Early Christianity: Simon Peter
For most cultural Christians in the United States, when we think of St. Peter we picture a tall silver bearded man in long white flowing robes with a big book of names and a giant key ring with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Picture Schneider from One Day at a Time if Schneider were a very old Jewish man who could decide your eternal fate.
Those of us with a little more Sunday school also remember the story of how Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed.
Let us also not forget the story of how Jesus walked on water, and Peter walked out on the sea to meet him, until he broke faith in his fear at a wind swell and began to sink. Jesus reached out a hand and saved him from drowning.
There’s the story of the Roman soldiers who came to pick up Jesus at Gethsemane. One lost his ear to the sword of Simon Peter. Those are some of the stories I remember from my childhood most vividly, acted out on boards covered in felt with paper dolls that clung to the board. Well, I don’t think we actually simulated an ear amputation, but you get my drift.
In Vacation Bible School, we used to sing a song, “I Will Make You Fishers of Men if You Follow Me.” It taught us the story of how Jesus won his disciples, including Peter, by providing an abundant catch in a fishing net and then telling the men to take up their nets and follow him. He would make them fishers of men.
We played a game with “fishing poles” equipped with magnets taped to the line and little paper fish that we colored and cut out ourselves and then stuck paper clips on, and went fishing. I really didn’t know what fishing for men could possibly mean. Put a paper clip on my Ken doll?
The real Simon Peter (as opposed to the popular conception or the paper doll) was a fisherman by trade. He was from a village called Bethsaida in Galilee. He was not well educated. His original name was Simeon. His many aliases include Peter, St. Peter, the Apostle Peter, Simon Peter, Cephas, and Kepha. Jesus referred to him as the rock upon which he would build his church, and Cephas and Kepha mean rock.
Peter’s father’s name was either John or Jonah. His brother Andrew was also a disciple of Jesus. We know that he was either married or widowed since the Gospels contain an account of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.
In the early church, Peter was charged with being the Apostle to the Jews, in the same way that Paul was apostle to the Gentiles. Peter is the first person to enter Jesus’ empty tomb and one of only three disciples to witness the transfiguration. After Jesus’ resurrection, he gives Peter the opportunity to affirm his love for him three times, thus erasing the shame and guilt of his earlier denial.
Though he himself was the Apostle to the Jews, he was instrumental in making the decision to preach to the Gentiles and made some of the earlier missions to do so. He also ate with Gentiles at a Gentile table.
Peter served as the bishop to Antioch for seven years. He is popularly attributed to be the author of First and Second Peter. The Catholic church tradition holds that he is the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Peter met his death by crucifixion. He was crucified upside down after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. After the Great Fire, the Roman emperor Nero needed a scapegoat, and so he blamed the Christians. Thus began a long tradition of persecuting Christians, a la feed the Christians to the lions.
Today, Peter’s story continues to inspire Christians of many denominations. Tradition holds that the Basilica of St. Peter was built upon his tomb. Families in modern day Syria and Lebanon claim blood relationship to the Apostle Peter. And I bet somewhere in America, on a Sunday morning, little children are hearing stories about Peter and singing songs about Peter and playing games with paper dolls and fish.