Peter and Power

I have never felt connected to the Apostle Peter in the same way I have felt connected to the Apostle Paul. Some of this I think is simply a preference for Paul the man, who emerges as someone full of boundless energy and confidence in his mission and who emerges more completely from the pages of his letters than Peter does from the two letters attributed to him. On the other hand, Peter does appear throughout the Gospels, whereas Paul does not, and in the Gospels we are given an opportunity to meet Peter in his life with Jesus. Peter in the Gospels is portrayed as real and human in his failings and stumbles as well as his strengths, so if I do not know him or feel connected to him, perhaps it is because I do not want to know him. But why should this be the case? It was Jesus who knew him fully and who chose him as the leader of the Apostles, Peter, the “Rock” of the Church.

I do not question whether Jesus chose Peter to lead the Church, as some scholars do, nor do I question whether Jesus was the one who gave Simon the name Peter, “Rock,” as all four Gospels indicate. I think my disconnection from Peter comes not from his letters or from the Gospel portraits but from attempts to turn him into a symbol instead of a man, and then to turn that symbol into a distant authority figure that bears little relation to the man Peter, based especially on the Gospel passage Matthew 16:13-20. The symbol is the Church – “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” - and that symbol of the Church then becomes the predecessor of the Popes, who represent the authority of the Church. None of this is problematic theologically, but personally, where is Peter?


Little by little, I find myself distancing myself from the man who by turns is bold, when he is challenging  Jesus  about the fact that the apostles have left everything to follow him, or mystified, as when he is on the mountain at the Transfiguration with James, John, Jesus and a couple of unexpected guests, Moses and Elijah. The man who denies Jesus three times is a real man, who weeps bitter tears, and the same man who through God’s grace identifies Jesus as the Messiah, “the Son of the living God.” It is just this man who ought to be the model for us, who when he followed Jesus had left everything behind, who had no authority in any earthly sense, who represented only his love of Jesus. Peter was not a symbol of the authority of the Church, except in the sense that he was the one who grasped most fully who Jesus was and what Jesus demanded of his followers. The source of his authority is his fidelity to Jesus' mission and Jesus' recognition of his fidelity and understanding.

This is another reason why Matthew 16:13-20, often read as a manifesto of triumphalism, with Peter reduced to a symbol of authority, might distance us from Peter.  The power and authority of the Church is the power and authority of Jesus and these are made manifest in service and weakness to those in need, as Jesus taught in Matthew 20:25-28. The ten apostles become angry with James and John after their mother requested glory and honor for her two son. Jesus answered all of their concerns:

But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

The power and authority which Jesus represented and passed on to Peter and his successors is not that of worldly honor, glory, rule and supremacy, but that of service. Peter knew that and when I keep that in mind, I keep in mind his stumbles, his weaknesses, his boldness and strength and know that Jesus chose a real person to lead his Church. One to whom I feel connected in my own struggles, successes and failures when I see him for who he is.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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7 years 5 months ago
Really a great insight and beautiful reflection.  Thank you for sharing it.... a wonderful thought to stay with this Sunday August 21.  I should think of Peter more now.... he can show us how to be authentically real, transparent, willing to admit limitations and mistakes, and ready to ask for forgiveness when we fail to do the right thing..... and yes, to focus on service to God and others, always.
7 years 5 months ago
The power and authority of the Church is a function of healing and forgiving sin and keeping the body healthy and holy in a world which excels in unhealthy and sinful structures.

But look at what happens when a doctor comes to tell an unhealthy man to life a healthy lifestyle? Especially if the person is in denial as to his sickness? Ditto with a preacher warning about the danger of sin to folk who deny that their vices are in fact sinful. Both sound "cold and stern" and drone on about rules and warnings when the people in denial want only high-fives and praise.

The same Catholics who sneer at the papal pomp also have no problem with Presidential pomp (which is vastly more costly) so long as their guy is in charge. They have no problem with byzantine secular rules and regulations, bylaws and codes and a plethora of regulatory agencies and accreditation guilds.... but balk whenever the Church magisterium propose a far thiner set of "rules" and regulations for worship, doctrine and moral teaching!

Those who are willing to obey an authority outside of their own will to power can see a humble Peter doing his best, while those decrying the Papacy built on Peter for some supposedly inhuman "authoritarian" imposition are themselves not very good at handling followers or mere strangers who would beg to differ with THEIR magisterium!

Witness the guarded and couched terms full of qualifiers we are treated to with respect to how the West and the Church ought to handle Muslim terrorists..... compared with how the West and Church ought to handle Catholic conservative tea partiers!


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