Peter shows, as he did when he walked on and then sank in the water, how our faith journey can be compared to a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, sometimes more intense than others. As expressed time and again in the Gospels, Peter provides examples of taking a step forward and two steps back.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Peter still called Simon at this time, exemplified this balancing act of our growth process as he first answered Jesus’ question as to who Jesus was when he stated, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus not only commended Simon for being open to sharing this revelation given to him by God the Father, but also added, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
Name changes were common when there was a significant change in one’s life throughout the Bible. We can see evidence of this in the examples of Abram, changing his name to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, and Jacob to Israel, just to name a few. Without a doubt, this event was a significant giant step forward for Simon Peter!
Yet, just as Peter reached the heights of theological insight he would just as quickly come crashing down again as he cut his teacher off. Jesus began to share with his disciples about how he would suffer, be killed, and rise again on the third day when, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:22-23).
From being called the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church in one instant, to being called Satan in the next, Peter’s experiences offer some solace for us who are on our own faith journeys. Peter apprenticed with Jesus and as in any learning experience, he made mistakes. We need to realize that in our spiritual life this is going to happen to us as well. We will have days when we feel the joy of the Holy Spirit filling our soul, and yet in the next instant, we may feel empty. We may have clear discernment and direction and then feel indecisive and confused. Some days our prayer is fruitful and we feel energized and other days we may experience dryness and that we are just going through the motions.
Jesus’ admonition of Peter to get behind him was not the end of the story. In fact, it would get worse when Peter denied Jesus three times! Yet, Peter persisted and Jesus time and again forgave and gave him an opportunity to repent, to start over. After his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him, and three times, the third a bit exasperated, Peter said yes, undoing the travesty of his denials. After the Ascension of Jesus, Peter lead the early Church and gave the ultimate witness and measure of his spiritual growth and maturity by giving his life.
We too will have fits and starts along the way, but the key is to remain faithful to the journey. To continue to dust ourselves off when we have fallen down and be willing to learn from our mistakes, to repent and be forgiven, to seek the help and support of Jesus and one another, and be willing to begin again. The Good News for us today, is that we are not defined by our mistakes or our worst moments. We are defined by Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God!