Dr. Andrew Swafford discusses the meaning of Peter’s instances of betraying the Lord, and how God’s forgiveness is truly a form of Love.
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Reflective Study Guide Questions
“[T]he Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the word of the Lord.’”Mt. 22:61
1. In Peter’s denial of Jesus, we see Peter’s weakness and his fear of being seen with Our Lord. Have you ever been afraid to be seen with Jesus? How can you work on allowing Jesus to see you in your weakness?
2. There are two kinds of mourning: the mourning of lost hope and despair that Judas indulged in, and the mourning of Peter that leads to conversion through an encounter with the truth. How can you work on mourning your sins as Peter did? How can you avoid the despair of Judas?
3. Dr. Swafford asserts that most of us love St. Peter because we identify with him so deeply. Peter declared with bombastic confidence that he would be with Jesus to the end, and then Peter fails utterly. How do you identify most with Peter in your life right now?
4. In order to avoid the opposing pitfalls of despair and presumption, it is important that we see ourselves as weak and broken but also infinitely loved. How can you grow spiritually through focusing on both your brokenness and on God’s infinite love for you?
Text: Peter’s Betrayal and God’s Forgiveness
Hi, I’m Dr. Andrew Swafford, it’s great to be with you. Let’s begin in prayer as we approach the mystery of St. Peter’s denial of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is St. Peter, we’re talking about.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, of the Holy Spirit, amen, Lord Jesus, you love us as we are, but too much to leave us that way. We pray through the intercession of St. Peter, that we may come to know you and to know ourselves in this great mystery and drama of redemption more clearly, more perfectly, that we may be emboldened, emboldened to embrace and accept the love that you have for us, the love that you have for us as we are, but too much to leave us this way. We ask all this through Christ, our King and Lord, amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen,
The Mystery of St. Peter’s Denial
All right, so, the mystery of Peter’s denial, St. Peter. You know, I love, I love a, I love so much, I love St. Peter, and I think we all love St. Peter. If you’ve ever been to Rome and have done the Scavi Tour where you can actually see St. Peter’s bones at the end of the tour that are buried underneath, this is always the tradition, that the 4th century church from San, from Constantine was built over the remains, the tomb of Peter, and in the 20th century, during World War II, through a number of partly, you know, some serendipity, partly preparing a tomb for Pius the 11th, we had archeological confirmation of this ancient tradition where you could see St. Peter’s bones buried below the high altar, St. Peter who was crucified upside down, crucified upside down because he didn’t believe himself worthy to die in the same manner as our Lord Jesus Christ.
The last thing Peter probably saw before he went to his death was the obelisk, the Egyptian obelisk that’s in the center of St. Peters square right now, it’s been moved a little bit, the last thing he probably saw as he dies under Nero, crucified upside down is this monument to a sun god as he gives his life for the eternal Son of God, and you may be familiar with the Quo Vadis story of St. Peter, you know, as things are just falling apart in first century Rome, accounts of Christians being lit on fire, being put on poles to use as torches to light the streets at night, you certainly have the coliseum and various arenas where Christians were killed, you have infanticide was rife where they called it exposure of infants, exposure of babies, especially girls, unwanted girls, baby girls, would just be left to be killed by the elements, by the weather, by the animals, et cetera. And sometimes Christians would gather those children and raise them as they’re own, and at a certain point, Peter leaves Rome, and as he’s on the outskirts of the city, he sees the risen Lord Jesus coming toward him. And he says to Jesus, “Quo Vadis”, which means where are you going in Latin. And Jesus says, “I’m going into Rome to be crucified again,” and it’s at that point that Peter knew what it meant. Peter knew it meant he needed to be back with his flock, he needed to be with his people, that he needed to eventually give his life for our Lord Jesus Christ, as he did upside down on a cross bearing witness, mártyras, that’s the Greek word for witness, to the very end.
But St. Peter’s journey wasn’t always like that. He earlier betrayed our Lord, claimed to not even know him. Let me, I was going to read from the gospel of Luke, I love the end of this, what it says. So I’m in Luke 22 beginning in verse 54. “Then they seized him and led him away bringing him into the high priest’s house.” There’s a church that marks this spot called St. Peter Gallicantu in the Holy Land, it’s Caiaphas’ Palace, the high priest. And it’s where our Lord, you can go down into this prison crypt where our Lord spent His last night before he died the next day here at St. Peter Gallicantu. I was there with students not too long ago, and we actually got to have Mass in the courtyard where Peter denied our Lord.
