February 2008 - Vol. 16

The Crucifixion of St. Peter, painting by Caravaggio, c.1600/01

Simon Peter

God manifests his power by transforming weakness into strength
 and sinners into saints 

by Jeanne Kun

God calls sinners to make them saints
How often God chooses the most improbable people to move forward his purposes! A cowardly Jonah fled from God’s commission to preach to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-3). Israel’s great King David committed adultery (2 Samuel 11:2-5). Again and again God has manifested his power by transforming weakness into strength and sinners into saints. And so God chose a brash fisherman to become his instrument to “catch” men and women for his kingdom (Luke 5: 10). For Simon Peter, what began with the invitation to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19) would result in the spreading of Jesus’ message far beyond the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Simon BarJona, that is, son of Jona or John (Matthew 16:17; John 1:42; 21:15), and his brother Andrew were originally from the village of Bethsaida on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:44). At some point they moved to Capernaum on the lake's northwestern shore, where Simon lived with his wife and in-laws (Mark 1:29-30). It's likely that he ran one of the commercial fishing cooperatives that flourished then around the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Gennesaret) and sold their catch to local salters and to wholesalers in Jerusalem. Famous throughout the Roman Empire, Galilee's fisheries generated a prosperous export trade.

Now Galilee was astir with the extraordinary deeds of a young rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who was going about the region declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). One day while Jesus was preaching to the crowd that had gathered near the lake to hear him – so Luke recounted vividly, perhaps drawing on the disciples’ own memories – he used Simon's fishing boat as a “floating pulpit.” When he ceased teaching, Jesus told Simon, “Put out into the deep and let dawn your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:1-4).

At your word
Simon Peter was an experienced fisherman who knew his business well. He had worked unsuccessfully the whole night – the best time for net fishing – and didn’t think that he’d catch anything now. Nonetheless, he did as Jesus directed, saying, “At your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).

Simon's obedience was remarkably rewarded as he took in a great shoal of fish. So huge was the catch that the nets were breaking, and he beckoned to his partners’ boat for help (Luke 5:6-7). Overwhelmed and astonished, Simon “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (5:8). In his study of the apostles entitled The Twelve, C. Bernard Ruffin wrote of the fishermen’s reaction “Peter’s awe and that of his companions James and John was so immense that it bordered on fear. They knew the sea well enough to know that there was no natural explanation for their extraordinary catch.” A devout Jew, Simon Peter “realized that he was in the presence of a higher being and felt totally inadequate,” added Ruffin.

Peter’s fears and failings
But Jesus calmed Peter's fears – “Do not be afraid” (5:10) – and seemed to simply ignore Peter's declaration that he was a sinful man. When Jesus called, Simon and his fishing partners left everything – the fresh catch of fish, their boats and nets, even their families. In following Jesus, they entered into a unique personal relationship with him as his disciples and began to participate in his mission.

The miraculous draught of fish was only one of the remarkable experiences that Simon Peter shared with his Lord. Peter, James, and John made up Jesus’ intimate circle of followers and were present at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:51-56), and Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33-42). Additional events in the gospels show Peter as a man of great love and loyalty, but also one with very human failings. He was the first to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, and Jesus entrusted to this “rock” the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:13-19). But that didn’t mean that Peter understood the Lord: Appalled at Jesus' prediction of his passion and death, Peter cried, “God forbid, Lord!” and Jesus sharply corrected him (16:21-23).

By nature Peter was bold and confident, proud and outspoken. He frequently acted impetuously, as when he exclaimed, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” he rashly boasted (Luke 22:33). Then he was quick to reverse his brash assertion under pressure, claiming, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72). Indeed, a fearful Peter denied knowing Jesus not only once but three times. Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett wrote of Peter's fall:

“Will he lose all heart, perhaps even kill himself, as Judas did (another man wracked by grief)? But while Judas felt only remorse, which consumed itself in pointless repining, Peter feels contrition, a healing sorrow that will lead to repentance and a change of heart. (Sister Wendy's Nativity)
Accepting the grace to pick ourselves up
When the cock crowed and Jesus looked at him (Luke 22:60-61), Peter realized again – as he had earlier in Galilee – that he was a sinful man. But he also knew that Jesus loved him unconditionally, and his humility saved him from despairing of forgiveness. We can learn from Peter to face our sins and failings humbly and cling to the Lord: “Peter shows us how to respond to our inevitable stumbles and falls along the way: by accepting the grace to pick ourselves up, stick close to Jesus, and exchange self-reliance for trust in God” (Louise Perrotta, “From Fisherman to Friend of God”), After the resurrection, Jesus encountered Peter again at the Sea of Galilee. There the risen Lord provided his fishermen – disciples with another wondrous haul of fish (John 21:l-14). There too he gently probed the heart of the man who had denied him, three times asking “you love me?” and calling from his humbled friend a new declaration of love. Accepting Peter's affirmations – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” – Jesus entrusted to him the work of shepherding his flock: "Feed my lambs….Tend my sheep” (21:15-17).

Filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the gospel far and wide and cared
for the fledging church. During the final years of his life, the chief apostle – “the rock” – headed the Christian community in Rome and, true to his master's call to the end, was martyred there during the reign of the emperor Nero. Even with his imperfections, Peter faithfully fulfilled the commission Jesus had given him. 

God wants to transform our weakness into strength
Becoming a follower of Jesus led Simon Peter on many journeys, but the most significant one was, as author Louise Perrotta noted, “his inner journey of transformation from. . .one who was convinced of his own strength to one who learned that he could only please the Lord as he learned to draw strength from Jesus, his beloved Master.” We are called to be disciples of the same master as Peter was –and we can do much for the Lord if we, like the fisherman-apostle, acknowledge that we are not perfect and rely on the Holy Spirit at work in us.

[Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. This article is excerpted from My Lord and My God: A Scriptural Journey with the Followers of Jesus by Jeanne Kun (Copyright © 2004 by The Word Among Us Press). Used with permission. This book can be purchased from The Word Among Us Press.]

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