Peter Wasn’t Afraid to Die

On Palm Sunday, and again on Good Friday, we will hear and take part in one of the most infamous scenes in Christian history. We will read the Gospel account (from the synoptics on Palm Sunday, this year from the Gospel according to Luke, and from the Gospel according to John, as always, on Good Friday) of the night Jesus Christ was betrayed by his friends, put on trial, and convicted by both religious and secular authorities, tortured, and executed as a traitor and a revolutionary. The faithful participate in the telling of the story—taking the roles of the Roman guards who beat Jesus (“Prophesy, Who is it that struck you!”), the Jewish assembly who accused him to Pilate (“We found this man misleading our people,” “He is inciting the people with his teaching,” etc.), and, for our most damning part in the drama, the larger crowd assembled at the praetorium (“Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us” and “Crucify him! Crucify him!”). These are among the most difficult words we ever have to say in all of Catholic liturgy. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa indeed.

In a sort of side-story to the main act, we are let in on a secret narrative involving Peter. While the formal trial of Jesus is taking place, Peter undergoes an informal one. I’m not sure what the scholars say about this, but it seems to me that this story would have most likely become known only through Peter’s coming clean on his own; a confession Peter probably made to his brother apostles, and then was forced to relive time and again throughout the remainder of his life. Peter, the rock, crumbled in fear at the moment of his testing.

But what was Peter afraid of? Of course, we say, he was afraid of the Romans. He was afraid of their soldiers, their swords, their spears, their crosses. He was afraid that standing up for his friend might cost him his life. He was afraid that the Jews, via the Romans, might take his life, just as they were conspiring to take the life of his teacher.

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But wasn’t this the same man who “had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear” (Jn 18:10) only a few hours earlier when Jesus had been confronted by Judas and “a band of soldiers”? We often think of this group as consisting of just a few men, but some commentators speculate that this “band of soldiers” was a force of 200 under their tribune (see Jn 18:12), or perhaps as many as a full cohort of 600. Peter’s assault on the high priest’s slave would have taken some gumption, to say the least. I don’t imagine many that drew swords against a Roman cohort lived to tell the tale.

So, if he wasn’t afraid to lay down his life, what was he afraid of? Why didn’t he rush to Jesus’s defense in the courtyard, as he had done in the garden? In the second book of his three-volume biography Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI provides this commentary:

His desire to rush in—his heroism—leads to his denial. In order to secure his place by the fire in the forecourt of the high priest’s palace, and in order to keep abreast of every development in Jesus’ destiny as it happens, he claims not to know him. His heroism falls to pieces in a small-minded tactic. He must learn to await his hour. He must learn how to wait, how to persevere.

From Ratzinger’s perspective, Peter’s sin was not a lack of courage, it was the desire for heroism. He didn’t fear a violent death per se, he feared the sort of fate that was appearing, with greater and greater clarity, to befall Jesus; a fate which would include not only violent death, but would be preceded by public mockery and prolonged waiting in the hands of his captors. He didn’t lack the courage to take action himself, he lacked the courage to turn himself over to helpless self-abandonment, and allow God to act in his stead. He wanted to succeed actively, rather than passively. He knew he had the courage for a well-timed and self-selected moment of bravado, but he lacked the trust and endurance that would be required to cast in his lot, come what may, in the moment that was presented to him.

One obvious way to identify with Peter and learn from his failure is to reflect on our own tendency to deny our Christian identity when faced with opposition. Maybe at work. Maybe among friends. Maybe when we least expect to be singled out as one of them, and where we are most tempted to deny it. But another way to identify with this story, that is perhaps even more applicable, is to see it as a Biblical cartography of the concrete challenges that come with living a life that is both spiritual and physical.

We, like Peter, are confronted every day with the task of making provisions and prudent decisions for this life and the next—not simply one or the other. This has been a struggle of reflective people since the beginning. The modern era has presented mankind with a new challenge in this regard, thanks to a philosophical landscape which is unique to human history. James K.A. Smith explores our modern condition in his book How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Commenting on Taylor’s “A Secular Age” and its lexicon, Smith contends that we now live within an “immanent frame,” which he describes as “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence” (p. 141). According to Smith, “The immanent sphere swells in importance just to the extent that the eternal and the transcendent are eclipsed. So there’s no lament here; if anything, there is a new confidence, excitement, and celebration. Look what we can do!” (p. 55).

I suspect that in this “secular age,” more people than ever struggle with the tendency of Peter: if we want something done, we trust in ourselves to do natural things, rather than allowing God to do something supernatural which will far exceed our capabilities. We, like Peter, are keen on the idea of a Messiah, but not with the Suffering Servant. Peter’s initial problem was never that he failed to rise up to a moment of challenge—it seems that it was more that he struggled with letting the moment come to him; pursuing it headlong, without fully understanding what was being asked of him. Even when he was given a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, he desired to enshrine it, to make a tent for it—literally “to tabernacle it”—not yet understanding that the Lord’s glory had yet to be fully revealed. He was caught up in the “immanent frame,” to use the language of Taylor and Smith. That is, until the Resurrection.

Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel paints a different picture of Peter, one that has been refashioned in light of the Resurrection. Peter is given the chance to thrice affirm what had previously been thrice denied, and to be reconciled to the Lord despite his failures and shortcomings. It is with this backdrop that Jesus gives him a final teaching on obedience, which would change his perspective definitively. When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (Jn 21:18). With this, Peter’s perspective was widened. It was no longer about his conceptions, his plans, his actions, or his ability to succeed in a worldly manner. He was taught that his role for the Church, and indeed for his own salvation, was to be a supernatural one.

The apocryphal “Legend of Quo Vadis” touches on the same question. Natural reason dictated that Peter flee Rome, not for fear of losing his life, but for fear that the Church would be lost without him. It was only an encounter with the Risen Lord, in this non-canonical story as it was in the Gospel, which reminded him that faithfulness, not necessarily temporal achievement, was necessary. He was to follow in the footsteps of Christ himself, to participate in the paradoxical victory of the Cross, which makes sense only to those who believe. Do we have the courage to do the same?

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “St. Peter Penitent” painted by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656).


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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