WITH this Gospel, Peter’s discipleship comes full circle. Years before, he was called from his work catching fish to become a fisher of people. Matthew records that call with a command from Jesus: “Follow me!” Once more, in today’s long Gospel, Jesus commands Peter to follow, but this time that call means something more.
At his first call, Peter had no idea what following Jesus would mean. Characteristically impulsive, he reacted to an invitation from a charismatic stranger. Perhaps he used to dream, as he fished, of a life that was working to live, instead of living to work. Our life-choices begin like that, too. We make those choices —which subject to study, what job to do, where to live — in faith rather than certainty.
After his friend died, Peter went back to his old life as a fisherman. Maybe he took comfort in his grief from the familiarity of reawakening old skills on which he had once depended. This time, Jesus’s command “Follow me!” is almost the last word in a long conversation between a mortal man and his friend, over whom death had no more dominion. In fact, the conversation goes on a little longer (outside this appointed lection), but it still ends with Jesus repeating the command, “Follow me!”
In between the first call and this last conversation, Peter has learned, grown, and changed. He had formerly made promises but not delivered on them. He had told lies about himself (Matthew 27.74). He had failed repeatedly, and had to pick himself up and go on, knowing that he had failed. But, despite the failures, he still went to the tomb of the man he followed. He still gathered with the other disciples, to take comfort from speaking of the one they had loved and lost, as friends do.
Peter knew what he had left undone (acknowledging discipleship, Matthew 27.75), and what he ought not to have done (Matthew 26.56; John 18.10, 27). But how should he go on trying to follow Jesus, now that the purity of his commitment to “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16.16) was spoiled?
The way in which Peter responded to his failures is precisely what made him worthy to be Jesus’s rock, the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16.18). The Lord knew this was who Peter truly was. He knew him better than Peter knew himself.
It would be easy to stop here, and conclude that Peter was a great man, and that we must honour him, perhaps even entrust him with our prayers. Such reverence is a good instinct, but there is more to be embraced in his story. It is precious, because we observe its beginning, and we also hear of its end (John 21.18-19). When we contemplate the lives of holy men and women, we can choose to look at them for what they are in themselves (in Jesus’s case, as a “sacrifice for sin”, according to the Prayer Book collect for this Sunday). But we need to balance our veneration of what they are, with how they teach us by what they do (“an ensample of godly life”).
Peter is a prototype for our life’s vocations. As once we chose our studies, career, home, without knowing how our lives would unfold as a result, so we have also chosen our vocations: to Christian discipleship (baptism, confirmation), to a relationship with “mutual society, help, and comfort” (matrimony), perhaps to service (ministry, including ordination). With each vocation, we commit ourselves to vows and promises without any knowledge of what life might throw at us, or how we will respond when we are tempted to let go the love we had at first (Revelation 2.4). We trust that we will somehow make good on our commitments, “the Lord being our helper” (1662 Ordinal).
It is possible to live a life that takes no such bold steps into the unknown. By shrinking the world to what is in easy reach we can pull up the drawbridge of our minds and contract our view to what feels safe. Paul tried that. But the love of Christ broke through and claimed him just the same. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, reminding him of those three dreadful denials (John 18.17, 25, 27). But Luke supplies the exegesis (15.6-7): strive for repentance, not perfection.