When the rock splits to pieces: What we learn from St. Peter

July 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

He got the right answer. In Matthew 15, Jesus asks his disciples a threshold question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” According to Matthew’s well known account, Peter nails it. “You are the Messiah,” he tells Jesus, “the Son of the living God.”

Jesus confirms Peter’s answer. “Blessed are you,” says Jesus, followed by words that have become famous:

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. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This encounter is dramatic, a turning point for Peter, Jesus, and the apostles. If Jesus were giving a test, Peter got the “A.” He knew his theology. He was clear about Jesus’ identity and, in turn, Jesus entrusted Peter with extraordinary responsibility.

Peter’s importance and the trust that Jesus has in him is reinforced just two chapters later when Peter (along with James and John) is asked to the top of a mountain to witness Jesus’ dazzling Transfiguration. In that moment, Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become, as the text says, “white as light.” As if that weren’t remarkable enough, Matthew’s Gospel says that while on the mountain, a cloud cast a shadow over the men and “from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”

Not bad. Clearly, Peter’s an important guy. He gets the great title plus a front row seat to a wondrous display of Jesus’ divinity. Peter literally hears the voice of God.

These encounters tell us a few important things about Peter. Peter got Jesus. And Peter’s faith led Jesus to trust him in return, even to cite Peter and his confession (“You are the Messiah…”) as the cornerstone of Christ’s church.

And yet, there is something shocking about Jesus’ trust, about His willingness to hand the keys to Peter.

Not long after Peter is granted this authority, he demonstrates a complete unworthiness to be given it. Peter: the “rock” of the Church, the one who declares the truth about Jesus, disowns Jesus the night He is arrested and shortly before He is crucified. As Jesus had predicted, Peter denies knowing Him three times. The hardships of discipleship — which Jesus had warned about often — had suddenly become real, and when they did so, Peter collapsed. His knowledge didn’t create bravery. Peter could offer intellectual assent, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own bodily safety or reputation. Not yet.

These episodes involving Peter offer eloquent insights for teachers as they struggle to form young men and women. Jesus saw not only whom Peter was, but whom Peter could be. Jesus knew Peter was going to deny Him, but something in Peter led Jesus to realize that Peter’s character was about more than that denial.

In fact, it’s not just that Jesus “saw Peter through” the ordeal and forgave him. It wasn’t as if Jesus said, “Yeah, that Pete; he really let me down. I’ll no longer consider him the rock, but I’ll still forgive him.” What Jesus did was far more radical. In naming Peter the rock of the Church, Jesus was in effect saying: “The qualities of yours that your own decision-making will most call into doubt — fidelity, loyalty, reliability — are the qualities I most value, the qualities I most believe in. You, Peter, are not defined by your one bad decision.”

There are obvious implications for schools. Modeling Jesus, teachers have to teach to the best version of the student, to a version of the student that might not seem obvious to anyone at first glance, to a version of the student the teacher only sees with the lens of God’s love, with the eyes of Christ. If Jesus could see and trust Peter’s capacity to be a “rock” in spite of Peter’s show of fragility, we too have to see and trust the capacity of our students to do the same.

I have to learn to see the student with poor grammar and bad sentence structure as one day capable of being a great writer. More than that, I have to see that talent within him or her right now, even when all evidence points to the contrary. I have to trust in the limitless capacity of my students to be amazing. And as a teacher (and I’m sure parents will identify with this), I have to see past — or perhaps it’s better to say see through — the denials, the betrayals, and the poor decision-making. Our students, like all of us, will make mistakes. They will let us down. They will do things out of character. They will act . . . just like the rock upon which Christ builds His Church.

Without excusing errant behavior, we must remember that sometimes these out-of-character decisions are crucial for a student’s growth. According to the Gospel, once Peter realized that he had fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy about the denials, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.”

Wept bitterly. Imagine that paradox: the rock split to pieces. The rock in shambles. Peter probably turned over feelings of immense guilt, shame, and sorrow. But all of that internal chaos was probably necessary. It taught Peter the value of what was at stake. It called Peter to remember his love for Christ and his authentic identity. And he became, most truly, the rock of the Church, even to the point of his own crucifixion in Rome.

The same goes for our students. Though we might lament their choices, we must let them, too, weep bitterly. They must work through feelings of guilt, sorrow and shame. Our role is to forgive them when they apologize, and invite them to let their messy feelings be graced and purified — baptized, if you will — into a rich elixir of holiness.

Especially relevant for teachers, Peter’s example demonstrates that intellect alone is not enough. The process of absorbing knowledge, of applying it to one’s life, of letting it seep into one’s way of being: it takes time. Knowing that Jesus was the Messiah, beholding the Transfiguration, being with Jesus as he turned water into wine and raised people from the dead: all that was not enough to save Peter from denying Christ. But Jesus gave Peter time. Peter was allowed to make mistakes and apologize, to fall and get up.

If even Peter needed time, then our students especially do, both with their development in faith and in every other area of personal and character formation. If living intimately with Christ for up to three years did not prevent Peter from abandoning Jesus at a crucial hour, we know the patience we must exhibit with our own students.

Jesus loved Peter in Peter’s unformed, wobbly state. Jesus invited Peter to the last supper, to the first Eucharist, knowing that Peter would abandon Him. That example tells us how we should treat those who struggle in faith, or those who are weak in fidelity. It forces us to ask: do we require someone to possess perfection before we let them enter into our community, into our inner circle? In my role in admissions I think through this question often. It’s easy to search for the perfect student, the complete student, the student who will not let us down. But Jesus’ choice of Peter tells us to be open to those who are flawed and to those who are unformed; indeed, not merely to be open, but to seek them out.

In so doing, we are of course being open to ourselves; we who come from dust, we who are also flawed, unformed, and in the process of holiness, we who will also deny, betray, fail, fall and desperately need to feel the faith and the confidence that Christ offered to Peter, and which God offers to all.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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