The apostle Peter often gets a bad rap. He’s often talked about as impulsive and making mistakes. There’s the walking on the water incident; the “get thee behind me” moment; he boasted that he’d stay even if everyone else fled and then denied the Lord three times. His parts of the gospel seem so often to be object lessons on what not to do. I remember many years ago the Christian singer Don Francisco said he loved Peter because, in his words, “Peter blew it so regularly and so badly and look what the Lord was able to do with him.”
The other night while I was reading the scripture with my wife, we got to the story of the vision of the sheet with animals Acts 10: 9-13. In the vision Peter gets told to kill an animal from a sheet from heaven and then eat it. Peter refuses because the animals are unclean or common, and is rebuked with the words “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This vision happens three times. Not so long ago I heard a sermon where the speaker suggested that Peter must have been pretty slow to get the message, if God had to tell him three times. I guess, like many people in the congregation, I accepted that interpretation. Also there was some laughter at the notion of Peter telling God about what was kosher and what wasn’t, as if God needed Peter to remind Him.
Well, it’s time to say I was wrong. As I read the passage with Rachel I realised that Peter was not being obstinate or trying to correct God by reminding the vision about Jewish dietary laws. No, Peter was being wise. There he was praying and he had a vision. His first response wasn’t “Oh yay, God is speaking to me. How wonderful!” His first response was, “Hang on a moment, if this is a profitable vision then why does it contradict what I already know from God? Why is it telling me to violate kosher laws?” Peter was being careful. The vision happened three times. This is important for Peter, because it points to the Jewish understanding that three is a number associated with the Lord. So maybe it is from God, but it’s still strange. So even then, Peter doesn’t do anything; not until the Spirit tells him to go with the men sent to take him to the gentile Cornelius. When Peter meets Cornelius and realises that God has revealed the truth of the gospel to Cornelius and his household, who are all gentiles, that’s when Peter understands, and accepts the vision. He’s not being obstinate, he’s working at the things of God with patience and wisdom. Just because you get the light show and an echoing voice from heaven, doesn’t mean you know what God is saying to you, or even that it is God. This is a wisdom many modern Christians (myself included) would do well to emulate.
And Peter learned this wisdom the hard way, by making mistakes.
After reading this passage, the next day at church the sermon included the walking on the water story – one of the classic ‘Peter blows it again passages’. As the pastor read the verses though, a different thought came into my mind and it brought a tear to my eye. Suddenly I could see what Jesus loved. Peter was happy to take his faith right out over the edge. He was committed and didn’t want to live a half baked faith. He took risks and made mistakes. And he tested; he engaged with the Lord. He was willing to look foolish, but he didn’t want to be a fool. He wanted to give his Lord whatever he had to give and he didn’t put limits on that.
Jesus walks on water? Peter wanted to be there with him.
Jesus goes to be betrayed to the sanhedrin? Peter wanted to stand by his side.
Yes, Peter made mistakes, but he had the courage to try . He was ready to get out of the boat. Sure, the circumstances overwhelm him sometimes, he starts to sink or denies his Lord, but he was willing to put himself in those circumstances in the first place. You have less accidents if you drive slowly, but you also don’t win any stock car races that way!
And I think Jesus loved him for it.
Also, it explains why the vision of the unclean animals came to him – who else could the Lord have asked? All the disciples were Jews and they were comfortable with the jewishness of their messiah. The Lord needed a guy who was ready to hear the crazy message and do the crazy thing, to overturn the longstanding misunderstanding about his law and uncleanness. And this time, Peter used the hard won wisdom the Lord had already taught him – he waited until he understood the whole vision and then he acted to do what the Lord wanted, baptising Cornelius and his household into the faith. Remember, if you are like me, a Christian and weren’t born Jewish, then without this moment in time, your faith would never have happened.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to say I hope I can be as brave in my faith as Peter was, but frankly that thought scares the living daylights out of me. As brave as Peter? That’s a big ask – that guy had guts!
- By Yorkshiremany – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45202235
- By Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop’s ‘Treasures of the Bible’, 1894 – http://www.lavistachurchofchrist.org/Pictures/Treasures%20of%20the%20Bible%20%28Church%20Age%29/target6.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16280669