So verse 54, “Peter followed at a distance, and when they had kindled the fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a maid seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ And a little later, someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them,’ but Peter said, ‘Man, I am not.’ And after an interval of about an hour, still another insisted saying, ‘Certainly this man also was with Him for he’s a Galilean.’ But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed,” and this is the line I wanted you to hear, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, ‘Before the crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” I just love the line, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter,” eye contact with Peter, the gaze of Jesus upon Peter in Peter’s moment of weakness. You know, in Matthew’s account, he talks about how Peter swears an oath swearing that he doesn’t even know Jesus.
The Mourning of Peter vs The Mourning of Judas
Friends, are we, are we afraid to be seen with Jesus? Are we afraid to be seen by Jesus, especially in our weakness, you know, Pope Benedict, our Emeritus Pope, had this just amazing reflection on what he called “The Mourning of Peter,” how Peter here weeps, he went out and wept bitterly, the mourning of Peter versus the mourning of Judas. And part of this is a reflection on the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” That’s Matthew 5:4, the verb comforted there is, , which is actually the verbal form of, . You know, we mourn over the bad things that happen, but in the tradition is also seen in this Beatitude, blessedness for mourning over our sin. And that’s what Benedict is getting at, the mourning of Peter versus the mourning of Judas. One leads to despair, one ends in despair, and one ends in someone being transformed to become St. Peter, they both betray Jesus, that’s not the difference, the difference is in how they mourned their sin, the difference is in that response.
So I’d like to read for you, from our Emeritus Pope’s first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he says this, “There are two kinds of mourning. The first is the kind that is lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and of truth, and that therefore eats away and destroys man from within. But there is also the mourning occasion by the shattering encounter with truth which leads man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals because it teaches men to hope and to love again, Judas is an example of the first kind of mourning, struck with horror at his own fall, he no longer dares to hope and hangs himself in despair. Peter is an example of the second kind, struck by the Lord’s gaze, he bursts into healing tears that plow up the soil of his soul, he begins anew and is himself renewed.”
The mourning of Judas, the morning of Peter, one that leads to despair and another that leads to a humbling, that leads to conversion and hope. Judas’ greatest sin was not the betrayal, it was his despair, it was his giving up on God, on God’s forgiveness, and ultimately giving up on himself. Pope Francis once said that, “God never tires of forgiving us, it’s we who get tired of asking for His mercy,” we get tired of asking for His mercy.
See Yourself as God See’s You
See this story, it’s about Peter, but we all love seeing Peter so much, I think partly because it’s all of us, Peter is so much, there’s a little bit of Peter in all of us, this bombastic confidence, “I will be with you to the end, Lord.” You know, shall I get the sword now, and then falling flat on our face, You know, something I like to meditate on is Esau in Genesis, Genesis 25, even though, he doesn’t get a lot of, not a lot of chapters, there’s quite a bit though in the story, but when he sells his birthright for a pot of stew and the text tells us, “Thus he despised his birthright,” like that’s the problem, it’s not just this little episode, but he didn’t value his birthright.
And for many of the church fathers, this is sort of an image of mortal sin, I mean, how often do we forfeit our birthright for a fleeting pleasure of sin, our birthright in Heaven, our Heavenly inheritance? It’s not just sin that keeps us from the Kingdom, it’s unrepentant sin, it’s a refusal to embrace God’s mercy, and sometimes it’s a refusal to be even patient with ourselves, see, so many of the saints will tell you if you want to know what makes a saint, it’s not just willing it, it’s not just this, “I’m going to pull myself up by the bootstraps,” think of St. Therese’s “Little Way.” If you want to become a saint, we have to kind of have this twofold dynamic as St. Catherine of Sienna spoke of, “It is seeing ourselves in the gentle mirror of God.” That is to see ourselves as God sees us, what does that mean, to see ourselves as broken, as weak, as in dire need of the grace of our Savior and to see ourselves as infinitely loved.
See, here’s the thing is if you only think about brokenness, if you only think about your brokenness, will end despair, will end with Judas. But if you only think about mercy, if all you think about is mercy, you may well end in presumption, the presumption that does not believe I need to change, repent, grow, daily conversion in order to be saved, but the two together, the combination of a recognition of my own brokenness, my own absolute need for grace, my own poverty in spirit, this is what blessed are the poor in spirit’s all about, is my recognition, my acknowledgement that I am broken, and I need a savior, it’s the combination of that with, side by side, the prodigal son narrative, all these things that show us this relentless, unconditional love of God, unconditional mercy of God, the two together, I am broken, I am loved, that’s what gives rise to Christian hope.
