The Good Thing: Thoughts on the Confession of St. Peter

Peter Publicly Professes Jesus by Right Rev. Richard Gilmour 1904

By Catherine Sider Hamilton

Jan 29, 2024

Let me begin with the story of two Rhodes Scholars. One is named William Jefferson Clinton. He went to Georgetown University on scholarship, Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, and Yale Law School. He served as the 40th and 42nd Governor of Arkansas and before that was Arkansas’ Attorney General. In 1992, Clinton became President of the United States and in 1996 the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected to a second term. Whatever one may think of his personal life, he was an effective leader of a powerful country and left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating since WWII. Fame and fortune, a life that served and influenced a country and in fact the world – not bad for a hick kid from the sticks, son of a traveling salesman who abandoned his family soon after his son’s birth.

The other Rhodes Scholar has no name, and I cannot tell you his history because I do not know it. After he won the Rhodes and took his degree at Oxford, he became a priest and went to serve a poor inner-city church. He served that parish for 40 years. “That’s all I’ve done,” the inner-city priest said, in conversation one day. “I guess, for a Rhodes Scholar, I’m a failure, really.”

In the eyes of the world, it is true: against the Bill Clintons, this priest’s life does not compare. He has no fame or beauty that we should admire him, nor his own Wikipedia page.

But listen to Jesus’ words.

If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matt 16:24).

January 18 is (in my Anglican tradition) the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter. So this month I have been thinking about the words above. Peter, first among Jesus’ disciples, doesn’t like Jesus’ words at all. “God forbid, Lord!” he says, as Jesus tells his disciples for the first time that he is walking toward the cross. “God forbid,” as it were: this shall certainly never happen to you!

Peter in that moment watches his whole bright future whirling down the drain. He has just named Jesus the Christ: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah … You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (16:18–19).

Peter has seen the future, and it is looking good.

And then Jesus says: Here’s the plan. I am going to suffer a great deal at the hands of the people who matter, and then I am going to be killed (Matt 16:21).

WHAT???

But wait, there’s more! This will not be a noble death. There will be no battle scars on Jesus’ chest; instead, it’s going to be whip marks on his back, and a slave’s cross. “He had no form or beauty that we should admire him.” No one who is anyone will want to have anything to do with this Jesus, though rightfully called the Christ.

Not even Peter, as it turns out. “I don’t know the man,” Peter will say, as Jesus draws near to the cross.

Peter loves Jesus. But he cannot stand Jesus’ cross.

Matthew tells the story of Peter with great sympathy. When the cock crows the third time, when Peter in face of the cross has yet again denied the Lord he loves, the apostle goes out and weeps – and he weeps (Matthew alone tells us) “bitterly.”

Matthew tells the story of Peter with sympathy because he knows that Peter is like us. We want to love Jesus – more than anything we want to love him. But to love Jesus is to love his cross. And this is a hard thing to do.

We are right there with Peter, honouring Jesus as the Christ.

And we are right there with Peter, looking forward to a good thing. It is Bill Clinton we admire, and all the world’s stars.

And we would agree with that Rhodes Scholar whose name is unknown: his life is one that doesn’t amount to much in that small, poor, unknown church.

We are people of such privilege, and we believe that privilege and pleasures and a name are the good thing. We hope for the satisfaction of our own desires. And this is simply human.

But this is not what Jesus says. Jesus says: Take up your cross.

And he says, “Get behind me, Satan!”   To refuse the cross that is Christ’s – to prefer the life that seeks a throne – is not neutral but demonic. Where there is no cross there is no Christ, and in the pursuit of our own desires we are lost to God.

“Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within [our] crozzled hearts,” Cormac McCarthy writes, in The Road (New York: Vintage, 2006; p. 273). The sound of the cherubim lost to our ears. McCarthy sees in our self-absorption, in the interminable seeking of our own desire, the death of the world: “Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.” And he is right.

Or he would be right … were it not for the cross of Christ.

There is a cross that rises, even over the dying world, the world that is living itself to death.

“I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard their cry. And I have come down to deliver them” (Exod 3:7–8).

This is God’s word in the time of Israel’s bondage to the Egyptian Pharoah, spoken to Moses from the burning bush.

This is God’s word in the time of our bondage to ourselves, spoken to us from the cross of Christ: I have heard your cry and I am with you, even when you are not with me.

The cross is the sign of our turning away, the index of how far we will go in turning away from God to ourselves and our own good things. Nail to the cross the one who tells us our pursuit of our own desire is demonic. Nail him to the cross. The cross is the sign of how far we will go. It is noonday darkness covering the world.

And yet the cross is also our sun, the rising Son: rising over the darkened noon, holding God’s faithfulness in his hands. The cross is God with us when we are not with him, suffering the destruction we have wrought, lifting us out of our darkness into a new life with him.

This new life into which Jesus lifts us on his cross is a life that has taken on the shape of the cross. It is the only way through a world gripped by sin, drowning in its own detritus. If we would love God, if we would speak God’s love in this world as it now is, the cross is the only way. It is the necessary shape of our lives. The priest with no name in that inner-city parish, spending all his life, his great gifts, his Oxford degree, with and for these few poor people: here the cross rises.

Here the Son rises, Jesus shining in these unsung lives.

Peter at first did not see it, but the cross is a word of hope. The cross – wherever it meets you – is the good thing. You will meet Jesus there.

At the end of his life, an old tradition says, Peter was fleeing from Rome. There was a persecution of Christians, and Peter’s people had asked him to save himself, because he was their bishop and the eponymous Rock of the church. As he fled, he met Jesus going the other way. Domine, quo vadis: “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked. Jesus said, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter turned back and followed him.

You can still stand in Jesus’ footprints, so they say, at that spot. A little church stands there now on the Appian Way. Domine quo vadis, the church is called: Lord, where are you going.

Lord, where are you going? Let me follow in the way.