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The Apostle Peter

by Lois Donahue

While I have no reason to doubt that Peter is said to be the best known of the twelve apostles, I was truly surprised to read that his name is mentioned over 180 times in the New Testament. In this attempt to introduce you to 'my' Peter I certainly don't intend to touch on each of these references but I thought it might be interesting to begin by calling to mind at least some of the things we learn about Peter from the pages of the Bible. (NOTE - Although, in what follows, I may quote only one of the Evangelists, please remember that the same incident might well be found elsewhere and most Bibles will inform you of any such cross references.)

He was first known as Simon. (Mk 1:16) (Jn 1:42) Jesus also called him Peter - rock (Mt 16:18) and Kephas (Jn 1:42). (Footnotes given for the last two Biblical references explain how different names have to do with language translations.)

He was a boat-owning fisherman (Lk 5:2-3) who practiced his trade on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16) - called Lake Gennesaret (Lk 5:1).

His father's name was Jonah (Mt 16:17) - or John (Jn 1:42) and he had a brother named Andrew (Mt 4:18).

He was one of the twelve, "….named apostles" (Mk 3:14) to whom Jesus gave "power and authority" and sent out to "proclaim the kingdom of God". (Lk 9:l,2)

While in 1 Cor 9:5 it is implied that Peter was married, there is no question of his marriage in Luke 4:38. Here we are told that Jesus, after leaving the Capernaum synagogue, "entered the house of Simon" and cured his "mother-in-law" of "a severe fever". Although at this time Peter was living in Capernaum, earlier in his life we find that he lived in Bethsaida (Jn 1:44).

We can certainly attribute some importance to the fact that Jesus, more than once, chose to take only the same three apostles with Him and Peter's name is always the first mentioned. (Lk 8:51) - (Mt 26:37) - (Mk 9:2)

I remember reading that Jesus spoke oftener to Peter than to any of the other Apostles and, in the New Testament, we find a great many of His words.

In some recorded instances, Jesus speaks to Peter and no response from Peter is given. Here are two examples - in Mt 16:18, after first addressing him by the name Simon, Jesus says "you are Peter" and again, in Jn 1:42, where He first calls him Simon, Jesus says, " will be called Kephas" (which is translated Peter/Rock ). However, on two memorable occasions, Peter did speak. One was when Jesus asks him three times " you love me?" (Jn 2l:15-17) The other was when Jesus posed this question to all of 'the Twelve' -- "Do you also want to leave?" Peter was the one who, without hesitation, answered and I hope and pray what he said will forever impact my own life - "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (Jn 6:67-68)

But back to things Jesus said to Peter. More often than not there was more of a conversation between the two and, because Peter would never have been described as hesitant or shy, it was some comment, question or action of his for which Jesus had a response.

One of Peter's comments, "Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be", prompted Jesus to foretell his denial which Peter "vehemently" denied and again declared his unwavering loyalty. (Mk 14:31) Here's another. Mathew tells us in 16:21-23 that when Jesus said He must return to Jerusalem to suffer, die and be raised, Peter took Him aside and going beyond 'commenting' he "began to rebuke Him". It was then that Jesus definitely spoke to Peter and used some harsh words, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me." Once again, when Peter told Jesus, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus, no doubt, said more in reply than Peter really wanted to hear. (Jn 13:8-11)

Peter's questions are too numerous to include - here are some. Peter asked, "Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone? (Lk 12:41) Jesus gave him an explanation. It happened again when Peter inquired about the withering fig tree: (Mk 11:21) -- when he asked, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?" (Mt 18:21) -- when he said, "We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?" (Mt 19:27) -- oh, yes, and when he inquired about what lay ahead for John, "Lord, what about him?" (Jn 21:22) I always smile when I think of Jesus' answer, "What concern is that of yours?" (Verse 22) I smile because I think of Jesus, in well chosen words, as much as telling Peter 'to mind his own business'.

So much for comments and questions - now lets turn to Jesus' verbal reaction to a couple of things that Peter DID. The most obvious is probably when the impulsive Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's slave, Malchus, and Jesus said to him - "Put your sword into its scabbard." (Jn 18:11) (My sometimes questionable sense of humor caused me to grin just a bit when later, in Jn 18:26, I read that a relative of the man whose ear Peter severed had been in the garden, saw what happened and was able to challenge Peter's claim not to be one of Jesus' "disciples"…kind of gives some credence to the adage 'what goes around, comes around' doesn't it?)

While that instance may have been obvious, I think of one which, to me, was the most touching. It happened that night when the disciples saw Jesus walking across the wind swept sea toward their boat and Peter called out, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." At that point Jesus said only one word - but that single word, seemed to express the love, friendship and caring I truly believe He felt for Peter. Jesus said simply - "Come." To Peter's credit he 'believed', stepped out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, he became frightened, began to sink and cried out, "Lord save me!" "Immediately", Jesus, his friend as well as his Master, "stretched out His hand and caught him." (In all fairness I feel impelled to include the words from Jesus which followed, "O, you of little faith, why did you doubt?" But even then, I don't think those words were spoken in harsh criticism but rather softly in sad disappointment.) (Mt 14:24-31).

