself speaks volumes about the twofold agonies of crucifixion. The victim, nailed to a cross precisely as the Catholic crucifix depicts the Christ, is forced to suffer twin tortures: the physical pain itself, and the psychological agony of being forced to constantly choose between hideous pain and asphyxiation. To wit: hanging limply brings about quick suffocation, but pushing up on the nails (so that one might breathe) causes stabbing pain throughout the entire body.

In forcing the dying victim repeatedly to make this choice, crucifixion is in some sense a forced suicide.

Imagine all that…

Now imagine being forced to suffer it upside down, with the blood rushing to one’s head, and the collarbone and shoulders cracking from the strain. One’s ability to draw breath would be hindered further by being able only to pull up on the hands, as opposed to pulling up on the hands and pushing with the feet.

Imagine suffering all this while the temples throb like drums and the eyes bulge painfully. While death certainly came more quickly than during a traditional crucifixion, it must also have been far more traumatic.

So died Simon Bar-Jonah, also called Peter. A man whose love for Jesus was tested mightily, both in life and apparently in death. By saying those fateful words, ‘Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you’, Peter invited the Almighty to test his love. It would seem that in death as in life, his love – if not his strength, or his humility – was absolutely perfect. 

For all his weakness, for all his arrogance, folly, disobedience and sin, Peter loved his God with all of his flawed heart. I also think that he was beloved of God for these very shortcomings, and I think that God rejoiced in Peter’s eventual triumph over his own demons. In Peter God reminds us that even the obstinate and sinful can serve Him; actually, in Peter He reminds us that especially the obstinate and sinful can serve Him – for what need is there for God in the life of a perfect man, if such a man could even exist?

I could never have been, say, John. I am just not that loving or empathetic, although I wish that I were.

I could never have been Paul, the disciplined scholar, the fearless evangelist.

Nor could I have been Luke, the Beloved Physician. I’m just not that smart.

I’m not sure that I could have been Philip, the Spirit-filled waiter, or the nameless Ethiopian who believed the Good News at the drop of a hat. (My own conversion was accompanied by much agonizing, soul-searching, questioning and terror.)

I could have been none of those men; my character lacks too much, and falls too short of their sterling examples in so many ways. I am hardheaded and arrogant, occasionally weak and quite hotheaded. I am often cephas, and never by virtue of my strength of character; only my rebellious streak justifies said title.  

However, I’d like to think that in another life and another age, in another set of circumstances and in another skin…

I’d like to think that I could have been Simon Bar-Jonah, also called Peter. And I would take the utmost pride in having been dubbed petros

The Rock.

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