The Utterly Human Peter: Lord, Save Me

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not/keep that vigil, how they must have wept/so utterly human, knowing this too/must be part of the story. — Mary Oliver

One of the reasons I believe the gospels are true is the realistic portrayal of Christ’s disciples. 

They leave everything–fishing nets, families, worldly wealth, everything–to follow Jesus. And then they bicker among themselves about who is the greatest.

The three closest to the Lord saw him transfigured on the mountain but shortly afterward James and John figure it gives them the right to call down fire on their opponents. The disciples have forty days with the risen Christ, yet when he’s ready to turn the mission over to them they ask, “Now are you going to restore Israel?”

They are, in Mary Oliver’s poignant phrase, “so utterly human.”

Simon, the disciple with the singular honor of being renamed Peter, is particularly spectacular in his fails. “Though all fall away from you I will not!” he insists at the Last Supper.

The Lord sadly warns Peter that before morning’s cock-crow he will deny him three times.

Then Christ invites Peter, James and John to watch and pray with him in his agony in the garden. Peter can’t keep his eyes open any better than the other two. But shaking it off as his Lord is arrested, Peter draws a sword and slashes an ear off the high priest’s servant only to be reminded by Christ’s healing hand that violence was never part of the plan.

Despite his best intentions, Peter does indeed deny the Lord three times while Christ is condemned to death. One look from his Lord’s sad eyes sends him “weeping into the night.”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life,” C.S. Lewis, literary scholar and lover of legend, wrote after his conversion from atheism to Christ: 

I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative….The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned how to read.

Or, to be fair, one simply has not been taught ancient literature, a regrettable deficit in our education. Lewis, deeply read the ancients, discerned that the unvarnished realism in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John made their writings quite credible in what they reveal about Christ.

At the same time, this realism uncovers the depths of our own helplessness. When we recognize how much our failures mirror those of Peter and the other disciples, we know we need him just as much as they did.

I’ve been thinking about my failures in light of that beautiful moment when the risen Christ, over a breakfast of fish, asks Peter “Do you love me?” in pure, gracious invitation. Yes, yes, yes.

“Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you.”

You know everything.

Like everything else in the Bible, the 21st chapter in John’s gospel contains riches surpassing my understanding. Saints and scholars have uncovered in the conversation between Christ and Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias many things worth our contemplation: a Christ-offered opportunity for Peter to amend his three-fold denial, a comparison of Peter’s friendship love with Christ’s infinite agape, and Peter’s apostolic office as shepherd of the Good Shepherd’s flock.

But there is always more. This intimate exchange reveals the depth and simplicity of Peter’s faith.

Lord, you know everything.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” he had confessed at Ceasarea Philippi. Now, at the Sea of Tiberias, Peter has come to see that Jesus really is Yahweh revealed, the Lord, of whom the psalmist said, “You have searched me and you know me…before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely O Lord.”

The mercy in this truth is simply astounding when connected with Peter’s denial the night Christ died. Did he ponder this Psalm as he wrestled with his grievous failure?

Jesus knew Peter was going to do it before the words were on his tongue. But he also knew Peter loved him.

You know everything.

Psalm 139 is a beautiful prayer to memorize. When I awake at 3 or 4 a.m., I often repeat its words. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar.” I learned just last week that my fisherman brother Dan does the same thing in his restless hours. Dan has known many sorrows. Knowing that he, too, turns to this psalm deeply comforts me.

When, in my own restless hours I remember my words of failure, my hasty judgments, my silly self defenses, my vain braggadocio. I remember this. Lord, you know everything.

“Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”

When the storm came up on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples knew they were about to drown, Jesus came walking to them on the water. They all saw him, but Peter was the only one with the courage–no, the love–to actually cry out, “Lord, if it’s you, let me come to you on the water!”

We may remark at how unfortunate it was that Peter looked down and began to sink, but the amazing thing is that he got out of the boat at all. (“Simon! What are you doing???“) The disciples yell in this scene from The Chosen).

We underrate Peter when we reduce him to his pride. Peter’s cry, “Lord, save me!” contains the humility we all need.

The world tempts us to pride at every turn. We’re told to follow the dreams of our own making, to curate a perfect image on social media, to reach for the stars. Christians are particularly susceptible to the illusion that we can accomplish things for Christ on our own strength. 

Don’t we all want to believe that even if everyone else falls away, we will never desert him?

Don’t we see that despite our best efforts to follow the Lord, we are still embroiled in judgment, gossip, superiority and specialized hatred for the sins that don’t tempt us as much as some of the other ones do?

“Without a radical act of faith, those who give themselves over to vanity are likely to be perpetually lost in the emptiness and meaninglessness of their own making,” writes Father Robert Spitzer

They must be able to muster the humility of Peter, who after walking toward Jesus on the water finds himself drowning, then reaches up and cried, ‘Lord save me.’

Lord, You know everything. You know that I love you.

Save me. Save us.

We are so utterly human.

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You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s Gospel Historicity and Resurrection Hope and The Fishermen and the Risen Christ: 153 Reasons Why I Love and Believe the Story.

More on Mary Oliver’s “Gethsemane” on The Daily Poem Podcast.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash. Peter’s Denial by Anton Robert Leinweber, Christ’s Charge to Peter by Raphael, and Peter’s Tears by El Greco courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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