Wow, you have to read about St. Peter’s wild and whacky dream. No, he wasn’t on anything, but he was on to something. . .
Peter testified: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
It’s true that I mostly focus on the Gospel in these weekly reflections, but there’s a strong connection between the reading from The Acts of the Apostles and the reading from John’s Gospel. In the reading from Acts, Peter is accused of daring to share a meal with Gentiles, with those outside Peter’s religious and ethnic heritage. He is accused of showing a disrespectful nonchalance regarding the sacred ancestral laws of his people. This is no small charge, and so Peter brings SIX others with him. In Ancient law, seven witnesses were required to authenticate the facts in any case.
Someone once said, “Insights can vary and opinions may abound, but there is only one set of facts.” In essence, Peter was saying to his critics, my friends, I’m not debating with you here. The facts are indisputable. God created every human being in the divine image, and the love of God is not meant just for we who are fortunate enough to be on the inside, but it’s meant for every tribe and language and people and nation everywhere.
Most scholars agree that events in the Bible like the vision that Peter had in Joppa, and the resultant change of heart, often represent an evolution of thinking over a much longer period than just a single event. The decision by the Jewish followers of Jesus to move toward the notion that God’s love could extend beyond the borders of Israel, and that “love your neighbor” meant something more than, “love your Jewish neighbor,” most likely didn’t come about because Peter recounted a single dream. But for the sake of expediency, we are led to believe otherwise. It rarely works that way in Church Vestries or Diocesan Conventions either, as much as rectors or bishops wish it were otherwise. These kinds of changes are most often part of a larger evolution, and that is what I believe we have the privilege of witnessing in our reading from The Acts of the Apostles. This evolution of thought that eventually led to the full acceptance of Gentiles is a huge landmark in Church History.
Ancient writers didn’t have endless reams of paper or USB jump drives lying around. A single roll of papyrus was about 35 feet long which would be almost precisely the length required to hold the Book of Acts. And yet, St. Luke devotes a large and disproportional amount of space is to this “Cornelius/Peter” narrative in the Book of Acts.
This was a monumental turning point, and what we are witnessing in this Christian writing is the evolution of the Christian movement into the Christian Church, open to everyone, everywhere! We are witnessing the moving from the one, holy, local church to the one, holy, catholic church! This story helps us to realize just how close Christianity came to being just another sect within Judaism. Why do you suppose that Peter was so convinced by his own dream? I think the answer is because he knew Jesus personally; he knew the love of Jesus up front and personal!
In this week’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples to “love one another.” Big deal, Jesus says that in just about every third paragraph in all the gospels. That’s true, but in this Gospel of John, Jesus says more than “love one another.” Jesus says, “Love one another just as I have loved you.”
Peter remembered all those embarrassing moments when Jesus wandered out of Jewish Territory into Tyre and Sidon and into the Decapolis, the Ten Towns. Peter remembered all those times when Jesus showed love and compassion for outsiders when they reached out to him: The Centurion, Jairus, who begged for his daughter’s life, the Syrophoenician woman who just wanted to touch Jesus’ garment on behalf of her dying daughter. And what about the times that Jesus treated children with dignity? Children who had no rights, who were nothing more than property. What was he thinking? And, of course, Peter must have remembered the time when Jesus sat at the well in the forbidden territory of Samaria, with of all people, a woman! No respectable Rabbi would have allowed himself to be found in that awkward place. But the love of Christ, apparently, doesn’t even know the bounds of common respectability. The woman’s dignity was more important to Jesus than his own!
Peter knew that to love as Jesus loves means turning your love toward those for whom the world assigned no value. Peter knew that Jesus’ love didn’t just cross a few social lines of demarcation, but that Jesus’ love was thoroughly catholic; it was universal to a fault!
There really is no way that a Christian can call “profane” what God has made clean, and still claim to share in the love of Christ. We have, over the years, been misled, often by the church itself, to believe that God’s love and forgiveness is in scarce supply and that God’s grace somehow has an expiration date stamped upon it. If this church or any church you have ever attended has given you that impression, then I apologize to you now, because it simply isn’t true. Peter understood the pressure to believe that God’s love mimics our own, but he clung to the memory of Jesus’ words to him on the night he gave his life for us, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Let your love mimic mine; let your love mimic God’s love!
That is why each of us should be willing to stand with Peter, and say with amazing conviction:
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”