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I Am a Sinful Man Print E-mail
By John B. Kienker   
Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The woman caught in adultery is told to go and sin no more. The woman who anoints Christ’s feet is told her sins are forgiven and she goes in peace. In the Gospels’ most well-known parable, the prodigal son is welcomed home into the arms of his loving father.

For the rest of us, though, salvation hardly seems so neat. Our fallen nature eases the way for sins to set into well-worn habits that have a way of reasserting themselves with unwelcome regularity. So much so that, over time, the whole process can bring us to a temptation to despair. Confessing the same failings again and again, I find it comforting to reflect on the example of Saint Peter (whose name I took at confirmation).

Dear, impulsive Simon Peter. He immediately leaves his fisherman’s nets, his livelihood, even his household, in order to follow Christ’s call. Seeing Jesus walking on the water, he decides to try it, too, but loses his nerve and begins to sink. No sooner are the keys to the kingdom of heaven promised him than he turns around and rebukes the son of God for speaking of his death and resurrection. Even after Peter is set straight, he still draws his sword at Gethsemane to defend his Lord when the crowd comes.

That night at supper, he has insisted that “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away. . .[e]ven if I must die with you.”

But when Christ’s hour comes, once more Peter loses his nerve and scrambles again and again to save his own skin, showing how much easier sin becomes through repetition.

Saint Matthew recounts all of these episodes, and it is interesting that after the cock crows and Peter goes out to weep bitterly, the Evangelist continues his account with Judas’ repentance and suicide, subtly drawing a revealing contrast between the two apostles. Peter is a betrayer no less than Judas. He sins against the First Commandment three times over, denying the one he himself has recognized as the Christ, the son of the living God.

Yet it is Peter who has been told he is to strengthen his brothers. He is the rock upon which the Church is to be built. In his grief, he does not fall into despair. He trusts that Christ will preserve him and that by God’s grace he will persevere. To whom else is there to go? When word comes that Jesus’ body is missing, Peter, knowing his sinfulness, does not hide himself or tell the risen Lord to depart from him, but instead runs to the tomb to find him. Although Judas repents of his betrayal, he does not stop to consider the Lord’s infinite mercy, or allow himself to be called back to the fold. He shuts out God’s healing grace, turning on his own flesh in shame and rage and despair, and extinguishes his life.

Before Christ ascended to heaven, he instituted the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, conferring on Peter and the apostles the power to forgive sins. Catholics are supposed to avail themselves of this sacrament at least once a year, and if only once, then appropriately enough, during the Lenten season as we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice and triumph over sin. The priest, in the place of Christ himself, grants us pardon and peace by pronouncing our Lord’s words of absolution: I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Can any words be more thrilling, more consoling, more hopeful?

In an epistle, Peter enjoins the faithful to Trust perfectly in the grace which is offered you in the revelation of Jesus Christ. We must be confident in God’s love because the hope that Saint Peter had and that is necessary for our salvation is more than wishful thinking. It must be tested and refined into a theological virtue, and seconded by our determination to believe the promise of Christ.

And yet, and yet. Scripture tells us that Simon Peter converted 3,000 when the Spirit descended upon him at Pentecost, and tradition tells us that, as bishop of Rome and the vicar of Christ, this same Peter fled the Eternal City in order to save his skin one more time, until he met the Lord along the Appian Way and gained the courage to turn back toward his ministry and martyrdom.

This Easter season comes at a particularly difficult time in the history of the Church – all the more reason to remember Saint Peter and take comfort. When we find ourselves drowning in the choppy waters of sin, no matter how often we’ve been there before, reach for Christ’s hand, call out to him as Peter did, Lord, save me, and he will be waiting, there, in the confessional. It is not too late.

* * *
O God, who hast given unto Thy blessed Apostle Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and the power to bind and loose: grant that we may be delivered, through the help of this intercession, from the slavery of all our sins: Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.


John B. Kienker is managing editor of
The Claremont Review of Books.

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