Skip to main content
Listen To Article

During Lent, my Bible study considered passages about the disciples in the time leading up to the crucifixion. There was an obvious takeaway: what a disappointing bunch! They couldn’t be present and supportive when Jesus asked them to be, they couldn’t stay awake, they drew swords when they shouldn’t have, they betrayed and denied again and again.

A less true narrative would no doubt downplay these actions, but that’s not the gospel. The gospel names who we really are and what we really need.

If we consider Peter, that point becomes especially plain. Peter was clearly someone who had a well-developed sense of his own story: in his own mind, he was the bravest, the surest, the most reliable. “I would never…” he says to Jesus. But, of course he would. Because who Peter thinks he is is at odds with who he really is. He thinks he’s the guy that’s all in–that Jesus should wash not just his feet but his whole body. He’s the guy who’s always going to be there in time of need; he’s sure he could stay awake with Jesus at a moment of deep vulnerability–and he can’t. He’s sure he would always proudly claim his place in Jesus’ crew, and he doesn’t. Three times in a row, he doesn’t. And I think that when he weeps “bitterly” after his final, curse-laden protestation (as reported in Matthew 26), that that weeping is an acknowledgment of how wrong he’s gotten himself. That confident narrative is dissolved by his tears.

What if that were all we knew of Peter’s story? Fun fact: Peter does not appear again by name in the rest of the book of Matthew. What if our dominant image was as Peter the Denier, the triple betrayer?

Which is why Peter’s post-Resurrection appearance in John 20 really struck me this year when we see the rest of Peter’s story from another perspective. It’s the passage that begins with Mary Magdalene reporting to Peter and John the news of the empty tomb, and then there’s these verses:

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 

Now, I’ll admit–this passage has always struck me as rather comical. Seriously, it seems weirdly competitive, a little juvenile. C’mon, bros, I think, rolling my eyes.

But I’ve come to realize that the running is actually key.

Compare, for a moment, the parallel betrayals of Peter and Judas. Both betrayals are foretold by Jesus–he knows exactly how broken and imperfect they are, and he names that to each of them. And both men are deeply sorry afterwards: Peter “weeps bitterly” and Judas is “seized with remorse” and returns the money.

The difference: Judas cannot imagine a new story, can’t see beyond the chapter in which he is an unredeemable villain. He cannot image that he is forgivable, that his worst action needn’t define him forever. Judas needs no convincing that Jesus knows Judas’ duplicity, but Judas can’t seem to internalize that Jesus also knows that Judas is not beyond God’s love and mercy and grace. And so, Judas runs towards a grave: his own.

By contrast, as Peter comes to terms with who he is, he demonstrates that he is even clearer about who Jesus is. Judas’ route, in some ways, makes more sense: despair and run away. Peter could have hidden, paralyzed by self-remorse and recrimination, ashamed of his actions, unable to face the other disciples. He was a huge disappointment. But importantly–and unlike Judas–Peter can see into the next chapter where a Savior is making all things new, where no one is beyond God’s great act of redemption. Or as Flannery O’Connor put it, “the central Christian mystery [is] that it has for all its horror, [we have] been found by God to be worth dying for.”

No wonder Peter goes running to the Resurrection.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

7 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this.

  • Henry Baron says:

    And Peter kept running – into leadership of the apostles, into Asia Minor as missionary, and finally to a cross as a humbled martyr for following the Christ who loved him.
    Thank you for pointing us to Peter this morning, Jennifer.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for showing us how good and beautiful the story of a running Peter is—and how remarkably unnatural! He was urgent in his need for Jesus. On this “Easter Wednesday “ I want to be in the company of those running with Peter to the Risen Jesus.
    Harvey

  • James C Dekker says:

    And I’m really glad John tells us of the disciples’ shore b’fast (aka Eucharist) when after his who-knows-how-many-dead days Peter spent that he experiences his own resurrection (preceded by his baptism when he leaped from the boat after finally catching some fish. Thank you, Jennifer.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Jennifer,
    I wonder if in all the despair that Judas felt and his complete inability to see a future in which he is worthy, what really matters is what Jesus felt. We applaud Peter for his running to the resurrection, and rightfully so, but some find themselves in such despair they can’t run or walk or get out of bed. I guess I wonder if our Reformed faith sets more weight on what Jesus thinks of us than on what we think of Jesus, or if I could call upon another story of running. The young son of a generous father walks his way home incapable of seeing himself as anything more than a servant, and the prodigal father runs out to great him with all the symbols of welcome and forgiveness, because in the end, what the father envisions matters so much more than what the son envisions is possible.
    I don’t know. Thanks for the thought provoking writing.

    • Jennifer Holberg says:

      I totally agree–you highlight what I was trying to say beautifully. Peter’s running can only happen because of what Jesus thinks of Peter (a shred of hope that compels Peter). I believe that Judas was still forgiven and welcomed by Jesus. Nothing–even our inability to run, even our despair–can separate us from the love of God. I think Judas’ inability to be able to understand his belovedness is one of the tragedies of the story. But yes, the Father can, as you say, envision so much more than we can–but maybe our vision can slowly change. Thanks for this response.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Just excellent, Jennifer. (And I loved your exchange with Rodney!)
    How wonderful that God does not define or label us according to our mistakes. What a profound thought that Jesus saw Judas, Peter… and myself through eyes of love and grace.
    I especially found this sentence so powerful: “Judas can’t seem to internalize that Jesus also knows that Judas is not beyond God’s love and mercy and grace.”
    How we limit God’s grace and mercy to ourselves and to those hurting around us.
    We know, now may we more fully act on the truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God!
    Thank you!

Leave a Reply