Peter always has been my favorite disciple. He was the first character in the Bible who, for me, walked and lived and breathed. In his impulsiveness, his temper, his earnest desire to follow Jesus, so frequently derailed by his undeniable humanness, there seemed to be a person I knew, a voice that sounded a familiar. Maybe because it sounded something like mine. These two weeks, teaching middle school youth about servant leadership, I took advantage of the opportunity to speak from the voice of this disciple who sounded like me. Peter, as soon as he is called “the Rock” by Jesus, embarks on a fumbling, hard-fought journey to try to figure out what that could possibly mean. Trying to figure out what it could possibly mean to lead.
Through most of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we see Peter as over-eager, trying to build tents at the transfiguration, or painfully misguided, like when he scolds Jesus for telling the disciples that he would have to suffer and die. But instead of shaking my head at Peter, I find myself walking around in his skin.
I can hear myself, trying to follow this guy who says he’s going to change everything, and getting frustrated because he keeps sneaking out into the woods to pray when people are here to see him, and who isn’t taking any of the right meetings with the right people.
Seriously Jesus, I can hear myself saying, this is not how you lead a movement! People are counting on you to make decisions, and you just tell these vague stories! You can heal the sick but you’re just healing random people on the street, why not go to a hospital? Or teach other people how to heal? This hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes is not an effective use of your time! And now you’re going to get yourself arrested by the Romans? I’m sorry, man, you need a reality check. This is not how you change the world. Somebody has to step up and lead.
I can hear myself on Peter’s darkest night, the night of Jesus’ arrest, just as clearly. I can imagine him hanging out at the fire, trying to pick up news of what’s going on. I can imagine him rationalizing denying Jesus, You told me to be the Rock, Jesus, who’s going to lead if we’re all in jail? All of these people followed you here, somebody has to lead them, and I’m just trying to do what’s right for them.
I imagine Peter, struck by the gravity of what has happened at the cross. Struck by the gravity of what he’s done. I imagine him, heavy with grief, and playing back through everything that Jesus did on earth, and trying to figure out what kind of leader he really followed. Jesus is dead, what am I supposed to do? He asked me to lead, and I’ve failed. Was — was this what he was trying to teach? That he was truly leading all along? In foot-washing, in serving, even . . . in dying? Is that what it really means to lead? How could I have missed it? How could I have been so wrong? Jesus, I’m so sorry. I will follow your example, I will serve. I will wash feet and be arrested and beaten and even die. And through that — I will lead.
In Peter’s story, of slowly discovering what kind of leader that Jesus was, and realizing that only in service was there true leadership, I hear a story that our students need, and maybe that we all need to be reminded of once in a while. Thankfully, the ending of the story is brighter than the middle. Peter is still called to be the Rock despite his denial, he goes on to lead and shape the early church. He grows into being the servant that Jesus always modeled for him, and as I finish the series this week, I hope to be able to paint an image for our students of how they may learn from Peter to serve the least of these, and in doing so, to truly lead.