[T]he figure wherein ye now see me hanging is the representation of that man that first came unto birth. Ye therefore, my beloved, and ye that hear me and that shall hear, ought to cease from your former error and return back again. For it is right to mount upon the cross of Christ, who is the Word [Logos] stretched out, the one and only, of whom the Spirit saith: For what else is Christ, but the word, the sound of God? So that the word is the upright beam whereon I am crucified. And the sound is that which crosseth it, the nature of man. And the nail which holdeth the cross-tree unto the upright in the midst thereof is the conversion and repentance of man.
~ Acts of Peter, 38
Since I already wrote one reflection about St. Paul, and since we just celebrated their joint feast at the end of last month, I decided that I ought to write one about St. Peter as well. There is actually a lot that can be said about St. Peter. In addition to the account of his martyrdom (above), I’d like to single out one of the most important passages in the Gospel story.
Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?”
So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8:27-33)
This story can be found in Luke and Matthew as well. Interestingly, in John there is a similar confession, but it comes from St. Martha. And of course, there is also there the confession of St. Thomas that I have written about before. I chose St. Mark’s version because traditionally his Gospel account is actually based on St. Peter’s preaching.
One way to understand this story is liturgically. The earliest Christian creeds come from baptismal confessions where the clergy asks the candidate what they believe and they respond with a few central dogmas of the faith. In this case, we have perhaps the most basic Christian confession: “You are the Christ.”
In Matthew and Luke, Jesus compliments Peter, pronouncing a blessing. Here, in the account from St. Peter, we hear no praises from Christ. Perhaps in this story, then, there is a hidden lesson about humility.
Not only does Jesus not praise Peter, but as is common in Mark, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. He is the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the long awaited Messiah, and Jesus tells them to keep it on the DL. What gives?
If that’s not enough, look at what happens next. Jesus tells the disciples that he, the Son of Man, must suffer and die and rise again. Now Peter tries to tell Jesus to keep this on the DL. That’s not the sort of Christ people were looking for, after all. Jesus’s response? “Get behind me Satan!”
What is happening here? What are we supposed to learn?
We might, with Pavel Florensky, note that Jesus does not accept a static identity. It is not enough for him to be. What is important is the becoming. (I am talking about him in so far as he is human, of course.) The suffering and dying and rising—there is no good news, no Gospel without that.
In fact, it is right after this in Mark that Jesus tells them that if anyone wants to follow him, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. So basically Jesus is saying that to want him without the cross is to be earthly, even diabolically, minded, and to want to follow him without enduring the same is not to follow him at all.
This is a hard teaching. But it is also the heart of the Gospel, which means it is supposed to be good news.
Now, I try as much as I can to affirm Brendan in all he does. But it would not be to his good to affirm him when I know he can do better. When he misbehaves, I can’t say, “Oh, Brendan, you’re so cute and funny” (even when he is). It is for his good to change, to try to do better. When he has had his time out or whatever and apologizes, then I say, “Good job.”
Similarly, there is a kind of affirmation that is from the evil one. What good is it to tell someone who has no peace, “You’re doing fine.” Either they will be deluded, distracted from what it takes to be saved, or they will lose respect for me, knowing that they are not fine after all.
Affirmation can be good, but affirmation is overrated. It can be destructive as well.
St. Peter, at his death, fulfilled the command of Christ. This is an uncontested and very early tradition: St. Peter was literally crucified upside down. (He did not count himself worthy to die in precisely the same manner as his Lord and requested that his cross be flipped around.)
For St. Peter, however, this was the culmination of a cruciform life. The cross to him is the ultimate meeting place between the Logos and our humanity. And for us who aspire to follow him, “the conversion and repentance of man” is what binds us to the cross.
The good news is precisely that we are not, in fact, stuck being who we are. We are called to ever greater heights, through ever greater humility. And the strength of that humility is our daily practice of asceticism and the sacramental life of the Church: dying and rising in every thought, breath, word, and deed. And when we err, we die to that error, and our pride, through repentance.
We do not accept our births as definitive of who we are: genetics are important, but not deterministic. No, we are called in freedom to live a transfigured life. Rather, born again through baptism, we grow in body and soul into so much more than we currently are. And thank God for that: there is a Way to become more than all our faults and finitude, to find eternal rest through heavenly struggle, to rise again through the cross.
I am glad to be a part of a Church that praises St. Peter, who as we have seen, neglected to praise himself. In so doing we hold up for imitation a perfect icon of the life in Christ, who humbled himself, even “emptied himself” as St. Paul put it, for the sake of others. That is the sort of man that I would like to be.
Lord have mercy on me for how often I fall short of that and wander from the Way. And thank God that I can trust he will. That, indeed, is something to speak about openly. Even better, it is something to live.