Simon Peter is a major figure among the personalities of the New Testament. He was one of the first to be introduced to Jesus, and later one of the original twelve chosen and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. He is the first named in each of the three lists of apostles given in the Gospels.
Moreover, on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached the first sermon properly called a Christian sermon — centering on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And he’s the primary figure in the first 12 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It was Peter who carried the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Beyond all this, his two letters written to Christians suffering from persecution are included in the New Testament.
Yet, his performance was on occasion less than stellar. With Our Lord’s crucifixion hours away, at one point Simon Peter declared his never-dying loyalty to his Master and only a short time later, now in a hostile environment, he denied that he knew him. From this lapse, however, he recovered in a burst of penitential tears.
But in that same general period of time there’s another moment in his life when, in spite of his dismal failure, Peter’s responses show the depth of his heart’s commitment to Jesus.
It’s Thursday. The Lord and the twelve have arrived at a borrowed room to celebrate the Passover Feast together. For the customary washing of the feet before the meal, a bowl and towel are there, but no servant appears. Jesus assigns himself the task. However, he comes on his knees to Simon Peter and the big fisherman says in surprise, “YOU wash MY feet? To him that would be unthinkable. Jesus was his leader and leaders don’t do such menial tasks.
Jesus responded: “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” The pronouncement must have rung in Peter’s ears, and his reply shows the depth of his heart’s commitment to his Master: “Not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.”
It was as though he cried out, “Being severed from you would be like death. The most important thing in my life is to belong to you.”
That response was not entirely new. Earlier when Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave him as some of his other followers were doing, Peter blurted out with the same depth of feeling, “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His love and connections were real!
Jesus’ words to Peter have two levels of meaning. At the material level they have to do with the washing of the feet as a social propriety. At the spiritual level they have to do with what really connects one with Jesus – called “the washing of regeneration.” It stands for an inner cleansing, the washing away of our sins, the cleansing of the soul by the blood of Christ.
To return to the account of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus adds a word about the ongoing life of true discipleship, saying, “if you’ve had a bath, you need only to wash your feet.” It’s as though he reminds them that that very day they bathed for the day and that need not be repeated. But after walking the dusty, soiled streets their feet may need attention.
Elsewhere the same John writes, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He writes this to believers.
We can never forget Brother Peter. Tradition says that he spent his closing days in the city of Rome where he was crucified under the emperor, Nero. When it came time to die, some believe, he asked that he be placed on his cross upside down because he was unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord.