Peter Follows, And Leads: The Apostles of Acts

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. (Acts 1:12–14)

Here, at the beginning of Acts of the Apostles, and immediately following the Ascension, the apostles are gathered and named. They have come together to devote “themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14) and, guided by Peter, to choose a successor to bring their number back to 12.

Peter stands before them (Acts 1:15) and assumes the leadership role given to him by Jesus in Matthew 16:18. His act of standing is significant: the Lord stood when teaching, which was uncommon in a time when teachers traditionally sat, with students at their feet. Peter already is imitating the Lord: a simple gesture that will echo throughout Acts as he reproduces the healing and teaching ministry of Christ, and concluding with his inverse crucifixion in Nero’s circus some 25 years later.

At this moment, we witness the apostles of Jesus become the Church, with Peter taking on the papal role of Servant of the Servants of God, first among equals.

The Master has ascended, leaving the Paraclete to inspire these simple men to greatness. It is a greatness that, up until this point, has eluded them. At various times, some or all of them have been hot-headed, cowardly, clueless, vainglorious, exclusionary, violent, lying, and proud men.

But then something remarkable happens. They breathe in the Spirit on Pentecost and become new men. They take on their roles with skill that belies what we’ve seen of them in the gospels. Of none is this so clear as with Peter.

We follow Peter’s faith journey throughout the scripture, and in some particulars it follows those of all disciples, right down to us. It begins with the call of an ordinary man at work. He is a man who doubts but trusts in the Lord, as when Jesus tells him to put out into deep water even after he has failed to catch any fish all night. What does a carpenter know of fishing? he must have thought. What does a Man who lived 2,000 years ago have to teach to us? many still wonder

Peter’s doubt is internal, but when he sees the powers manifested, he is deeply ashamed. His first reaction upon seeing his doubts shattered by a vast haul of fish? “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)

This is every disciple from the first called down to each of us. We pull away from the call, but are drawn back nonetheless, as though these ancient fishermen have caught us an invisible line stretching down through the ages. When we trust enough to return and are dazzled by the miracle of God’s mercy and love, we may withdraw at first as one unworthy. Humbled, we endeavor to sit at the master’s feet and learn.

But all of this learning does us no good until that Pentecost moment in each of our lives. In Acts of the Apostles, Peter receives the Spirit, and is changed forever, fulfilling the promise of Christ to be that petros—that rock—on which the Church shall stand for all time.

Moments later, this man who once denied the very Lord who directed him to a miraculous catch of fish “lifted up his voice and addressed them.” (Acts 2:14) He spoke as he never had before, with words that were not his own. He quoted Joel and David. He preached Christ, and made an argument so forceful and persuasive that all who heard him were “cut to the heart.” (Acts 2:37) Reading the words of Peter at this speech and throughout Acts, it is hard to remember him as the same man who babbled about pitching tents at the Transfiguration.

Moses, too, was a man who had no skill at speaking, and as the God said to Moses, so it is with Peter. “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Ex 4:11-12)

Those of us in catechetical ministry must always keep these words before us, and remember the Peter of Acts.  In order to stand in the Master’s place, Peter had to sit at the Master’s feet. In order to be a teacher of the Lord, he had to be a student first. In order to speak, he had to know when to be silent. In order to lead, he first had to follow.

And when step up to teach or preach, in speech or writing or even a conversation with a friend who doubts, one prayer must be on our lips: “Your words, not mine.”

Tomorrow: Peter Teaches

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.