In remembering Jesus speaking to Peter, I must include one time when Peter never even heard the words spoken to him. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where, again, He took Peter, James and John with him to "keep watch". After some time in prayer He returned to find them asleep and He said, directly to Peter, "… Could you not keep watch for one hour?" (Mk 14:32-37) You know, I was just thinking - there could possibly have been one other occasion when Jesus might have spoken to Peter without him hearing - as the human Jesus hung dying on the cross, I can almost hear Him whispering in sorrow, "Where are you, Peter?".

Poor Peter. We have little doubt as to the 'why' of his absence but also we can well imagine what a painful, guilt-filled time it must have been for him because just as surely as we know he 'cursed and swore' in denial (Mk 14:71), we know he wept "bitterly" in regret (Mt 26:75). However, thanks to his unfaltering faith in God and his firm belief in forgiveness, he came back….back to the empty tomb (Lk 24:12), back with the other Apostles "to the mountain in which Jesus had ordered them" where he saw the resurrected Jesus and listened to Him (Mt 28:16-20), back to the shore of the Sea of Tiberias where he had breakfast with the risen Jesus (Jn 21:1-13) and back to witness the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.

Now, as we leave the four accounts of the Gospel and move into the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke reminds us (Acts 1:1-12) of Jesus' pre-Ascension promise to His Apostles - that they would be "clothed with power from on high" (Lk 24:49) and once more tells of the Ascension itself. He speaks of those gathered in prayer in Jerusalem. Then, before relating the marvel of Pentecost, he tells us that, "During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers" and explained the necessity of choosing someone to replace Judas. That would seem to indicate to us that at least a stirring of leadership had begun in Peter - although I would guess that even Peter himself might not have fully recognized it as such.

We can imagine the confusion within the mind of the 'before Pentecost' Peter - sure he had been chosen by Jesus, but so had eleven others. They, too, had heard the words of Jesus, seen His miracles, and been given power to bind and to loose (Mt 18:18). He wasn't the only one called to be a 'fisher of men' (Mk 1:16-17). After He had risen from the dead , Jesus appeared to all who were 'hiding behind those locked doors' and said, again to all, "Receive the Holy Spirit" and gave each the power to 'forgive or retain' sin. (Jn 20:22-23) Plus all of that, 'eleven' were told by Jesus to go to "all nations" - to baptize and to teach (Mt. 28:19-20).

'O.K.' Peter might well have thought to himself, 'so Jesus did call me 'rock' and said, "…upon this rock I will build my church." -- even mentioned giving me the "keys to the kingdom of heaven" and said "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:18-19) 'Sure, I remember Jesus looking directly at me and saying, "Feed my lambs" - "Tend my sheep." - "Feed my sheep". (Jn 21:15-17) but what did all those words really mean???' My own feeling is that here was a good, willing and able man who knew he should do something but, without having been given anything resembling a map, a blueprint or a Handbook of Instructions, wasn't exactly sure just what to do or how to do it. I define this not-knowing-for-sure - not-fully-understanding, uncertain and frustrated man as the 'before Pentecost' Peter. What an impact the coming of the Holy Spirit must have had on him. The 'after Pentecost' Peter immediately went out, spoke to the great crowd and that day about 3000 "accepted his message" and "were baptized" (Acts 2:41).

At this point let me tell you I would be very lucky to get a passing grade in any class on Biblical Geography but will, at least, pass along some names of places where we find Peter during his 'travels for Christ'. Jerusalem, of course, is a given. Beyond that city, we read of him in Samaria (Acts 8:9,14,25), Lydda (Acts 9:32), Sharon (Acts 9:35), Caesarea (Acts 10:24), Antioch (Gal 2:11), quite possibly Corinth (1 Cor 1:2), and found that he "stayed a long time" in Joppa (Acts 9:43). He addressed his first letter to "the chosen sojourners" of "Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1:1) but whether he visited there personally is not stated. Rome, too, would seem to be another 'given' primarily because of very strong tradition.

During those years, we learn of his miracles - such as curing both a crippled beggar (Acts 3:1-7) and Aeneas who had been paralyzed for eight years (Acts 9:33-34) as well as bringing Tabitha (Dorcas) back to life (Acts 9:49-41). The common people had such faith in him that they "even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them". (Acts 5:15)

He also apparently made authoritative decisions as evidenced regarding accusations against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:8). He also "ordered" (Acts 10:48) the baptism of the first Gentiles. (Cornelius being one specifically named and the one who had been directed by an angel to summon Peter. (Acts 10:5) This incident and the one that follows help illustrate Jewish/Gentile differences which caused disagreement in the early Church.)

