I saw Pope Francis yesterday, the papal successor, Roman Catholics believe, to the original pope, Simon Peter. It’s easy for Protestants to feel cynical about that. We reject much of what Catholics teach: we don’t pray to Mary, we don’t believe she was conceived immaculately, we don’t believe we consume Jesus’ literal body and blood, we don’t believe Peter was the first pope.
But we should be careful not to dwell on other travelers when we’ve got a long way to go ourselves, collectively and personally. As Romans 2:1 appropriately reminds us: “You who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself.” In every setting let’s seek instead the path of redemption.
I’m in Rome at the start of a New Testament study tour that will also take me to Turkey and Greece. I’ll then meet my own group in Israel—can’t wait! In a sense, I’m traveling backward through Peter’s life; my itinerary is upside down, just as Peter was, according to tradition, crucified upside down.
Yesterday I was one of 250 people who each day get to go under St. Peter’s Basilica to an area called the Scavi (excavations), which was rediscovered in the 1940s. One side of the necropolis is filled with pagan graves dating as far back as the second century; the other side has Christian graves dating to the first century. One particular box is filled with 22 bones from every part of the body except the feet. The name of Peter is scribbled all over it. The theory is that these are the bones of Peter, perhaps as he was cut right off the cross. (The site is a stone’s throw from where Peter was previously thought to be buried. Perhaps he rolled over in his grave as the basilica in his name was being built above him.)
Whether or not these are Peter’s actual bones, whether or not anyone even kept his bones, a strong Christian tradition holds that Peter was crucified in Rome upside down at his request. He didn’t see himself worthy to die as Christ did.
Yet Peter died in Rome—for Christ. This is the point. Peter died for his faith in Christ. This time he did not deny Christ.
Isn’t that beautiful? How completely privileged Peter must have felt to be asked the question once again: “Are you one of His disciples?”
Imagine him throwing his head back: Am I one of His disciples? Am I one of His disciples? Why . . . YES, I AM! I am Simon Peter, a disciple of Christ!
Rome is where Peter’s life ended but not where it started. Over the next few days we will also visit:
Joppa: where a maturing Peter was dramatically called by Jesus to preach to the Gentiles.
Jerusalem: where a sifted Peter, ashamed of Jesus, denied he knew Him.
Galilee: where a fisherman met Jesus for the first time.
When they met (John 1:42), Jesus looked straight at Peter. The Greek term is emblepo. It means to gaze at, to look into the soul. The same word would be used once more in the Gospels (Luke 22:61) to describe the way Jesus gazed at Peter after his denials.
Jesus knew the end from the beginning in Peter’s life. He knows yours as well. If you’re currently living a period of denial of Christ, this doesn’t have to be the end of your story. Receive the grace of Christ that Peter humbly received. Get back on your own road to Rome where you will stand resolute.
You may not be called pope someday, but you’ll know a better title, the only one Peter ever wanted: disciple of Christ, son of the living God.
“As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:4, 5).