I think Peter often gets a bum rap when we read the Gospels. We’ve all heard the jokes – he suffered from foot-in-mouth disease, etc. He often seems to be the whipping boy as we lay out his failures for all to see.
But the more I read the Gospels, the more I realize that we should cut him a break.
He was a passionate 1st century Jew with a theological mind. And as he followed Jesus he realized from everything he was hearing and seeing that he was on the ground-floor of something dramatic. So he threw himself completely into it, albeit misdirected by the cultural interpretations of what he was experiencing.
But we have to keep in mind that it’s no small thing to have the Messiah say to you:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
Nor is it a small thing to walk on water, even if it is only a few steps.
Nor is it a small thing to find yourself on a mountaintop, suddenly realizing your standing with a transfigured Jesus AND Moses and Elijah.
It’s that story and the accompanying Scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary that got me thinking about Peter. In The Message, Eugene Peterson describes Peter as “babbling.” (It was that word that set me off.) I think that word is a bit harsh. I think this is a shining moment for Peter. Granted, as the events play out, he falls victim to a distorted cultural understanding of the moment. But it’s also a moment of profundity.
As a 1st century Jewish man, Peter had been raised on Israel’s stories. He and his nation have been defined by these stories, especially the Exodus story. How many times had he heard the legendary stories from generations past about Moses ascending the mountain that glowed with God’s radiant glory and trembled with God’s resonating voice from the clouds?
And now, Peter finds himself in the legends he grew up hearing. I wonder how quickly his mind put it all together – on top of a mountain, Jesus radiating with glory, the actual Moses and Elijah (that alone would have had me wetting my pants) talking with Jesus about his ‘exodus’ (Luke 9:31).
I think Peter was two steps ahead of James and John. He realized they were living the legend! The Story of all stories was playing out in front of their eyes and they had a front-row seat. More than that, they were on the cutting edge of this momentous and climactic time in Israel’s history. They were privileged to experience what generations had only heard about.
No wonder he excitedly blurted out, “Lord, this is awesome! This is a defining moment. We need to set up a memorial or something!” We’ve got to give Peter some credit. Even in that astounding moment, his theological mind was whirling. He quickly suggests setting up tabernacles, alluding to the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast had eschatological overtones. That’s because Peter instantly understood that the Messianic Age was breaking in! The Exile was ending with a brand new Exodus!
Okay, so he didn’t have the entire Story correct in his head. But really, who does? At least he his mind was working. And when he saw God moving through Jesus, he threw himself wholeheartedly in. I don’t think that’s all that bad.