St. Peter the Apostle

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. In the past I have spent much time teaching and preaching about St. Paul, and the topic of my next book is St. Paul, so today I wish to speak about St. Peter the Apostle.

Today the Acts of the Apostles and St. Matthew's Gospel speak at length about St. Peter. St. Peter gives me hope. So many times, he was courageous, strong, and insightful in what he spoke and what he did. And, so many other times, Peter appeared weak, bumbling, misunderstanding Jesus, and doing the exact opposite of what Jesus and he wanted Peter to do. St. Peter gives me hope. I trust that every person in the church can identify with Peter, and take hope from St. Peter.

What do we know about St. Peter? The three Synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles list the twelve apostles. In all four lists, Peter's name is mentioned first. Early in Jesus' ministry, as soon as Jesus sees Peter, Jesus declares, "You are Simon, the son of John; your name shall be called Cephas, which means Rock." (Jn. 1.42) What a positive first impression Peter must have made! The gospels repeatedly say of Jesus, "He sees the hearts of people." What traits do you think Jesus saw in Peter?

On special occasions, Jesus invites just a few apostles to accompany him: almost always, that inner circle consists of Peter, James, and John, with some few variations. On all those occasions, however, Jesus includes Peter. Peter seems to be essential to the Church's knowing and communicating what Jesus is doing.

In today's gospel, Jesus asks his apostles and disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" The apostles give a variety of replies. Jesus added, "But who do you say that I am?" Who speaks up? Peter proclaims, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." And Jesus replies, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." (Mt. 16.13-19)

Did Peter ever make any mistakes, or objectively commit any sins, in words or deeds? He sure did.

When Peter saw Jesus walking on water, Peter also tried, but his faith seems to have been weak, and Peter sank. (Mt. 14.28-31) Doesn't that sound like something you and I would do?

When Jesus predicted his Passion in saying that he had to go to Jerusalem, suffer greatly, be put to death, and be raised up, Peter confidently and compassionately drew Jesus aside and assured him, "Master, God forbid that any such thing would ever happen to you." (Mt. 16.22) How does Jesus respond? Not so compassionately. Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan. You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God's standards but by man's." (Mt. 16.23)

Jesus had invited his inner circle to the Garden of Gethsamene, to "watch and pray." A little later, Jesus questions Peter, "You could not stay awake and watch with me for even one hour?"

In the same Garden of Gethsamene, when Judas, members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and the Roman soldiers came to capture Jesus, Peter drew his sword, and slashed off the ear of the high priest's servant. Jesus ' response to Peter was: "Put back your sword. " (Mt. 26.53) Peter is trying to do the right thing, and Jesus reprimands him.

On Holy Thursday night, Peter denied Jesus three times, finally cursing and swearing, "I do not know that man." (Mt. 26.69-74)

Much more could be said, positively and criticall, about Peter. I want to emphasize the positive. During Jesus' life on earth, Peter bravely asked Jesus questions that no one else dared to ask. And Peter answered on behalf of all the apostles. Bravely, Peter led Jesus and the other apostles into the wilderness. After the resurrection, Peter was the first apostle to look into the empty tomb, the first apostle to witness the living Lord, the first apostle to baptize a Gentile, and the first apostle to accept St. Paul's missionary activity and teachings. At the end of his life, Peter suffered crucifixion. Tradition teaches that Peter died with his head upside down which was the manner for executing slaves.

Despite this mixed bag of strength and weakness, Jesus chose Peter to be the Church's Rock, on which the Church would be built. Peter became the first pope, the first vicar of Christ on earth, the first of now 264 consecutive popes.

Why does St. Peter give us hope? Christ called Peter. Christ knew him, perceived strengths in him, perceived weaknesses too, and Jesus still chose Peter. In the same way, Jesus chooses and calls us. In Peter's time and our time, Christ isn't expecting moral perfection in his followers; Jesus knows that we are all sinners. I think that because we recognize our sin and shortcomings, Jesus calls us. Jesus wants to act through his followers. It takes personal humility to let God's power act through us. If we were proud or arrogant, we might think that the success of the Church depended on us. But look at us. By choosing weak persons, God sees and the world sees that it is by the power of God that the Church and its members do the good that they do.

I rejoice in the shortcomings of Peter, and the other apostles, and all Christians for the past 2,000 years, and in my own shortcomings, because it's clear that the good which the Church does flows from Jesus Christ, flows through the power of the Holy Spirit, and through us acting only as Jesus' humble agents. By the grace of Our Lord Jesus, his Church survives. Thank God for St. Peter. Thank God for his successors, up to and including Pope Benedict XVI.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley