Learning from Peter
August 31, 2008
Fr. George Smiga
What a difference a week makes! In last week’s gospel, Peter was at the top of his game. This week he hits rock bottom. Last week Jesus asked his disciples to declare who he was, and Peter had the answer: “You are the Messiah,” he said, “the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s words were exactly right. His answer was a grand slam. Jesus said that his response was a divine inspiration, that he would make Peter the rock upon which the church would stand, and that he would give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of God. What a successful interaction! Last week things could not have been better. This week things are different. This week Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer and die, and Peter objects. That plan does not make any sense to him. Still puffed up with the pride of his own success, still holding in his hands the keys he has just received, Peter asserts himself with boldness: “God forbid that, Lord, this must never happen to you.” Peter is clear and concise. He’s also dead wrong. Jesus turns on Peter with a real force, “Get behind me, you Satan,” Jesus says. The rock on which the church is to stand speaks out and crumbles. Success collapses into failure. The first of the apostles stands on the side of Satan.
Today’s gospel is about failure, a huge failure that comes after a great success. The response and the rebuke of Peter were a disaster. But for us they are good news, because the story of Peter tells us what failure is and what failure is not.
Failure is a reminder of our human weakness. None of us are perfect. Each one of us has our own particular flaws. We all have an array of self-inflicted wounds we can display: a disastrous decision from which we are still trying to recover, words spoken in anger which we would give anything to take back, a variety of flaws which have led to broken relationships, lost opportunities and fractured dreams. Yes, we have our moments of success but we also have a weakness that leads to failure. Like Peter, we are a mixture of both success and failure. There are times that we speak confidently that Jesus is the Messiah and other times where our words come from the devil’s mouth.
Our failures are a sign of our human weakness. But they are not the end of the line. Our God is a God of compassion, a God of forgiveness. God is always willing to give us a second chance. This is what happens to Peter. Despite his major failure, Jesus does not give up on him. Jesus does not take the keys of the kingdom back. Jesus maintains his relationship to Peter and still calls him to follow him. Peter does. He gets up and tries again. He fails again, most notably in the garden of the high priest when he denies Jesus three times. But Peter gets up again. In time he receives an appearance of the risen Lord and goes out to proclaim the good news.
Our failures show us our human weakness but they need not be the end of our story. We can move beyond our sins because of God’s unfailing compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew this truth. As a good Jew, he understood how God time and again forgave the infidelities of Israel. Jesus forgave Peter and continued to lead him forward. God will do the same for us. Pick any failure you wish, even though you still bear its marks in your life, it need not destroy you. Name your greatest sin. That sin need not be the end of the line. As profound as our failure may be, God’s compassion is deeper. Therefore, we, like Peter, must get up and try again, believing that the same God who forgave us, will be with us. Our God is always willing to give us another chance and if that is true, then there is always a future. There is always a time when, despite our weaknesses, we like Peter can profess that Jesus is the Messiah and continue to rejoice in the continuing blessings that come from the God who loves us.