And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.-Matthew 16:18
Not too long ago, I was asked the nature of Simon being named Peter.
It was a question that forced me to pause, not because I thought the answer too obvious. The question itself, I detected, had a great deal of curiosity behind it, a mining of meaning in this very formative moment in Peter’s journey as a disciple.
So why was Jesus’ disciple Simon renamed Peter?
It’s important for us to examine how the disciples show up in the New Testament.
When we look at the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter really taking center stage out of the twelve. Just behind him is John, though Peter tends to be far more memorable to us for all that he said and did whereas John tends to be depicted as more passive yet nontheless close to Christ.
It is Peter who declares boldly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the same disciple that falls on his face in repentance seeing Christ bring the miracle of the haul of fish. Peter is the one who acknowledges Christ’s power and asks to be allowed to walk on water, but also is the disciple who’s doubt is manifest to the other eleven and to the rest of history. Peter boldly swears to die with Christ and draws his own blade to fight for Him in the garden, and he is also the one who denies Christ three times. While Thomas does go on record once in his boldness of saying, “let us go to die with Him” (John 11:16), Peter’s boldness is a reoccurring theme in the Gospel and Acts accounts.
Besides John, Thomas, and Judas, the rest of the disciples fade in the narrative. We get to know Judas’ deception and love for money. We get to see John’s closeness with Jesus. We get to see Thomas’ zeal before he begins to doubt. The rest of the disciples personality and works unfortunately are not well covered in canonical scripture. Peter is the star, and in just about every film adaptation of the New Testament it is Peter that is often given special spotlight.
And for good reason.
As mentioned already, Peter is the consistently bold disciple, but with his imperfections. Peter enjoys so many peaks in the Gospel accounts, but he has so many human moments of weakness. We sometimes, unfortunately, categorize Peter as a bad example of faithfulness while failing to give credence to his triumphs and later works—similar to how Thomas is ONLY remembered for doubting. Peter doubts, Peter calls himself sinful, Peter promises to kill and does even maim in Christ’s name, and Peter denies Christ three times. And yet Peter is restored at the end, and his ministry is powerful in Acts. But most of all, Simon is called Peter, the Rock, the rock on which Christ builds His Church.
This goes to Simon Peter, not to anyone else, not even John.
Consider the disciple and evangelist John for a moment. He is continually called the beloved disciple, a disciple close to Jesus. He is the author of John—or at least its narrator—and most commonly attributed as well to the Book of Revelation. John doesn’t have a negative account in the narrative. In fact, when the other eleven disciples failed to show up at the foot of the Cross, John was there. It’s often interpreted that John’s showing up at the Cross was reason for his escape from martyrdom, that he already risked his life being a witness to the crucifixion. John is not called Peter, not given this incredible new identity and responsibility from Christ. And it’s nothing against John. That being said, there’s something powerful about Christ’s appointment of Simon Peter.
Simon Peter represents both the potentiality of the Church as well as its flaws. Simon Peter is the rock the Church is founded on because he shows up in his walk with Christ and in his ministry with zeal, despite how brash it sometimes can come across. And Peter has his moments of weakness. Christ blesses Peter with this role, blessing the zeal the Church is to embody while also recognizing our human error.
Often the Church—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, whether it be a parish or a synod–comes under scrutiny for its ability to err. “The institution of the Church” is a too common scapegoat for the modern Christian, spiritualist, and secularist. We find ourselves allergic to the association of the church because of what we think we know about history. Yes, there have been abuses of power, from the lay level to the episcopal level. But Christ appointed Simon Peter as the rock for His Church. Peter nearly murdered in Christ’s name and had acted “un-Christian” in his denial. But just as we ought not focus solely on Peter’s shortcomings and instead consider his zeal and goodness, so too the Church should be afforded some similar credence. While members of the Church have not always been faithful and sometimes overzealous as Peter, the Church also is an agent of truth and healing like Peter. As much as we like to point fingers and shout out “but what about the scandals and crusades” we need to pause and evaluate the institutions of healing they’ve also provided, the refuge it has been in war for the ostracized, the supporter of the sick, orphaned, and widowed through its instituted agencies.
Simon Peter reminds us of Christ’s trust to us despite our shortcomings. He didn’t call the qualified to this task, he qualified the called.
If you think you’re unworthy to serve Christ, think on Simon Peter’s shortcomings as well as his triumphs and realize that Christ can and will teach us how to direct our zeal. If you think your priest, pastor, church cannot be trusted because of its humanness, remember you are just as human as Peter and that the institution is what Christ trusted and ordained.
Afterall, Christ did not come for the healthy, but for the sick.