We revere the saints as very holy people and as intercessors with God on our behalf. They are as near perfect as we might expect. That is right and proper. However, for many of us they seem to be so holy and so exalted we tend to give up the serious business of being like them. What hope have we got, mere normal human beings, of being anything like them? As St Gregory Palamas puts it: - “For the sake of the sublime rewards promised by God, they strove honourably to the limit of human nature and showed us a way of life that was equally sublime.” Problems arise if we see them as so holy that we forget they are men and women like us.
Now one reason I like Saint Peter is that he knew about boats. He would understand the way to steer a vessel, how to tie knots on a mooring line, and he would relate to the delight I feel being afloat. Common interests are a start in any friendship. The fact that he founded not just the See of Rome, but also that of Antioch to which I belong is lovely too. But first of all he was a fellow boat owner. The point is that He was and remains human, a very ordinary person. It was the choices he made which make him so remarkable.
If we think of Saint Peter as an example of repentance, it is worth recalling that “metanoia”, change of mind is mainly about turning to God: it is not just about regretting wrong doing. In St Peter’s case first and foremost he turned to Christ and followed Him. Not everyone did that. Even faced with the reality of Christ the rich young man in St Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 19) declined the call to sell all he had and follow Christ. Peter made the choice to follow the Lord as we have done. That is a free choice and one we need to make day in and day out. Of course a change of mind could also mean turning away from God.
I want to look at three incidents in the life of St Peter. The first is found in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 14) - the incident when Christ walked out to the boat on the water and St Peter (following the command of Christ) walked to him. Peter though became frightened; he experienced doubt. Then he called out to Christ and was lifted up, so he managed it. This was a sort of repentance in reverse, where doing the right thing becomes difficult because the miraculous demands that we be centred on Christ. St. Peter wavered at that point. However, once he had concentrated again on Christ, the situation was saved. Let us be clear then, a human being can experience miracles when Christ is at the centre of what he is and does. The problem is doubt and a failure of nerve.
This failure of nerve is seen in the second instance, which is in the narratives of the Passion of our Lord. The story appears in all four Gospels. Christ had told St Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Now Peter had seen miracles, he had spent a lot of time with the Lord, he had after all walked on water himself. He had boasted he would never deny Christ. He had even stuck by Christ at the time of the arrest, yet faced with being seen as his follower during the trial he denied it all. He said in fact “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72). I do not seek to judge St Peter for this denial. One can sympathise with him in fact. He had just seen the man he knew to be the Son of the Living God arrested and humiliated, and facing death. He was confused and everything was out of control. Just like the time on the water, there must have been tremendous doubt. However, to quote St Gregory Palamas again: - “Peter, having been tempted and led astray a little, overcame the tempter. How? Through his immediate condemnation of himself, his intense sorrow and repentance, and the medicine which brings forgiveness, tears. ‘A heart that is broken and humbled’, it says, ‘God will not despise’” (Ps. 50:17)
And so Peter was restored. When we fail we can return to what we should be through a change of heart. We should not seek to justify our failings. The change of intention is not just regret, it is a matter of pointing the right way again. Tears are healing though, they release the pain and they show our regret.
It would be lovely to say that was the end of St Peter’s problems. In fact they continued. I want to deal with the famous incident at Antioch. I do this because it has been shown to be a situation where St. Peter needed to repent. In Antioch St. Peter had socialised with gentile believers, yet had withdrawn from this (faced with people from Jerusalem where circumcision was still largely practiced) until St. Paul appeared in the city. The suggestion is that he was scandalising Jewish Christians. However excluding Gentiles was also wrong. St Paul refers to this in his letter to the Galatians (Chapter 2). St Paul writes that he reproved St Peter to his face for apparently being so fearful of the Judaisers. Now St John Chrysostom says in his commentary on Galatians:- “But when some came from Jerusalem who had heard the doctrine he delivered there, he no longer did so fearing to perplex them, but he changed his course, with two objects secretly in view, both to avoid offending those Jews, and to give Paul a reasonable pretext for rebuking him.” So all this was done to avoid leading people to harsh judgments on what they thought was wrong. (They were judging an apostle in this!) To avoid a breach, to give St Paul a chance to exert his authority and reconcile the split between Jewish and Gentile believers. St Peter came out of it looking like he had to repent of his choices. I suggest though that in fact he had been placed in a situation where he could do no right. These things happen in Churches to this day.
So we have seen a change of heart in two cases where an original intention was attacked by doubt. We also see a case where the situation did not have a clear way forward but solved well. I would conclude by drawing out lessons from these aspects of St Peter. Choices made make us what we are as people and Christians. When we get scared and lose the centredness on God we go astray. Healing is possible through repentance. And as the incident in Antioch showed, do not be quick to judge others. You never quite know what the exact situation is.
“Christ our God help us to make the right choices, to truly repent where we go wrong and to avoid judging our brothers and sisters. Amen.”