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God Words - In Saint Peter’s Footsteps

By Andrew Mintern

I was ordained Deacon in St Peter’s Cathedral, and served there for my first curacy. I have worked at St Peter’s Woodlands Grammar School for the past eight years and now I have been appointed as Priest of the Parish of Glenelg, which includes St Peter’s church. Is St Peter following me? It certainly seems like St Peter is all around us in this diocese and that of course is no coincidence. The first bishop of this diocese, Augustus Short, was consecrated on St Peter’s Day (29th June 1847). St Peter must have been a great inspiration to Short as the college whose first stone he laid in 1849, was named after St Peter. The Cathedral church of the diocese, consecrated in 1878, also bears the patronage of St Peter.  

Even before my ordination, I was captivated by St Peter. In my early twenties I wrote a trilogy of songs about St Peter – the first about his calling, the second about his days on the road with Jesus and the third about his denial and forgiveness. There always seemed to me something captivating about this person who looms larger than life in the Christian story and yet seems so earthy and real as well. There is certainly something of the everyman about Peter.  We may often reflect on Peter’s humble beginnings as a simple rough-edged fisherman, but perhaps we overplay this aspect. Whilst he was a fisherman, he may well have been seen as a very successful businessman in this important industry and must surely have been a strongly motivated character. The Gospels bear out that Peter had many facets - capable of great moments of insight yet often slow on the uptake, prepared to stubbornly argue with Jesus yet willing to take up a sword to defend him. These different aspects help us relate to his very human struggle with faith. Indeed many would say that the thing that seems so attractive about St Peter is his mistakes, not just that he had the ability to make some whoppers, but that his faithfulness enabled him to move through them to stronger and deeper faith. For this reason he becomes a role model for all Christians. Peter is mentioned by name in the New Testament more times than anyone else other than Jesus and he is seen as the first bishop of Rome – not bad for a mere Galilean fisherman!

For me the release of David Suchet’s BBC documentary “In the Footsteps of St Peter” is perfect timing. This two hour documentary takes us on an historical journey from Peter’s beginnings through to his death and subsequent legacy. One of the most interesting things in this documentary is the adjectives that the interviewees use of St Peter - flawed, headstrong, faithful, friend, denying, accessible. As a theological student in the documentary says: “Peter messes it up all the time and I think most of us in the church can completely relate to that.” That thought seems to sum up a common response to St Peter - people connect strongly with the fact that he doesn’t always get it right, he gets confused by what Jesus is on about, but alongside that is an incredible faithfulness that carries him through these times of failure. Perhaps people are saying that someone who is too perfect all the time cannot really be an effective role model for us. Well let’s have a look at some of Peter’s well-known mistakes.  

Watery Walking and Sinking (Matthew 14:22-33)

The disciples have gone ahead of Jesus in their boat and are battling the wind and waves. Jesus approaches them on the water. This is something completely outside our experience in literal terms, although most of know what it’s like to feel battered and tossed around by our life experiences. I have always found it remarkable that Peter can take even one step out of the boat towards Jesus. Clearly there is some amazing faith going on within him, but then, in a scene reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote who has run a little way off the cliff before he realizes, Peter notices the waves and wind and begins to sink. His prayer “Lord save me” is as heart-felt and gut-felt a prayer that any of us can ever say. Perhaps you have uttered this prayer of St Peter at times of great trial in your life. It always seems to me a little harsh that Jesus rebukes Peter for doubting, when I would want to affirm that he actually trusted, got out of the boat and took some steps. I’m no Greek scholar but maybe Jesus’ words are more like the gentle chiding of a friend and we miss that nuance in the printed word.

