February 22, 2007
In Shakespeare’s play
Romeo and Juliet, a family feud prevents Juliet from marrying Romeo. Juliet laments that it is simply Romeo’s name that keeps him from her. She complains, “
What's in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet names do have meaning. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. He is giving him the special mission of being the father of the chosen people (cf. Gen 17:5). God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. He is promising that the chosen people who issue from the loins of this patriarch would bear the blessing of salvation through much suffering (cf. Gen 32:28). In the Old Testament, names can bear the burden of a person’s role in salvation history.
So, too, in the New Testament. A new name comes to mean a new mission. Jesus calls Simon "Cephas” or “Rock” (cf. Mt 16:18). This Aramaic word is translated in Greek as
Petros and in English as Peter. Jesus uses this name to indicate the new role Peter will have as the leader of the other disciples. This is the only time Jesus changes the name of one of his disciples. A unique moment. A singular mission for Peter.
Over the course of his public ministry, Jesus makes clear to Peter his place as leader. He chooses Peter’s lakeside house in Capernaum to be the headquarters of his Galilean ministry. When the question arises about Jesus and taxes, Jesus responds by paying the Temple tax for himself and Peter (cf. Mt 17:24-27). At the Last Supper, Jesus washes Peter's feet (cf. Jn 13:6). And he singles out Peter as the one for whom he is praying so that his faith will not fail, and he would be able to strengthen the other disciples in faith (cf. Lk 22:30-31).
Already in the life of Jesus, Peter takes on his new role. He speaks out in the name of the others. He asks Jesus to explain what he means when he tells a parable (cf. Mt 15:15). He questions what Jesus is teaching when he lays down a rule for community living (cf. Mt 18:21) and when he makes the promise of a reward (cf. Mt 19:27).
The gospels pay special attention both to the highs and lows of Peter’s new role. The day after the multiplication of the loaves and fish, Jesus explains the miracle in the synagogue of Capernaum. He gives the first promise of the Eucharist. Many people stop following Jesus. His words about giving his flesh as the bread of life are just too much. Speaking for the other apostles, Peter voices the loyalty of every true believer. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God"(cf. Jn 6:66-69).
At Caesarea Philippi, Peter is the very first to voice the faith of the Church that Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah (cf. Mt 16:16-17). At the Last Supper, Peter professes total loyalty to Jesus, even to death (cf. Mk 14:29). And, during the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter wields his sword like a freedom fighter ready to join Jesus in overthrowing Rome (cf. Jn 18:10). Confident, bold, daring Peter.
At the Last Supper, Jesus predicts Peter’s fall. He says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to sift you [
plural] like wheat. But I have prayed that your own faith may not fail. And once you [
singular] have turned back, you [
singular] must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32). Jesus tells all of the disciples of Satan’s desire to make them fall. But then Jesus singles out Peter. He calls him affectionately "Simon, Simon.” Jesus uses the name Peter had before Jesus changed it. Jesus is reminding Peter of his former life, of his human weakness apart from walking in the company of Jesus.
Jesus warns Peter of his lapse in discipleship. He also offers him the assistance of his prayer. Peter is the leader of the apostles. The danger he faces is greater than the rest. When a leader fails, the entire community suffers. Therefore, Jesus makes special intercession for the disciple whose fall causes the greatest harm to others. So, too, today. Those called to service of leadership have a special place in the intercessory prayer of Christ. What a great comfort! There is no leader without sin. No one is sinless. Not even those who are ready to uncover the alleged sins of others.
The prediction of Peter’s failure in discipleship serves as a warning that the call to grace requires our cooperation. God’s favor does not negate our human freedom. Our vocation as Christian is something we have to work out “in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). God gifts us with his love. But love cannot be constrained. In circumstances of our life, we need to respond. And, in dark moments, we need to turn to the light.
Within a very few hours of the Last Supper, Jesus’ prediction comes true. The Rock is pulverized. Peter denies Jesus. Peter is the most assertive disciple in all the gospels. Even in failure, he takes the lead. And his fall becomes a lesson in both sin and grace. It is a story the Church can never forget if she is to remain faithful to the Lord who entrusted to her his ministry of compassion and forgiveness.
This is the first of three reflections on the denials of Peter.