A story told at Prestbury Methodist Church, Pietermaritzburg on 2 May 2010
5th Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Simon was always getting into trouble. He would always be the first to try something new.
Often it backfired but, just as often, it would work out and he would have found a new or better way to do something. And even when you were mad at him for messing up, you had to love him. His mischievous grin and the apologetic raising of his eyebrows were usually enough, but the sincerity and warmth of his friendship and his fierce loyalty would melt away any further resistance.
We grew up together—practically next-door neighbours. Simon, his brother Andrew, and I, spent most of our childhood and early adulthood together—usually fishing.
When the two of them first went off with Jesus, I thought they were crazy. But as I spent time with them, getting to know Jesus as well, I began to understand what had drawn them to Jesus, and it began to draw me too. We travelled down to Jerusalem together for some of the festivals as well. I was never one of the disciples (‘the twelve’ they were known as) but there were several of us who hovered around Jesus as much as we could, because of what he said and how he lived. People say, “Well, of course, the miracles must have been mind blowing.” And, yeah, I guess they were. But somehow, with Jesus, they seemed such a natural part of who he was—as if you couldn’t help getting better and being healed in his presence. I don’t know; that’s just how I thought about it.
Anyway, I was talking about Simon, well, Peter—no one calls him Simon anymore; not since Jesus started calling him Peter—‘the rock’. In some way Peter was a strange choice for Jesus. He was big and bold and brave of course, but I don’t think Jesus was overawed by those things. He seemed to know that Peter would let him down and get things wrong, just like the rest of us. But Jesus saw something else: a willingness to admit failure, to ask for help, to get up again, and to go forward.
I wasn’t there when he nearly drowned trying to walk on water. Andrew told me about it. Only Peter! It sounds crazy that any sane person should think they could walk on water. But that was Jesus. He believed in you, and he made you believe in yourself. But I guess only Peter would actually try it. When the people of the Way (that’s what we called ourselves) were persecuted in Jerusalem after Jesus left us, it was Peter’s confidence and care that held us together and kept us focussed. Some of us wanted to fight back, but Peter showed us that those who were attacking us weren’t important. To focus on them would keep us from sharing the Good News, which was all that mattered. The night that he and John walked out of prison after having been flogged….well that’s a story for another time.
DREAMS AND VISIONS
Peter wasn’t one for dreams and visions so, when he told us about the sheet full of strange and unclean animals, and the angel telling him to kill and eat, I was impressed. He was convinced that this was God speaking to him. Well, I’m telling you, if Peter thinks a vision is real, you’d better sit up and listen, because it’s not something you’ll hear every day. “Probably why God had to repeat the vision three times,” Andrew whispered to me.
Anyway, there was Peter, up on the roof waiting for lunch. He says he was praying; I think he fell asleep. Then there’s this huge sheet coming down from the sky with all sorts of animals in it—the bad ones like wild animals and pigs; animals we wouldn’t even look at, let alone want to eat. And there were wild birds and, and lizards.
Then a voice said to Peter, “Come on Peter, you hungry? Kill and eat.”
Well, even Peter’s adventurous spirit wouldn’t go that far. He might not be a Pharisee, but he’s a good Jew; there’s no way he was going to make a meal out of that lot—and he told the voice so.
But the voice said, “Don’t call anything impure that God has pronounced clean.”
Well that happened three times; then it was lunch time. But before we could sit there were some strangers at the door looking for Peter. They said they were sent by a Roman Captain in Caesarea. He had had a vision and God told him to send to Joppa and ask Peter to come and talk to them.
Talk about bizarre. First Peter, then the Romans, Roman soldiers, having visions? And what could Peter possibly say to Gentiles, especially Romans? They’re the ones who crucified Jesus. It sounded crazy; anyway, we’d be in trouble with the synagogue if we started cavorting with Gentiles.
And then Peter told us about his vision and suddenly we were on our way to Caesarea. About half a dozen of us went with him. That was quite an experience for a fisherman from Galilee. Jerusalem and Joppa were bad enough. But this was different. It wasn’t just that there were Gentiles; this was a Roman garrison. Soldiers were all around us and we were going to a Captain’s house. Peter was convinced that God was sending us there. That was all very well when we were sitting in Joppa, but I hadn’t seen the vision; no one had told me to ‘kill and eat’. What were we doing? The Romans are so different and the way they live—well there’s so much that is just so…so… heathen. Yet this group seemed so pious and they talked about God and about prayer and stuff.
So we went into Cornelius’ home—it was very strange. I must confess I was quite uncomfortable. Did God really want us there? Did these Romans really want to hear us (Jews) talking about Jesus, a Jewish teacher condemned and crucified by Roman soldiers?