Rocky the Stumbling Block (Matthew 16:13-23)

Whilst those in the boat in the scene above are credited with calling Jesus “the Son of God”, it is on the occasion when Jesus asks: “Who do people say that I am?” that Peter alone responds with remarkable insight: “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” This is one of Peter’s finest moments. For his words he earns a new nickname – Simon becomes Cephas (the Rock) or Petros in Greek (the first known use of this word as a name). Interestingly it’s not unlike a contemporary nickname “Rocky” which whilst sounding super-cool and iron-tough, also has another meaning of being unsteady and a bit flaky. Peter lives up to this in just a few verses time when he contradicts Jesus’ predication that the messiah will suffer: “Lord this must never happen to you.” And for that he is rebuked thoroughly and called “a stumbling block” – clever writing by Matthew and cutting humour from Jesus – the newly crowned rock of foundation for the church has now become an annoying stumbling block! We shake our heads and ask “how could he get it so right and so wrong in virtually the same breath?” Dare we ask: “How would we have fared in his place?”

Not the feet! Not the Feet! (John 13:1-20)

Thank God for John’s gospel who gives us a last supper with an emphasis not on bread and wine but rather that “Service too is sacrament” as the hymn writer puts it. Jesus’ plan to wash his disciples’ feet, whilst symbolic, seems a bit of overkill, especially considering what substances they may have walked through during the day! Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet - he is adamant. Fair enough! Surely his feelings arise out of respect and love for his friend and teacher. C’mon Jesus you are our leader this is just not right! Peter’s protest is so strong that he only relents under the threat from Jesus that unless he lets him wash his feet, he can have “no share with Jesus”. If you have never seen Ford Madox Brown’s painting of the footwashing, I suggest you spend some time looking at the expressions on all the faces depicted. There is nothing simple about this experience for any of them. I think it was a transformative lesson in servant leadership for Peter that he was able to apply many times in the future.

I don’t even know him! (Matthew 26:57-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27)

What’s the worst thing we can do to a friend? Is it arguing and insulting them or is it ignoring them, not even acknowledging their existence? As the drama of the Gospels conclude, Peter reaches his low point. His classic moment of failure is upon him. Firstly, Peter and the others cannot even stay awake with Jesus for one hour in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:37) - mind you, they had been drinking wine at the last supper! When Jesus is arrested, Peter, attempting at all costs to protect Jesus, resorts to violence by attacking the high priest’s slave. For his efforts he receives another rebuke from Jesus. These small errors seem understandable, but slight in comparison to the one that is to follow. Peter and another disciple (presumably John) follow Jesus to the High Priest’s home. Now here I refer back to David Suchet’s documentary “In The Footsteps of St Peter”, for many of the historical elements of Peter’s story are brought to vivid life through archeological examination in the documentary, this scene especially so. Suchet visits the ruins of a first century priestly home, and we see the inner courtyard which would have been below the room where the action with Jesus was taking place. Unlike the Hollywood movies which show a large courtyard space and Peter often hiding behind a column in the porticoes, the courtyard in this home was no more than three or four metres square. There was nowhere to hide! Peter had to have incredible courage to even be there, fully exposed to the questions from the household staff. In this position of great vulnerability he utters those words that later he will movingly be given the chance to take back by the sea of Galilee: “I do not know the man.” No wonder he wept bitterly. How could he or his relationship with Jesus ever recover? Yet not only does it recover through Jesus’ forgiveness and his threefold invitation to feed his lambs, but Peter goes from strength to strength from this point on.

In many ways the truth of resurrection is seen most clearly in Peter. When Peter and John stand before the council, they are amazed that these “uneducated and ordinary men” could speak with such boldness and so recognized them as companions of Jesus (Acts 4:13). Clearly a transformation had taken place and pointed to something that was to be forever associated with St Peter and the early Christian church – radical inclusion. Indeed Peter’s last appearance in Acts is to promote equality of salvation for both Jew and Gentile when he addresses the Council of Jerusalem – ‘We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will.” (Acts15:11).

St Peter’s story is for all Christians. His humanness is there clearly portrayed with no covering up of his imperfections. But through his failures and faithfulness he grows with each experience and deepens his faith to become an incredible leader. As we face challenges where we feel tossed about like a small boat on a stormy sea, we would do well to revisit Peter’s example to reach out to Jesus and see what happens when we follow in St Peter’s footsteps.