I have always felt a strong bond with the biblical character of Peter, one of Jesus followers in the New Testament. The first time we meet Peter is in Matthew chapter 4. Peter is a fisherman, the family business. Like all Hebrew boys, he had done his time in religious school as a small child. During that time, he learned large sections of the Torah (the Old Testament).
Maybe he stopped after he memorized the first five books, like most Jewish children. Maybe he promoted and memorized all of the rest. We don’t know. But we do know that by the time he met Jesus he had stopped that schooling, meaning that he wasn’t judged good enough to continue. He would never be found worth carrying the yoke, or teachings, of a rabbi, and no rabbi would assume that Peter would ever be good enough to follow him and learn to do the things the rabbi did. He just wasn’t good enough.
We don’t know what Peter’s thoughts about all of this were. Certainly somewhere in the back of his mind he had imagined that he could someday be a famous rabbi, commanding the attention of everyone and gathering followers who had traveled for days in order to hear him speak. The rabbis of that day were like baseball or movie stars today. I imagine young Hebrew boys in their backyards, instead of batting at some makeshift ball, playing Sanhedrin with the neighbor kids and making supreme religious judgments as their parents looked on, smiling at their words and at their own beautiful dreams for their children.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, becoming an apprentice fisherman under his dad had to have been a disappointment. I bet that his parents had put a smiling face on it. They had all really known that this is how things would end up, but still they had hoped. Going into the family business isn’t usually the dream of small boys, especially when it is something as inglorious as fishing. Peter settled into the life that everyone assumed he would always live.
But then, some random Thursday, a rabbi who was achieving sudden stardom amid reports of miracles approaches. Peter hadn’t seen him on TV, but the rumor mill preceded Jesus travel. This rabbi looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.” Peter’s response isn’t surprising in this light. Someone great was looking at Peter and saying, ‘you are worthy. I believe in you.’ Maybe Peter could achieve what everyone always knew he couldn’t.
Peter dealt repeatedly in the New Testament with failure. He was always getting into some kind of trouble. I am often amused by the fact that in every story of the New Testament where Peter, a fisherman, and a boat are mentioned, he is failing at his nautical task. Whether he is simply using a boat as transportation or he is fishing, he is failing at the job. Even in the later New Testament, Peter is getting into trouble with Paul for taking some controversial stands.
Peter also has some great triumphs, and ultimately Peter stands as one on the list of the most influential men in history. Let that sink in for a minute. Peter gives the very first evangelistic sermon. Peter is one of the most celebrated martyrs. Peter wrote several books in the New Testament, and Catholics hold Peter up as the first Pope.
But all indications are that Peter constantly battled with feelings of failure. When Jesus walks on the water, and Peter jumps out to the boat to meet Jesus, he sinks. I had always assumed that Peter doubted Jesus-that he looked away from Jesus and doubted His power over the waves. But this just doesn’t make sense. He saw that Jesus was doing it. Jesus wasn’t sinking. Peter was. He cries out, “Jesus save me!”
Jesus rescues him and replies, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Peter doubted himself. He doubted that he could ever actually do what Jesus did. He had been rejected by the rabbis, deemed unworthy. Maybe Jesus just hadn’t figured out that Pete was a loser, yet.
Of course the greatest failure from our perspective is Peter’s promise to follow Jesus to the death, followed hours later by multiple denials of even knowing Him. When things got hard, Peter retreated into the failure that he always knew he really was inside. He went back to fishing, after falling short in his one big chance for greatness.
For me, the most powerful moment of Jesus resurrected appearances comes when Jesus is standing on the shore and the disciples are out fishing together, and again not succeeding at the task. The men were facing their failure together, and Peter was most likely keeping a secret of his treason, which to him must have seemed ultimately greater than all the others’.
Standing on the shore and calling out to them, was Jesus. Peter wasted no time and dove in to swim to Jesus on the shore. He left his nets again. Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and then indicates that someday Peter will face persecution for his relationship with Jesus. This moment changed him.
I identify with Peter for his boldness, for his desire to jump in without a net, to walk on water, and to repeatedly fail at almost everything he did. I deal with failure and repeated feelings of never measuring up. In my mind festers a million promises I’ve made and not kept, a thousand times I set out to do something only to quit when it got too hard, or once I got distracted by something new.
I remember my childhood, and Monday, dreaming dreams of what my life could become, only to sink into the harsh reality of just not being good enough. Never the smartest, nor the fastest, nor the prettiest, just normal enough in all of the normal ways, and abnormal enough to be not quite normal. This isn’t a pity-party. It just is. These feelings aren’t paralyzing. They just are what I am, and probably what most people out there are too.
But my God is not a good of the pretty people, the fastest, or the smartest. My God is a God of fishermen and nobodies and not quite good-enoughs. I serve a savior who said, ‘You aren’t good enough, and you never will be, and that is why I am here.’
I follow Jesus in the footsteps of Peter, not the first Pope (whatever that means), but the guy who failed and went back to failing as a fisherman—the Peter who desperately wanted to follow his rabbi out onto the water and sank. I try and I fail. I lie and I lose, and every day I find Jesus on the beach of my failure saying, “Do you love me?” I fall into His arms and I cry. He looks me in the eye, and in His gaze I hear, “You are not a failure—because in your weakness I am strong. I love you and I put destiny inside of you. Feed my sheep.”
And that is always enough.