Acts 12:1-11 * Matt. 16:13-19
So, when we see the ministry of St. Peter in the Book of Acts, and how much he begins to resemble Jesus himself, it is only after the Gospels in which we have seen him fall, crash into the cliff, and then repent. He denied the Lord three times before the rooster crowed, and he repented with bitter weeping and tears. This should comfort all of us, because the story demonstrates the mercy of God, the grace of God and the power of God.
It demonstrates the mercy of God, because Peter was forgiven. It demonstrates the grace of God because Peter was restored and transformed. It demonstrates the power of God, because Peter fulfilled the ministry to which he had been called.
"The gifts and callings of God are without repentance." (Romans 11:29) St. Paul wrote those words in a long text about why God has not cast away his people Israel (to this day), and grafts back into the tree every branch that abides not still in unbelief. The gifts (χάρισμα, charisma) and calling (κλῆσις, klēsis) given to Peter follow the same general pattern, as do all gifts and callings, including those that come through the means of indelible sacraments.
The Lord called the restoration of Peter his "conversion." Hear these words from the Gospel of St. Luke:
"And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death. And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." (Luke 22:31-34)
The word "conversion" does not mean that you change your religious affiliation, and it simply does not mean that you leave one part of God's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church for another. It means that you are turning away from sin, unbelief and weakness; that is, turning to God, who alone gives holiness, faith and power. In the case of Peter, he turned from the weakness of confidence in his own strength, so that he could be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
"Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death." Simon Peter was confident in the flesh, in his own estimation of himself, of some greatness of love and courage; and this self-confidence blinded him to the truth about himself. This brings us to today's Gospel. For, shortly after Peter declares the truth, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God," and is told that he is blessed for the revelation given to him, what immediately follows comes across as a shock, a story of just how complicated a bag of walking contradictions one man can be.
"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. " (Matt.16:21-24)
This is the same Simon Peter to whom the keys of the kingdom of Heaven had just been handed, praised by God himself, the Lord Jesus, for receiving the truth that the Father had granted to him. Then suddenly he is called "Satan," that is an adversary; the words he had previously spoken were from God's own revelation to him, and then his words came from the Devil and from the flesh; from Satan and from "the things of men"; that is, fallen sinful men who live for gratification and survival, knowing nothing higher and better.
How can this be? The same man, within seconds, is both the blessed rock upon whom Jesus will build His Church that conquers the very gates of Hell, and then corrected with the most sharp and painful words Christ ever spoke to any disciple other than Judas. What is even more astonishing is this: Jesus had spoken highly of Peter's faith, his willingness to hear from the Father, and told of the future place he would have in God's work to build the Church, even though he knew that Simon yet possessed the kind of flaw that would lead to his next statement.
The key to understanding why the apparent contradiction did not confound Jesus is found in these words: "Upon this rock I will build my Church." The faith that God has is faith in Himself. Jesus Christ builds His Church, and nothing will stop Him from kicking in the gates of Hell through His Church. He first binds the strong man, and then plunders his goods. He it is that leads His Church terrible as an army with banners when it assails the gates and defeats the enemy. We may think it is our efforts, gifts or talents that build the Church. But, Jesus Christ builds His Church Himself, and gives us the wonderful privilege of being a part of His work. Jesus was not placing his faith in Peter's ability, or even in his faithfulness. The Lord knew what lay ahead, as St. John wrote, "But Jesus ... knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man." (John 2:24, 25)
Jesus knew what was in Peter. Jesus knows what is in me. He knows what is in you.
He knows whether the deposit of rich faith is in a person's heart, and if it is there, He knows that after falling his servant will stand up again; that, after crashing against reality His servant will be converted. He knows that His true servant will always convert, always turn ever more and more to his Lord, no matter how hard his fall may have been. Eventually, the servant will be like his Lord, the disciple like his Master. He praised the faith of Peter, and the ears that Peter had, for they were ears to hear. Because of that true faith, Jesus could predict a time when this man would unlock the Church of God to the Jewish people, to Samaritans, and then to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, making use in this world of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; that Peter would become the rock upon which He, Christ, would build His Church. Peter would, as Jesus commanded, strengthen his brethren, acting as the obvious leader in the earliest days of their ministry after Pentecost. This was also in line with what Jesus had said to them all: "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."(Matt. 18:18, "Ye," a form of "you," is always plural)
The Simon Peter we see in the Book of Acts is not the same man anymore, except for the richness of his faith and his ears to hear. And, even that is greater than before. After seeing his Master risen from the dead, and then after being filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, this servant was like his Lord, this disciple was like his Master. No longer did he boast confidently, "I am ready to go with thee to prison and to death." Instead of confidence in the flesh he truly had power from the Holy Spirit. He did follow his Lord, eventually even to his own cross, nailed upside down on Vatican Hill in Rome to die as a martyr.
Peter began his relationship with the Lord, after an initial introduction, with words of fear: After the miracle of the great catch of fish "he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. " (Luke 5:8) The Lord responded with a call to ministry: "And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. " (v.10) Years later Peter had denied the Lord out of fear for his own life, that same fleshly concern that earlier had prompted him to try to persuade Jesus away from His cross, in those words we heard for which Jesus rebuked him. But, with bitter crying and tears he turned; he was converted.
Peter's life demonstrates God's mercy, God's grace and God's forgiveness.
In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ gives Peter the chance to affirm his love for Him three times, three affirmations to cleanse his heart of the three denials. Three affirmations, as Jesus demonstrates the heart of pastoral ministry in healing Peter's agony, providing a genuine penance to help His servant refocus his attention on his Lord, and express his love .
"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep." (John 21:15-17)
The Lord began their time together by answering Peter's fear with the call to catch men, and now He heals Peter's inner suffering with the call to feed His sheep. Not only does Jesus forgive, but He calls him to work. This was a gift to this man, and it was the gift of this servant to every generation of the Church that would follow.
I know that many times I have failed Christ my Lord, and you know in your heart that you have failed him too. But, you and I know also that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Like Peter, you and I have heard this from the Father, for no one comes to the Son unless the Father draw him (John 6:44). By the Holy Spirit, the Father told you that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. And, He is the one who told me that. Whatever process He used, whatever faithful Christians who declared the Gospel to you and taught you, be sure of this. If you believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God, you have heard from the Father. This is the rich deposit of faith that God Himself has invested in you. This is why you have been converted, are being converted, and will be converted. This is why you may strengthen your brethren.
Peter is a demonstration of God's mercy, shown by Jesus who gives him the chance to make his three affirmations of love. Peter is a demonstration of God's grace, because he was restored and resumed his place to receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Peter is a demonstration of God's power, because he did open the kingdom of heaven with the keys, become like his Master in going about teaching and healing and building the Church, and finally, without any fear of death, going himself to his own cross to die in victory as a martyr.
The story of Peter's whole life is summarized in these words: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.