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The case for Peter: it's either really hard or really easy to figure out why Jesus chose Simon the fisherman as leader among his fellow disciples.

WHY PETER? IT'S A QUESTION WE MIGHT ask ourselves in this season of changing church leadership. What makes a person the best candidate for wielding religious authority on a grand scale? Why was Simon Peter, son of Jonah, brother of Andrew, fisherman of Galilee, considered papabile by Jesus himself?

Chances are good we would never make the same choice today, if for no other reason than that Peter was Jewish. But here are 10 reasons often cited as to why Jesus wanted Peter to lead his church.

1. Choices were limited. Check out the rest of the Twelve and see for yourself. Andrew had first followed John the Baptist and then switched allegiance to Jesus. That might show flexibility but also something less than constancy. James and John, the "sons of thunder," were probably called so because they had the boisterous bravado of frat boys. They also showed an unnerving interest in securing seats of power on either side of Jesus.

Matthew was a more promising choice--smart enough to be a tax collector and eventual compiler of Jesus' sayings. But he was also a Roman collaborator and Jewish traitor, which would make his selection controversial. After three years Philip was still witless enough to ask Jesus to show him the Father.

Bartholomew (who may or may not be identified with cynical Nathaniel in John's gospel) is a silent shadow. James, the son of Alphaeus, is another cipher about whom little is known. Thomas had guts, asked questions, demonstrated a practical side. But is pragmatism at the expense of trust what you want in a religious leader?

Jude Thaddeus became a stellar personality in the after-life, eclipsing the fame of most of the Twelve in popular devotion. But he didn't have much to say during the time of Jesus. Simon the Zealot may have been too politically motivated to develop an appreciation for the unseen kingdom. Judas Iscariot, we know, had a hidden agenda that was not hidden from Jesus. With this slate, it's no wonder Jesus picked Peter.

2. Peter is an early leader. One of the very first disciples, Peter is also one of three--including James and John--who seem to share a special status among Jesus' disciples. The three were present for the restoration of Jairus' daughter, at the Transfiguration, and during Jesus' final prayers in Gethsemane.

Even among this select three, Peter shows primacy. He is often the only one who speaks when Jesus asks for feedback from his followers. On Easter morning the other disciple permits Peter to enter the tomb first, showing a natural deference to one who has already become the senior disciple.

3. Peter has passion. You need someone to volunteer to walk on water? Someone quick with a sword or first to pledge undying loyalty to you and the cause? Peter's your man.

4. Peter is loyal. He can't stand to hear anything that smacks of failure or loss, as when Jesus predicts his Passion. "God forbid!" Peter shrieks. The idea that his Lord, teacher, and friend should suffer is out of the question.

5. Peter is reliable. Jesus counts on him, not Judas, to pay the temple tax for the two of them, even though Judas has the responsibility of holding the common purse (Matt. 17:24-27).

6. Peter is open to inspiration. When the Spirit speaks, Peter is capable of listening. When Jesus asks the group, "Who do you say that I am?" most of the disciples stand slack-jawed at the pop quiz. Peter allows grace to imbue him with the answer: "You are the Christ."

7. Peter is conservative of all that's good. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are given the magnificent vision of Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus. Law, prophecy, and gospel stand before them, but Peter is the only one seized with the desire to hold onto all three. "Let me build three booths," he suggests, in honor of the three pillars of religious authority.

8. When Peter sins, he also repents. Peter is far from perfect. His weaknesses are legion, but he knows when he's wrong and grieves mightily at the fateful sound of the cock crowing.

9. Peter embraces the arrival of the Spirit. After Pentecost Peter's courage is renewed. He runs into the street as the first public witness to the Resurrection before a hostile crowd. After receiving another vision, he visits Cornelius, a Roman, and welcomes him into the household of faith. Peter becomes a miraculous healer and bold preacher. The Spirit Jesus promised lives large in him.

10. Peter is both leader and led. For three years he is pleased to leave his nets and follow Jesus. Later he will follow visions and angels and the Spirit's promptings. Peter also willingly gets behind James' leadership during the council of Jerusalem, humble enough to respect the wisdom of others.

Jesus had predicted that one day Peter would be led where he did not wish to go. That moment surely came when Peter followed Jesus to his own crucifixion in Rome. Being a leader means allowing yourself at times to be appropriately led, and Peter did this with remarkable grace.

OF COURSE, THE CASE AGAINST PETER CAN BE MADE QUITE readily by anyone who's in the mood to argue. Consider why Peter is not a good rock upon which to build the church:

1. The choices were not all that limited. Thomas also made a stirring confession of faith--"My Lord and my God!"--that puts him in the upper tier of believers along with Peter and, say, Martha of Bethany ("I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God."). Speaking of Martha, why not her; or Mary Magdalene, the first witness to Easter; or Mary of Nazareth, for that matter?

If a female leader was out of the question in the first century, how about James, the mysterious "brother of the Lord," who was an important leader in the Jerusalem church? Another obvious candidate would also have to be Paul of Tarsus: faith-filled, God-ridden, brilliant, and willing to die as he lived--for Christ.

2. Peter's not such a great leader. Anyone who's ever spent time in committee knows that people who talk a lot aren't necessarily the most helpful in getting things done. The man called to fish for souls can't even fish for fish. Do we want this guy on the evangelization task force?

3. Peter's passionate nature makes him impetuous. He speaks before he thinks, and what's worse, he acts before he thinks. Hence Jesus has to put him in his place regularly: "Get behind me, Satan!" "O ye of little faith!" Who's going to glue the ears back on when Peter comes out swinging?

4. Once Peter does think, he loses his nerve. Watch him sink under the water when doubt grips him.

5. Peter is unreliable. One minute he confesses Jesus is the Christ. The next minute he refuses to accept Jesus' suffering and death.

6. Peter is disloyal. Among the saddest words in the gospel are these: "I do not even know the man." How could Peter have said it--not once, but three times? What's worse, he had boasted that such a thing could never happen. Clearly he lacks basic self-knowledge.

7. Peter suffers from forgiveness fatigue. "How often do I have to forgive my brother?" goes the famous question. "Seven times?" Peter thinks seven is a commendably generous number. Imagine the look on Peter's face when Jesus replies, in all seriousness, "Seventy-seven times." Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors--but within reason!

8. Peter is inconsistently inspired. First he receives the vision that Gentiles are to be admitted to the community of faith. Later he backs away from sharing a common table with Gentiles, for which Paul accuses him of cowardice.

9. Peter lacks understanding. He is first inside the tomb but doesn't comprehend the significance of its emptiness. How many times had Jesus said he would rise on the third day? Not often enough, evidently. When Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" three times after the Resurrection, Peter is annoyed to have to repeat himself. But Jesus knows it takes time for Peter to get the message.

10. Peter disappears from the record. After he leaves Judea in the 12th chapter of Acts, the account of Peter in the New Testament grows cold. Does he continue leading the Jewish Christians outside of Israel or begin a Gentile mission parallel to Paul's? Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome between 64 and 67 A.D. But the letters attributed to Peter were written toward the end of the first century, in the view of most scholars. Peter, once so central, seems to vanish from our sight.

THE CASE FOR EACH CONTEMPORARY PETER GOES EITHER way in the popular debate, too. Some will want to canonize the new pope while he's still breathing, and others will find fault with him before he says or does a thing. Jesus gave Peter plenty of time to make mistakes and learn from them. That's helpful, even if you're infallible.

Alice Camille, author of The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow, and Glory (ACTA) and co-author with Joel Schorn of A Faith Interrupted (Loyola Press).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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