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Learning from St Peter

By Canon Chris Palmer

This weekend, we celebrate St Peter, the patron on the Cathedral. His statue adorns the very highest point of the West front, and another statue of him occupies centre stage in the Bishop’s throne canopy.

He is a complicated character. He is the rock on which Christ builds the church (Peter means Rock), and the one who had the spiritual insight to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. At the same time he often went wrong. Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking of his death – and Jesus rebuked Peter in turn: ‘get behind me, Satan’. Peter doubted when he was walking on the water, and sank beneath the waves. Peter denied ever knowing Jesus, when the pressure was on.

A couple of years ago I preached on St Peter’s day, and reflected on these ‘failures’:

“Somehow these are not just failures; they are the flip side of his passionate commitment. He’s so committed that he wants to protest that Jesus must not die; he’s so committed that he wants to have a go at walking on the water; he’s so committed that he wants to be close of Jesus on trial and know what’s going on. It is the passionate and committed who fall on their face. The indifferent usually aren’t around to fail.”

It’s worth reflecting on this for a moment. We are so fearful of failure that we never get it right! Peter allows himself to be there, to make big commitments, to have big insights – and his passion leads to his falls.

Another way of putting this, is that Peter’s focus is all on Jesus. When we become risk averse or self-promoting, it’s all about us, the possibility that we will look silly or be censured. Peter doesn’t worry about this (most of the time), which means he both flourishes and flounders.

Even Peter’s repentance has this quality of being turned towards Jesus. When the cock crows and he remembers Jesus’ words that he will deny Jesus three times, Peter breaks down in tears because he is grieved at having hurt Jesus. This was not about his loss of face, the ‘risk’ his failure poses to his reputation, but about the failure itself – he has disappointed, wounded his Lord. This allows for both a more wholesome repentance, a greater growth, and a more serious devotion, than the fearful demi-regret that so often marks our paltry repentance.

Another way of saying this is that we so often burden ourselves by placing a second layer over the difficulties or failures of life. We are concerned not only with whatever is wrong, hard, or difficult; we are also concerned with how it makes us look, what consequences it has for our own status or reputation.

This is truly an unnecessary burden, stunting our growth in spirit, diluting our sorrow for our sins and our joy in discovering forgiveness. Instead of true joy, we settle for relief that things didn’t quite fall apart as we feared. When we free ourselves from this ‘second layer’ burden, then we make space for our hearts to sing and for our spirits to know God. And instead of the endless scramble for status, we discover the vocation that is God’s gift to us.