One of the great gifts that the Christian Scriptures offer the world is the literary character of Peter, the fisherman-come-leader.
By ‘literary’ I mean the mythic Peter, for while I think there is good evidence that the historical character existed, the historicity of the stories about him – as in ‘did they really happen?’ – are far less certain, and far less important.
Peter is portrayed as a loyal disciple, one of the tight five, who shows great insight into the mission of Jesus (‘you are the Anointed, the Christ![i]) and great ignorance (‘get behind me Satan!’[ii]).
Let’s pause here a moment. What we have in Peter, even before the triple denial scenes with the cock twice calling time, is an example of a leader who gets it really right and really wrong. So, not a shining perfect superstar. Rather, some days smart, some days stupid.
Let’s offer the same grace and tolerance to our political, community, and church leaders as our faith forebears offered to Peter. And offer that same grace and tolerance to ourselves. It’s okay to get it stupid.
The most well-known story about Peter is his denial of Jesus. The context is that Jesus has been arrested, and Peter is asked by people on the scene, ‘Do you know him?’[iii]. Three times. And three times he says, ‘Nah, wrong guy.’
On the one hand, the political realist hand, this is the right answer. How would the good of the movement be served by having not only Jesus arrested and killed but also Peter? Lying to literally save your skin has much to commend it.
On the other hand, the emotional heart hand, this is the wrong answer. For Peter it was at a gut level the betrayal of his friend, a betrayal of his loyalty to his friend, the betrayal of what he’d given three years to, what he’d given up fishing for, and what he’d left his family in Galilee for.
His ‘Nay, wrong guy’, was also about meeting himself. A self he didn’t like. The cowardly lion self (as Frank Baum might say).
I’d like to suggest that Peter had an ideal of who he was, and he was on his way to achieving it. Let’s call that ideal ‘super disciple’. On that arresting night he discovered he wasn’t the person he thought he was. He was less than his perfect.
Again, let’s pause here a moment. The subculture that most of us have been raised in is that of achievement. From early days we are encouraged to set goals and go get them. If we are lucky family, friends, and mentors cheer and help us along. We develop an ideal of ourselves. Sure, there are some bumps along the way, but they are bumps to be overcome.
It’s hard to be faced with the fact that the ideal of ourselves is not always, seldom even, true to who we are, and what we are capable or incapable of. Re-setting and/or moderating our ideals can be hard. Real hard.
So, Peter failed. And rather than failing Jesus he chiefly failed the ideal he had of himself.
And we don’t really know how he came back from this. The writings of Paul, the synoptic gospels, Q, and Thomas – in other words all our earliest sources – don’t explain how he went from big failure to big leader.
There is a late story (which some argue it’s an add-on to that 2nd century Gospel of John) which has the post-resurrection Jesus throwing a BBQ at the beach. This Jesus asks Peter three times ‘Do you love me?’ It’s a story constructed as a restoration of Peter.
Note that the BBQ Jesus doesn’t ask Peter, ‘Are you sorry for what you’ve done?’ ‘How are you going to make things better?’ ‘Or, if we could replay the arrest scene, would you still betray me?’ Rather this BBQ Jesus simply asks about love – questions of the heart. Then Jesus gives Peter a task, a vocation to do, namely nurturing other members of the movement. To be a heart for others.
So, the betrayer, the big failure, the one who chiefly failed the ideal he had of himself, becomes a nurturer and encourager of others, and a key leader in the early movement.
I’ve taken some time to sketch the mythic Peter around what I would call ‘Peter’s conversion’. That’s not the ‘follow me’ scene of Mark 1:16-18 when Peter leaves his nets and follows this itinerant rabbi. The ‘conversion’ I’m talking about is leaving the net of his constructed image/ideal (the super-disciple), floating free of it, and learning the contentment of embracing his limits.
Let’s pause again, and think about how we, whether we’re leaders or not, can, contrary to the achievement stream of our culture, embrace our limits. Can we learnt to be content with who we are, what we can offer and what we can’t?
