by Rev. Laura Barclay
Peter in the middle, top panel, holds a key in his left hand. This is indicative of the passage from Matthew 16:18-19 where Jesus says,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock. I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.On this passage is the basis for the Catholic tradition that Peter was the first pope--the first head--of the one global church on which Jesus laid the foundation through his ministry. Whether or not you interpret the passage this way, it is inarguable that Peter had a profound impact on the shape and spread of Christianity after the death of Jesus.
Yet, notice what Peter has in the other hand. He is holding a rooster, which is the symbol of his betrayal that Jesus predicts in Matthew 26:34: "Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." This becomes true later when Peter pretends that he does not know Jesus after his arrest. So how is it that the man with the keys to the kingdom also betrays Jesus?
The apostles are portrayed almost as comic relief in the gospels. They don't understand Jesus' message or miss the point, allowing Jesus to clarify. In the famous "Feeding of the 5,000" story in Matthew 14, the apostles want to send the crowds away rather than feed them. Jesus says to them in what I can almost imagine as an exhausted eye-roll of a tone in verse 6, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat."
While the apostles keep screwing up during Jesus' life, they are forced to organize after his death. They realize what Jesus' teachings meant to them and that it's up to them to spread the message. Jesus is entrusting it to them, for all their bumbling imperfections. In Matthew 28, they are asked to go throughout the nations and spread the teachings.
If we believe that Jesus was both fully human and divine, then we must understand that he knows the horror of human fear. In the garden before his arrest he was sweating blood (Luke 22). This is a very real condition called hematidrosis, which is brought on by extreme fear and anxiety. Imagine Jesus in the garden in the dead of night alone, sweating blood, crying, in the midst of a panic attack, pleading with God to "take this cup from me." Most of us would have a similar reaction to the possibility of being crucified.
I think Jesus would absolutely understand Peter's betrayal in the face of death. This is why Peter's commitment to Jesus' message after the crucifixion is even more profound. The theologian Origen would later go on to confirm Peter's upside down crucifixion in Rome, showing both Rome's continued cruelty to perceived insurrectionists and his willingness to die for his beliefs.
Each of us is a bundle of courage and fear, loyalty and betrayal. We must come to terms with this and love ourselves, as God does, not in spite of our frailty, but because of them. Humans are beautiful, messy creatures that are far from perfect, but we are made in God's image. And if we believe that God understands humanity even more intimately through Christ's experience, then we have to trust that God is there when we are paralyzed with fear or, God help us, when we betray one another. If anything, we must learn to forgive ourselves as God forgives us so that we can begin to see ourselves as children of God. The next time you fall short of your expectations, don't dwell on it. Know that God is there, cringing with you in sympathy, and ready to remind you that you are loved. You just have to accept that unconditional love, which may be the hardest lesson for humans to learn.