I like Peter. He means so well, and speaks without thinking of whether or not he’s got it ‘right’. He has a big part in these chapters, learning more about who Jesus is, and even more about what it means to follow him.
With the others, he can perhaps sense Jesus’ frustration as the first part of his public ministry, in Galilee, draws to a close and his disciples misunderstand him. (16:5-12) Warning them about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’, he finds that their thoughts go not to his teaching about the Kingdom of God, working unseen through the world, but to the baskets of bread and fish they’d seen him produce. After all he’s brought them through, their thoughts still go instinctively to the outward and spectacular, not to the quiet and unseen where his work is mainly taking place – and where ours will focus even more so.
Then Peter gets it right. (16:13-20) After answering the question about who others say Jesus is, it’s Peter who when asked ‘but who do you say that I am?’ comes out with ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ Jesus proclaims him the foundation stone of the church – perhaps a high point for the fisherman from Galilee!
Maybe a bit too high – next thing (16:21-23) he ‘rebukes’ Jesus for starting to head for Jerusalem and the Cross. Jesus then calls him ‘Satan’, the tempter, for seeing the future in human terms, not in God’s. Jesus must have longed to stay in Galilee and live; so the temptation put before him by his friend was real, and perhaps more dangerous than that of Satan in the desert, precisely because it came from his friend. But he knew that God was leading him south.
Peter’s error leads Jesus on to teach about the nature of discipleship – that nothing is worth the sacrifice of integrity and obedience to God. Then Peter, with James and John, is given a moment’s clear vision of Jesus, as if from heaven’s side of the screen of reality. The carpenter in his dusty travelling clothes is suddenly seen as the glorious Son of God, with Elijah and Moses at his side. It’s a moment of real-life apocalyptic, the curtain being pulled back on truth; then back into the valley of daily reality and struggle.
I’ve often spoken of how the Transfiguration models for us the right place for supreme religious ‘mountaintop’ experience – not as something to expect, or to try to hold on to or repeat, but as an inspiration and strength for the daily living that takes place down in the valley.
Peter appears again in these chapters – first in the little story (17:24-27) of the Temple tax, then, after more teaching on the simple heart of discipleship, the key conversation he has with Jesus about forgiveness. I believe that some of the rabbis taught that mistakes should be forgiven once; others twice. Peter must have thought that he was showing a great grasp of Jesus’ teaching when he suggested that he should forgive seven times. Even, as I believe must be the case, forgiveness can only really make sense when it has a place for repentance, this is asking a lot. But Jesus gives a completely different perspective. Whether it’s seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, I think the point is that it’s no good keeping count. Forgiveness is not in limited supply, and is not to be measured out too carefully.
Forgiveness is an attitude of heart as much as an action. And it’s one which makes all kinds of miracles possible.