A Meditation of Your Sadness
Either one by themselves, I’m just broken, nothing else, that gives rise to despair, mercy, mercy, mercy without my brokenness gives rise to presumption, the two together, I’m broken and I’m infinitely loved, that’s what gives rise to Christian hope, and I would just offer you as by way of meditation, that number of spiritual writers have said over the years, ask yourself, “What is the source of my sadness when I fall into sin,” what is the source of Peter’s sadness when he meets our Lord’s gaze, and he weeps and he weeps, is our sadness due to, is it on account of sadness over offending the One whom we love, the one whom we revere as Father? Is it sad over wounding this relationship that is the most important thing in our lives? Or is it sometimes also mixed with pride?
Is it also mixed with pride in that, “Am I sad over witnessing and seeing, and realizing the fracturing of the idealized version I have of myself? How could I have done that, how could I have fallen?” I, hear all the I, I am better than that, and likely there’s a mix of both, but it’s good to kind of be aware of this dynamic. Now, on the one hand, it’s okay to have ideals, in terms of, “I want to become this, I want to become a saint,” something that you’re chasing, that you’re striving toward, the sadness here though is believing that you’re already there. “I’ve already reached this ideal, I already have this idealized version of myself in the present, and I’m sad when I experience the fact that I’ve, I’ve come up short, and I’m not all that I thought I was,” but those moments can be intense moments of renewal. They bring us to our knees, they bring us to our knees, and sometimes, our Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sometimes the grace that He gives us is not an instant conquest of the vice that we’re struggling with. Sometimes the grace He gives us is the grace of keep continuing to try again and again, and to continue going back to our Lord’s mercy.
Let the Lord In
See, what some of the saints will say to us is that, you know, “If the Lord perfected us overnight, we may well fall into a worse sin of pride.” We may well fall into a worse sin of pride. We have to be patient with our Lord, patient with God and His timing, His timing of our transformation, His timing of Peter’s transformation, and there’s a sense in which being patient with ourselves, I don’t mean complacency, we don’t mean complacency, but a real surrender and trust, this combination of I’m going to strive with everything I have, but I’m going to surrender everything to the Lord. I’m going to surrender myself, my life, my gifts, my talents, but also my weaknesses, also my struggles, also my words, and I’m going to say, “Lord, you know what I am. You know that I’m broken, you know that I need you.” See that, allowing the Lord to step into our brokenness, allowing Him to see our bad side to see our worse, the parts of our heart that we don’t want anybody to see.
We have to let the Divine Physician in. That’s what makes a saint, we have to let Him see our bad side, that’s what makes a saint, that’s what allows Him to penetrate our hearts to transform us from within,
St. Peter’s betrayal, his denial of Jesus is our watching in real time, him learn this lesson, this deeply spiritual lesson, which all the great writers point to, that we have to begin with humility, which is not just, “I’m so bad, I’m so bad,” but just it’s a recognition of our brokenness and our invitation for the Savior to come into our hearts, into our lives and transform us from within.
What you see in St. Peter is what, is the path of all of us. And so we have St. Peter fleeing Rome. We have this church called the Church of Quo Vadis that marks this spot on the outskirts of Rome, but we also have St. Peter’s, which marks the vicinity where he died, where he went to death on the cross upside down and where his remains are. St. Peter is St. Peter not just because he tried harder than Judas, St. Peter is St. Peter because he allowed the brokenness of his sin to bring him to his knees, to come back to our Savior, and as our Emeritus Pope said, “To be renewed again by this shattering encounter with the truth.”
Sometimes that truth is our failing, but that truth is never that God no longer loves us. See, even in mortal sin, God doesn’t stop loving us, we stop loving God, let’s allow ourselves to sit in the rays of the eternal Son, just as our complexion changes when we’re in the sun, so too, when we stay in the presence of our Lord in His sacred heart, as we are, as broken and loved, we will take on His complexion, His thoughts, His mind, His heart, and we’ll come to see ourselves as God sees us, that, my friends, is the path to sanctity, that is the path to joy, that is the path to peace and freedom, may the Lord bless and keep you, God bless you. I’ll be praying for you, please pray for me. Thank you all so much for being here today, God bless, bye.
About Dr. Andrew Swafford
Dr. Andrew Swafford is professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is author of What We Believe: The Beauty of the Catholic Faith and co-host of Ascension’s video series (under the same title) filmed in Rome. He is general editor and contributor to Ascension’s Great Adventure Catholic Bible. Among his other publications are Ascension’s Bible studies on Romans and Hebrews, Spiritual Survival in the Modern World, and John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again. Andrew holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is an avid student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, KS.