A word about the word ‘conversion’. In church-speak it tends to be the descriptor for a personal decision to turn towards, and commit to, following the way of Jesus. But there are problems in limiting the word solely to that moment/s. In my experience people have lots of conversions – lots of experiences of having the eyes of their heart opened. In Peter’s case the initial leave-nets-and-follow conversion was about throwing off the limits of his fishing life to follow where his heart was leading, and the conversion that followed the denial scene was about embracing his limits while finding his heart in the tasks and joy of nurturing others.
I also think this cock-crowing conversion readied him to be the poster-boy for the biggest conversion the Jesus movement of the first two centuries would face.
I’m referring to the conversion myth told in Acts 10. Acts is now dated later than originally thought – early 2nd century – and the writer (Luke), with access to but ignoring key details in Paul’s letters, is constructing an idealized myth of the origins of the post-Easter movement. And a central part of this myth is the God-mandated inclusion of the Gentile Cornelius and his household in the Jewish Jesus movement.
The interesting thing, from a scholar’s perspective, is why is the inclusion of the Gentiles being trumpeted here, and why is Peter in the forefront? For surely Paul’s ministry with Gentiles pre-dated this Acts account? Peter was called the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles, so why is he in the forefront of this story? The truth is our Christian Scriptures don’t account for the annulment of the dietary and circumcision laws in a consistent way. Which is what happens when Christians scrap – everyone comes up with their version of what went down!
It is also true that for the Jewish Jesus movement this was a big deal. The religious language in Acts 10 of visions and angels underline that. To adapt from ‘Jewish only’ into ‘Jewish and non-Jewish’ required excruciating growing pains. Did new followers have to be circumcised — as adults? Did they have to follow Jewish dietary customs? None of these questions brought unanimity. There were lots of ‘church fights.’
But a significant shift – one without strong theological and biblical support – began to happen. And the movement began to change.
Statements that appear like ‘God shows no partiality’ and ‘No person is unclean or impure’ might be popular today (particularly in liberal/progressive churches), but when your Bible is only the Hebrew Scriptures, they are hard to theologically and biblically justify.
And these statements are also hard to live by. Empires, cultures, religions, and communities form their identity largely by showing partiality. So, boundaries are constructed using the partiality of culture, tribe, race, wealth, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, and more. They/we create insiders and outsiders, and then we insiders reach out to the outsiders to welcome them in to our in. ‘God shows no partiality’ threatens every boundary, every hierarchy, every good or bad order. ‘God shows no partiality’ is not just a critique therefore of conservative religion, it’s a critique of every form of religion. Can we hear god in a foreign guise knocking on our door?
Which brings me back to this constructed 2nd century account of Peter and Cornelius which I believe served and still serves as a mythic change marker for the Jesus movement.
On the one hand, the change initiator is an unknown foreigner called Cornelius. He’s a righteous Gentile and also a military man. Forget ‘Gentile’ for a moment, do we really want a leader in the oppressive occupying army to be in our movement?
On the other hand, the change initiator is a known insider called Peter. I would suggest he is chosen for this mythic reconstruction because he is the one with the mana. That’s why Luke does not put Paul, or James, or Mary Magdalene here.
Peter has the mana of following from the beginning, failing, and yet keeping going. Peter has the mana of one whose eyes of his heart have been opened by suffering. Suffering, as Matthew Fox says, often opens up a portal to a new self, a deeper self. Peter has the mana, through embracing both his pain and embracing his vocation to nurture others, to be open to the radically new. Peter might be a cowardly lion but he has a soft heart. And a soft heart is actually a strong resilient heart.
Richard Holloway once said, ‘God is coming to Peter (to the whole fledging movement actually) not from the past – from Scripture and Tradition - but from the future’. The Gentiles are at the door, knocking, asking for entrance and the traditions of the past, the old ways of ‘how we always do things,’ the old ways of ‘what we’ve always believed’, don’t provide him with an answer to the new challenge that is a-coming.
And Peter, the one with the mana of scars and self-knowledge, with a broken, soft, yet strong heart, opens the door. He’s not frightened of what change might mean.
[i] Mark 8:29
[ii] Mark 8:33
[iii] Mark 14:66-72