Peter just…well he was just Peter. He went in full of confidence, as if he were speaking with friends on his boat. Cornelius wanted to bow and scrape, wanted to worship Peter. It was unbelievable. Peter told them about his vision and how God told him to go to Caesarea to meet Cornelius. Then he told them about Jesus; about how God sent his message of peace through Jesus. I wondered if he would mention Jesus’ death to these Romans, but he had no fear. He just told them straight, that Jesus had been put to death on the cross and that God had raised him from death. I was watching them, wondering how they would take it, but they were as meek as lambs, just lapping it up.
I was the one having a hard time. I still couldn’t bring myself to think about Jesus dying like that. The cross is the most hateful thing the Romans could do to their worst enemy. And they did it to one so gentle and loving as Jesus; they took him away from us and destroyed everything. Now here we were talking to them as if they weren’t responsible; as if it were all part of God’s plan.
John had tried to explain it to us, but it’s so hard to understand. “It wasn’t the Romans who put Jesus to death,” John said. “Not even the Priests and Pharisees. He died because all of us have rejected God’s way.” And he quoted from Isaiah, “We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
I really struggled with that. I asked Andrew about it when we were alone.
“John makes it sound as if Jesus had a choice about going to the cross,” I said. “But it didn’t look to me as if Jesus had any choice in the matter. They wanted him; they grabbed him; and they took him away.”
“Sure,” said Andrew. “But it was his choice to go to Jerusalem that last time. He could have stayed up in Galilee.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But they would have got him eventually.”
“He could have stayed out of the limelight and just quietly gone about teaching and healing people.” Andrew suggested.
I thought about that for a bit. “But then he wouldn’t have been Jesus, would he?” I said. “He would just have been another gifted Rabbi.”
“True,” Andrew nodded. And he looked at me with his usual impish grin that suggested I’d missed something…again.
Then I began to see. John was right. Jesus chose to live as he did; he didn’t come just to teach and to heal. He came to live like God in the world. John often quoted the prophet, “His name shall be called ‘Immanuel’, which means God with us.”
Andrew could see that the light was beginning to dawn. “Jesus showed us how much God loves us,” he said. “And how far God will go to welcome us back into his family. Were you there when Jesus told us that story of the wayward son and the amazingly loving father?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember thinking how different Jesus’ understanding of God was.”
THE GREATEST LOVE
“I don’t have any doubts that Jesus was the Messiah,” I said to Andrew. “But this is just so different from what we always expected the Messiah to be.”
“I know,” agreed Andrew. “Especially the cross. But there, more than anywhere, was where God’s love was being poured out. It wasn’t the Romans putting Jesus to death, but God pouring out his love for all of us.”
“I’m trying to understand, Andrew,” I said. “And I remember Jesus saying, ‘The greatest love is the love of someone who lays down his life for his friends.’ But it’s hard to think of Jesus on the cross and not see it as a cruel, hateful waste; the loss of a life rather than the triumph of love.”
I still hadn’t worked it all out properly, and there we were in Caesarea, with Peter telling Roman soldiers about the death of Jesus. Then he told them that everyone who believes in Jesus will have their sins forgiven. And I found myself in a spin again. I mean, I knew that was true, and it would even apply to some Gentiles, but Romans? And Roman soldiers? I wanted to stop the programme and ask Peter if he realised what he was saying. But my questions hardly had time to swirl around in my head when something incredible happened. I didn’t really know what was going on at first, but suddenly I realised, it was Pentecost all over again.
God’s Holy Spirit swept us all up, Jew and Gentile alike, friends and strangers—we were praising God together, speaking in tongues; it was overwhelming. I found myself just laughing and laughing; it was amazing. Peter was way ahead. He said, “If God is working in these people and filling them with his Spirit just as he filled us, then they should be baptised into Christ as we have been and welcomed into the family of God.”
So he did. But I knew then that this wasn’t Peter’s doing; this was God at work. As Peter said when we got back to Jerusalem, “God gave those Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in Jesus; and I wasn’t going to stop him,” he added.
That’s when it came together for me. This was much greater than any one person could achieve in a lifetime, even a great Rabbi or teacher, no matter how long he lived. Only something radical could achieve such a breakthrough. God needed to do something much more than a new prophet or a new preacher to get through to us, to break through the barriers we create and get his love across. But did it have to be as extreme as a death? And such a death as that—an unimaginably cruel death on a Roman cross? Is that how deep our sin is? Are the barriers we create between us so great?