He who learns to live the interior life and to take little account of outward things, does not seek special places or times to perform devout exercises. A spiritual man quickly recollects himself because he has never wasted his attention upon externals. No outside work, no business that cannot wait stands in his way. He adjusts himself to things as they happen. He whose disposition is well ordered cares nothing about the strange, perverse behavior of others, for a man is upset and distracted only in proportion as he engrosses himself in externals.
~Thomas à Kempis, from The Imitation of Christ
Ernest Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure, but I don’t think that goes far enough. It’s insufficient to achieve a zen-like tranquility of inner equilibrium in the midst of outer chaos. For that a lobotomy will do just fine. Being able to stay calm only gets you so far.
The church celebrates the Confession of St Peter on this day, January 18th as a remembrance of Peter’s bold statement to Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15). It’s important to remember that much was still ahead of Peter. It was his fear that later caused him deny Christ, his remorse that consumed him afterwards, but it was his love for Jesus that led him to a life of bold leadership, ultimately resulting in his martyrdom.
True serenity is achieved by living in unobstructed communion with God, and that is the essence of a spirit filled life. Jesus wasn’t the only one who walked on water. Peter did it too as long as his focus was on Christ, but when he was distracted by the storm he began to sink. What a powerful lesson to him and to us.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
D I G D E E P E R
Literature and Liturgy
Simon Peter is one of Jesus’ first disciples and later becomes the spokesman of the Twelve. Although Jesus gives Simon the name “Peter” (“rock”; Πέτρος, Petros; in Matt 16:18; Mark 3:16; Κηϕᾶς, Kēphas; in John 1:42), his ability to live up to it is often in doubt in the Gospels. Peter’s rebuke of the Lord (Matt 16:22–23; Mark 8:32–33), his falling asleep in the garden (Matt 26:40; Mark 14:37), his attack on Malchus (Mark 14:47; John 18:10–11), and his denial of Jesus (Matt 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–61; John 18:15–27) all support this perception. However, Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter in John 21:15–17 (“Do you love Me … feed My sheep”) communicates His confidence in and selection of him as the head of the early church. Luke demonstrates this in the book of Acts, which portrays Peter as a bold proclaimer of the gospel (Acts 2:14–41; 3:12–26; 4:8–21), a miracle worker (Acts 3:1–11; 9:32–35, 38–42), an authoritative figure in the early church (Acts 1:15–26; 5:3–10; 8:14–17; 15:7–11), the first missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1–45), and a missionary to the Jews outside of Jerusalem (Acts 12:17). Ultimately, Peter demonstrates his total devotion as a follower of Jesus when he dies a martyr’s death in Rome (1 Clement 5:4).
Peter in Extrabiblical Writings
Beyond the New Testament, several extrabiblical writings mention Peter. For instance, First Clement recounts Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (see Bauckham, “The Martyrdom of Peter,” 549–95). First Clement was written to the Corinthians around the end of the first century AD by Clement, the bishop in Rome. Clement states that Peter endured hardship and died the glorious death of a martyr (5:4). The early church historian Eusebius confirms Clement’s statement, adding the detail that Peter was crucified upside-down; Eusebius claims that the church father Origen was the first to record this detail, in a now lost fragment of Origen’s Commentary on Genesis (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.1.2).
Peter also appears as a main character in several noncanonical texts, including the Acts of Peter and the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles.
Art: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio, 1601
Painted for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio work depicting the Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (1601). On the altar between the two is an Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci.
The painting depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter by crucifixion—Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not to imitate his God, Jesus Christ, hence he is depicted upside down. The large canvas shows Ancient Romans, their faces shielded, struggling to erect the cross of the elderly but muscular apostle. Peter is heavier than his aged body would suggest, and his lifting requires the efforts of three men, as if the crime they perpetrate already weighs on them.
Sources & Resources
Bauckham, Richard. “The Martyrdom of Peter in Early Christian Literature.” Pages 539–95 in ANRW II.26.1. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1992.
Blaine, Bradford. Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of and Authentic Disciple. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
Bockmuehl, Markus. The Remembered Peter. Tübingen: Mohr, 2010.
Caddidy, Richard. Four Times Peter: Portrayals of Peter in the Four Gospels and at Philippi. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Cullmann, Oscar. Peter: Disciple—Apostle—Martyr. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953.
Ehrman, Bart. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Grant, Michael. Saint Peter: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1956.
Hengel, Martin. Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
Lapham, F. Peter: The Myth, the Man and the Writings. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.
Perkins, Pheme. Peter: Apostle for the Whole Church. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Smith, Terence. Petrine Controversies in Early Christianity. Tübingen: Mohr, 1985.
Wiarda, Timothy. Peter in the Gospels. Tübingen: Mohr, 2000.