The Way of Beauty The Making of a Disciple II

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On May 13th, 1940, Winston Churchill, the newly-elected Prime Minister of Britain, delivered a memorable speech to the Ministers of the Admiralty and the House of Commons. At war with Nazi Germany, Britain had one aim: victory. Chilling words followed, however, as he orated: "I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." They bellowed across the cities and throughout the countryside uniting the Brits in shared sacrifice for a common purpose.

Centuries before, Peter learned that discipleship in Christ would be realized through blood, toil, tears, and sweat. 

Peter is the disciple most frequently mentioned in the Gospel narratives, but he doesn't come off very well in them.  In fact, the Evangelists paint a rather unflattering picture of him.  Peter is supposed to exemplify discipleship to the others.  But instead, one gets the impression that he is quite a flawed person, found wanting in moral depth, prudence, and humility.  We witness his character profile from the Lord's call to his failures, and from his leadership to martyrdom. 

Stilling of the Storm

One evening after a busy day, Jesus is sitting alone in a boat and far out on the lake. A squall blows up, and the disciples are terrified because, from afar, they see Jesus get out of the boat and walk on the water.  They think it's a ghost. "Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid," Jesus calms them. 

To make certain it is Jesus, Peter asks, "Tell me to come to you across the water." "Come," Jesus responds. As Peter begins to walk on the water, he feels the force of the storm. Terrified, he begins to sink. For a moment, he took his eyes off Jesus. Calm is restored when Jesus puts out his hand to hold him up.  "Why did you doubt, you of little faith?" This experience is nothing in contrast with the faith Peter will need soon enough. 

An Intolerable Saying

One day, after Jesus feeds the thousands and the leftovers have been saved, Jesus continues his teaching on food, but food that will last.  He follows up with the mandate for all to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Translators of this passage have used words describing the crowd's reaction as disgusting, intolerable, hard, or cannibalistic.  The crowd begins to leave him. 

Jesus turns to the disciples with a question that has echoed down the centuries:  "Will you too go away?"  "Master, to whom shall we go," Peter blurts out. "You have the words of eternal life.  There is no one else to whom we can turn."  Peter's response has sustained many a believer through hard times.

Peter's Betrayal Foretold and Peter's Boast

Excessive boasting ranks among the least attractive qualities in a person. Peter boasts to Jesus: "Even though I must die with you, I will never deny you."  The disciples repeat this protestation of undying loyalty.  Jesus turns to Peter: "Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times."  Again, Peter boasts:  "Even though all become deserters, I will never desert you." 

"No boasting like a fool," writes Shakespeare.  Peter's betrayal is only a few hours away.

Discipleship Is Service to Others

The washing of the feet is a central part of the Lord's Supper. It was the typical task of a slave when guests entered a home from the outside dusty roads.  The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus' love and the context for a lesson the Apostles will not forget. Jesus girds himself with a towel and begins to wash the feet of the disciples.    

All except Peter receive the Lord's gesture with docility.  Peter recoils however.  Perhaps he understands the symbol all too well, or perhaps he is embarrassed to have the Master wash his filthy feet.  But Jesus admonishes him: "If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me; you cannot be my disciple" (Jn 13:8).  

Peter is free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. If Peter wants to be a disciple, then he must renounce status and all that is associated with status-glory, pomp, power, and prestige.  The Lord will choose a servile but loving act to give the example.  Peter realizes that what Jesus has done to him and for him, he must likewise repeat by sharing in the Lord's redemptive work for others. Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be the loving service that marks Christian discipleship. The action is so explicit that it defies misunderstanding. Peter changes his mind and allows Jesus to wash his feet. 

Eventually, the Office of Peter will come to represent structure, permanence, stability, law and order.  Later, with St. Paul, the paradigm shifts to leadership that is creative, dynamic, and idiosyncratic. Those appointed to an Office in the Church are to lead responsibly, serve with kindness, and avoid trappings of privilege.  

More in The Way of Beauty

Peter had to learn this lesson, and so must we.

(To be continued)

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