Two of Jesus’ inner ring of followers had so much in common: Peter and Judas. We know nothing about their upbringings and backgrounds. How were they raised? What did they value? What were their ambitions? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. And Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Was that because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he was entrusted with so much among those who had given up everything to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely Judas’ kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar or different they are to one another, both Peter and Judas end up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, surely to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? They had so much in common… except for one thing. Following Jesus’ crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ in the gift of forgiveness.
The Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter the Apostle
For many prayerful people, God’s love is largely theoretical. They can intellectually grasp that God is love, but they do not feel it. I have been among this class of people, and I have listened to others express a similar lament. When someone tells me they intellectually know that God is love but they do not feel it, I ask them the same question that was put to me when I felt this way: “Who is Jesus for you?” Often, this question takes people by surprise. Often, (and it was the case for me) there is an uncomfortable silence, and a level of uncertainty is expressed. For many prayerful people, Christians among them, even people who love God, and who desire to follow God; many of them remain ambivalent about Jesus.
I first visited the Holy Land 25 years ago, when I went with my parish on a pilgrimage. It was during the month of May, and the most memorable day was when we got up early, and drove north from Jerusalem, through the West Bank and up through the Galilee, and even further north. By now the land was becoming more mountainous, and as we climbed, I remember the countryside started to change and look Alpine, very green, covered with beautiful flowers. And then suddenly, in the distance we caught sight of Mount Hermon, shimmering in the sun.
Acts 4:8-13 / Psalm 23 / 1 Peter 5:1-4 / Matthew 16:13-19
Today we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter. They’re at Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful, rugged place of streams and waterfalls north of the Galilee in the Golan Heights, an area of Syria now controlled by Israel. The splendid Roman city is gone; the many temples and shrines to pagan gods built into the face of a great rock cliff are gone—a couple of small niches remain. It was perhaps directly facing these shrines with their statues that Jesus may have said something like, “That is Pan and that is Aphrodite. But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ; the Son of the living God.” You are Son of the living God, not a god carved in stone—says Peter. The shrines and temples were built on the face of the rock cliff; the church would be built on the faith of a human “rock”, that is, Petros, Peter—as Simon came to be known.