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:
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 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.