“There’s always a chance for redemption when it comes to the NFL.”
So says Steven Gerwell in The Bleacher Report. That’s his opening line in a piece that names Peyton Manning the Comeback Player of the Year in the NFL for 2012.
Redemption: now there’s an interesting idea.
I’ve been thinking, during Lent this year, about Peter the Apostle. If there is to be a comeback player of the year for the year Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified—apart from Jesus, of course—I’d pick Peter.
People who want to build up Peter’s resume go to, “I say that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” See Matthew 16 for the context. That text never meant much to me for some reason. Recently, however, I found one that means a lot to me. I’ll tell you what it is, but first I want to tell you why I missed it all my life.
Luke gives us a scene (Chapter 22) in which Jesus says to Peter, “And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, [a translator’s addition] strengthen your brethren” That’s the King James Version, which was simply “the Bible” when I was young.
But the “you” it turns out, is a plural. The devil has not desired Peter particularly; he has desired to brutalize all the disciples of Jesus. “Brutalize” might seem a little over the top as a verb to substitute for “sift,” particularly if you bake pastries from time to time and know not to measure the flour until you have sifted it several times. That’s not the kind of sifting we are talking about. If you want to remove the part of the wheat you want to eat from everything else, you begin by using a flail and you beat the living crap out of it. Like these guys are doing. If you were doing it to a person, you would call it “scourging.” Then you take it outside on a windy day and throw it into the air repeatedly until the wind has blown the chaff away.
Those experiences are what the devil has in mind for Jesus’s disciples, but it is not going to happen. Why? Because Jesus has prayed for Peter. The shift from the plural to the singular accomplishes all this and because they are the same in English, I never noticed. The devil has horrible plans for the disciples, but these plans are going to be defeated because Jesus has prayed for Peter. For some reason—possibly because it is about people and not about buildings—this way of putting the preeminence of Peter has a lot of resonance for me.
This is not all good news for Peter, however. Peter’s job is to “strengthen your brothers” but that is not his first job; it is his second job. His first job is to return. You get your choice of phrasings here; I think I would choose “turn back.” The New Jerusalem Bible has “recover.” Jesus is saying, without saying it in so many words, that Peter is going to be led astray. I like to use the verb seduce to picture this kind of dilemma, built as it is from the Latin verb ducere, “to lead,” and the prefix se-, “aside, away.” Sometimes we say “astray.” The great advantage of “away” is that it requires that we understand that there is a way to go; a way you should go. Being led “astray” means that you did not go the way you should have gone.
The devil will seduce Peter. Peter will be seduced. On the same night Jesus tells him this, Peter will deny three times that he knows Jesus or has ever had anything to do with him. Peter’s first job is to recover from that in whatever way he can. I have been raised, as you have, in an era where the psychological explanations are the “real” explanations. We are inclined to imagine Peter “owning” the awful betrayal or embracing his dark side or getting trauma therapy. Making a mistake of this order, denying the Lord, to whom he pledged unwavering loyalty, is a truly horrible act. He needs to admit it and move on.
He needs to move on because Job 2 is staring him in the face. He is called upon to “strengthen his brothers,” who were sifted, just as Peter was—were flailed and tossed just as Peter was—and who would be crushed if they were not strengthened.
The prayer of Jesus for Peter has certain poignancy. He does not pray that Peter will not deny him. He knows Peter is going to deny him. He prays that Peter will not be crushed by his guilt and remorse and that he will be strong enough to move on to the task for which he was spared; to strengthen his brothers.
Amazing. And as we consider who is to become the next bishop of Rome, we might wish for him that he understand how important it will be for him to leave behind those times when he has denied his Lord and turn to the crucial task of strengthening his brothers and sisters.
 I got to poking around in the field of papal candidates a few days ago and discovered a Ghanaian cardinal whose nickname is Peter the Roman. That led me to his predecessor, Peter the Galilean and, in time, to a reflection about Peter’s amazing comeback.
 I wasn’t the last one to realize this, I see. Here’s an internet commentary: “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat”(Luke 22:31) “Only occasionally do we have glimpses into the interaction between God and the devil. Though certainly much has gone on behind the scenes it the struggle between right and wrong, God has seen fit to reveal only a small portion to us. Yet what we do know leaves us interested and often confused. Here Jesus tells Peter that the devil has requested him specifically, with an undoubtedly evil purpose at heart. While much remains hidden, what can we learn from these verses? Why did Satan ask for Peter?”
 As is often the case, I like the New Jerusalem Bible a good deal better. Here it is: “Simon, Simon. Look, Satan has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you, in your turn, must strengthen your brothers.”
 I learned a few weeks ago that the liberal political group “MoveOn.org,” is named that because of their first political stand. They were unhappy that the news was saturated day after day with stories about President Clinton’s private infidelities—he was “seduced,” as I say. Their proposal was that the House of Representatives should “censor and move on.”