At one time the question arose regarding the belief that non-Jews had to be "circumcised" before they could "be saved". Paul strongly objected so he and others went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and presbyters. After much debate , Peter publicly supported Paul's position and so the matter was settled (Acts 15:1-11). I also must add that Paul's later confrontation with Peter 'for only eating with Gentiles when Jews weren't present' had little if any negative consequences on their respect for each other as evidenced by the fact that Peter thought of Paul as a "beloved brother" (11 Peter 3:15) and Paul speaks of Peter as a "pillar" in the church and notes they shared a handshake in "partnership". (Gal 2:9)

Other than the two "Letters" bearing Peter's name, there is not a great deal more in the New Testament giving us direct information about him with the exception of his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:1-17). As to those two letters - The first urges the followers to remain faithful even during suffering and persecution. It has also been described as a kind of explanatory reflection on "baptismal catechesis". The second one primarily deals with the second coming of Christ. Since they are so short , I will ask each of you to read them and thus possibly help make your own perception of Peter even more personal.

Now, moving beyond "inspired" information about Peter, let me share just a few things I read about him from legends, traditions, speculation and church history - things about ---

His Growing Up - Judging from what we are told life was like for a Jewish boy growing up when and where Peter did, we can assume that at six he went to a local synagogue school where he learned to read and write and memorize scripture. It was unlikely that he was taught much, if anything, about mathematics, history, science or geography and quite certain that he did not have any extensive theological education (which, in the minds of many, made him unqualified to teach things spiritual). By the age of 13 he, no doubt, had completed his formal education - in his late teens or early twenties his father had probably chosen a bride for him from among his close relatives, quite possibly one of his cousins.

His Family - It was said that his wife's name was Perpetua. Some say she traveled with him and was actively involved in his evangelical work. Another source says she was martyred and that on the way to her death Peter called her by name and offered words of encouragement.

There is also mention of a daughter named Petronilla who at the age of ten became ill and after that was permanently crippled. At one time, so the story goes, his disciples said that since he had been given the ability to cure others, he should cure his daughter. Peter did cure her, but only temporarily because he believed that there was a reason why she was crippled. (The good news is that she herself prayed for a cure and later she did regain full use of her limbs.)

What He Looked Like - On my calendar he is shown, not as an old man, but does have white hair, beard and mustache and is squinting as if looking at the sun. Another source describes him as energetic looking with short and curly hair. Another says he had fair complexion. Elsewhere I read that Peter continued to weep all the days of his life for his denial and those tears left obvious marks on his face. Read, too, that his eyes were black but flecked with red "due to frequent weeping". Some years ago I remember reading a book about Peter titled "The Big Fisherman" but, it is said that, according to archaeologists, the bones declared to be his showed that he was not "big" - only about five feet four inches tall, stocky and muscular. Leaves us wondering doesn't it?

What Kind of a Man He Was - He has been described as industrious, energetic, shrewd, self-assertive, not particularly modest, impulsive, deeply religious, compassionate, courageous, cowardly, sensitive, respectful, confident, cheerful and hopeful. In learning about Peter I think we can see hints or at least inclinations toward most all of the above.

Where He Traveled - While we are still dealing with the uncertainties we find beyond the Bible, legend tells us Peter even visited Britain and that a church was erected there in his memory. It is also said that he is the one who actually "founded" the church in Antioch.

How and Where He Died - Tradition holds that Peter was martyred during the persecution by Nero (64-67 A.D.) at the approximate age of 70. Tradition also tells us that he was crucified in Nero's Circus near Vatican Hill. It is also a matter of tradition that, at his own request, he was crucified with his head down because he did not feel worthy to die as Jesus did. However, let me hesitantly toss in, not to give credibility to but simply as information, that one or two skeptics say Peter asked to be crucified in that position because that way he would die more quickly. Just for the record, I don't believe that for a moment.

Where He Was Buried - Friends were supposedly given his body and it is believed that he was first buried in the catacombs outside Rome and the body later interred at the base of Vatican Hill. (It has been said that his tomb became the very first shrine of the world of Christendom.) Over the years any trace of his body was lost. Thanks to much excavation and research, in June of 1968 Pope Paul VI was able to announce that his bones had been found beneath the altar in St. Peter's Basilica.

Ways He Is Remembered - The Church has designated June 29th as his Feast Day. Also, as would be expected, we find this great Apostle appearing many, many times in Sacred Art and, because Jesus promised him the "keys to the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 16:19), we sometimes see him pictured with two symbolic keys. The above quote, too, might be responsible for all the humor stories we hear putting Peter at the "Pearly Gates".

Please forgive me for being so lengthy but, for me at least, Peter seems so - for want of a better word - human. In Peter I find some of my own weakness. I, too, run hot and cold. I have good intentions but not such a good performance record. I feel because he's "been there done that" he can legitimately offer all of us - by example and with advice - the encouragement to 'hang in there'. After all, here's a guy who openly admitted being sinful (Luke 5:8) and yet he became a saint.

So now, as we slip Peter back into our memory files, we Catholics can continue to take great pride and reassurance in using our Popes as stepping stones to trace the historical path of our Catholic Church directly to our very first Pope --- Peter --- the man to whom Jesus said, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build MY church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." (Mt 16:18)

From a more personal perspective, hopefully what we have learned will help make Peter as real to each of us as all these people we've never actually met but who we KNOW once lived.

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"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

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