Perhaps no one falls victim to Satan and therefore betrays Jesus more deeply, than Simon Peter. He has been given a special role among the disciples and Jesus notes at the Last Supper that he: “prayed that your(Simon’s) own faith may not fail.” However, Jesus also knows that Peter will fail, and he warns him of that. Yet, Luke notes that Jesus still instructs Peter: “once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
Since Peter is the rock, it is his role to be the one to secure and strengthen the others in their time of trial and crisis.
Though it is interesting that Jesus says to Peter: “once you have turned back …” This term is the usual expression for a conversion. We don’t generally think of the apostles, and certainly of Peter as still in need of conversion. Peter has been with Jesus from the very beginning of the public ministry and is the face of the Twelve. While we know that he has his weaknesses – and he will deny knowing Jesus three times just a few hours after this conversation – we do not think of Peter as unconverted. Only St. Luke includes this bit of dialog between Jesus and Peter, and it is certainly most telling.
We are reminded that we are in constant need of conversion. It is easy for us to get caught up into a dispensationalist view of theology, believing that conversion is a once-and-done experience. Either you know Jesus or you don’t, characterizes this worldview. That perspective is foreign to the Scriptures, and certainly not a part of the teaching of Jesus. Yet, it persists in some forms of Christianity and is found among some Catholics as well.
Peter, like all of us, needs to experience a conversion so that he can become the rock – the strengthening agent – that Jesus needs him to be. Watching Peter fail and then recommit himself to Jesus is a source of hope and strength for the disciples.
We might wonder how strength comes from denial but there is a clear necessity to this moment in the life of Peter and the disciples. We know that the disciples fled Gethsemane, though they met up again at the Upper Room. Only Peter (in Luke’s account) follows Jesus, though he keeps his distance. Peter is exhibiting courage in the face of danger, but he is not courageous enough. He denies he knows Jesus, not once, but three times.
This third occasion of Peter denying Jesus comes with a poignant moment in this Gospel account – Jesus and Peter make eye contact across the courtyard. This look can be interpreted perhaps in many ways. Peter breaks down in tears, and returns to the others. He must have been still sobbing and mortified by what he had done.
Yet, in his weakness, Peter becomes the rock of strength for the others. He waivered, but he returned. Peter is not running away again. He is all-in with Jesus. Maybe his faith was shaken, maybe he slipped, be he is here and he is now going to see this through.
This was for Peter, a moment of conversion. He needed his faith to be challenged, and to be shaken, yet one more time. His heart was totally with Jesus, but his lips were not. He couldn’t admit to the truth about his relationship with the Lord. He will never do this again.
For many of us our experience of faith is a gradual unfolding. Some people feel like they take a step forward and then two steps backwards. If we looked at ourselves honestly we would find small moments of conversion – of gradually ridding ourselves of the doubts, struggles, uncertainties, and failings, that keep us from being all-in. Most of us are not yet “all-in” for we have never been confronted with the same starkness as was Peter in that courtyard.
Holy Week is a time when we can reflect on our own conversion encounters and experiences with the Lord. Often amidst the struggles of our own faith, we are called upon to be the source of strength for others.
We should all take this week to reflect deeply on the on-going call to conversion in our own lives. The call to faith in Jesus in the face of trial, struggles, and difficulties can seem overwhelming. Still, like Peter, we must respond with the certainty of faith that will enable us to celebrate anew the coming Eastertide.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.