Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-38
Before Jesus’ death, Peter denied three times that he even knows him; after his resurrection, Jesus symbolically rolled back those denials by asking him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” After this, he tells him that there will come a time when Peter will follow him, whether he wants to or not. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (21.18) Poor Peter seems to be caught between wanting to follow but being unable, and being able to follow but not wanting to.
Our Western, post-Enlightenment minds read these words and think, “that means, if I don’t obey, then I will not be his friend; therefore, in order to be his friend, I must obey;” but to understand Jesus’ commandment in this way is to miss the point. This is a commandment in the grammatical sense, but not in the classical one. It’s not: “thou shalt do this or the LORD thy God shall smite thee.” Instead, think of it more as an instruction or invitation.
To understand what I mean, let’s think back to Peter. Peter, like any of us, is a good guy just doing the best he can with what he’s got. He falls short because he can’t quite do what Jesus says he must: lay down his life. Laying down one’s life doesn’t necessarily mean dying; it means setting oneself aside for the greater good. Peter may well have been ready to die for Jesus that Thursday night, but he wasn’t ready to lose himself. He couldn’t quite justify risking arrest and possibly execution for a lost cause.
In our story today, Peter is faced once again with a choice: to do what he knows to be right, or to “lay down his life” to follow. He’s a good, observant Jew; a man who has kept kept kosher and observed all the ritual restrictions. He’s praying one day when he has this vision he describes in Acts. When the sheet comes down and the voice says, “Get up; kill and eat,” his response is a good Jewish response: “Eew, yuck! I’m not going to eat those things, that’s disgusting!” But the response is unexpected: “What God has made clean, you must not call disgusting.” Three times this happens—it’s not a fluke or a misunderstanding.
Immediately following the vision, three men come and ask him to come see a Gentile man named Cornelius. Once again, Peter’s response is probably a good, Jewish response: “Eew, yuck! I’m not going to stay with a Gentile, that’s disgusting!” See, it’s not that Jews considered themselves better than Gentiles, it’s that Gentiles were so… different. They thought differently, acted differently, wore different clothes and worshiped different gods. The gospel Peter preached was of a Jewish Messiah for the Jewish people. What use would some Gentile have for this Jewish gospel? Jews and Gentiles were just… different. One would no more eat with a Gentile than one would eat crickets like a bird.
But, having just seen this vision with the sheet and the voice, he checks himself. Maybe he’s thinking about the three men who came to visit Abraham and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre; three men who turned out not to be men at all, but angels of God. They brought news so powerful that it changed the world, so incredible that Sarah fell over laughing. What those three men had to tell Abraham and Sarah ended up being the single most holy and important thing they ever experienced. And so, going against his instinct, he chooses to follow; and it is in following that he sees Jesus.
On Easter morning, much as on Thursday night, Peter doesn’t get it. He runs to the tomb, expecting to see Jesus, but instead finds it empty and goes away wondering. It wasn’t until Jesus chose to come to Peter and the others in the locked room and again at the lakeshore that Peter saw him. He tries to follow Jesus, but he can’t; he still isn’t ready to lay down his own life for his friend. It wasn’t until he was finally able to lay down his life—in this case, to put aside his own prejudice against Gentiles—that he really was able to follow Jesus, and it’s in that following, that laying down his own life, where Jesus found him.
What happened to Peter when he followed the three men wasn’t something that made him unclean, but perhaps the single most holy and important thing he ever witnessed. After it happened, he gave a little sermonette (which we already read on Easter morning): “Now I get it,” he said, “Now I truly understand that God shows no partiality. Everyone is acceptable to God; now I know what it means to say ‘He is Lord of all.’”
We read this story because the instruction given to Peter and the others is given to us, as well: love one another as Jesus loves us. We are instructed to lay down our lives for one another, like Jesus did, and like Peter did. When we do, what we find may be uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it may also be the single most holy and important thing that we ever see or do. Peter—the mighty St. Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built, the one who holds the keys to the pearly gates—had to learn from Cornelius—a disgusting Gentile—what it means that Jesus is Lord of all. Peter needed Cornelius as much as Cornelius needed Peter.
If we choose to lay down our lives and follow this instruction, we are likely to find that we are still living on Easter time, that our chronology is still all messed up; because we can be here and now, at this table, or at work or among our neighbors, and at the same time we can also be sitting with Peter and James and John and all the others around a table with Jesus as he says, “This is my body, this is my blood. They are given for you.” And at the same time, we can also be standing with John of Patmos and seeing the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, and the Alpha and Omega coming to dwell among us, wiping away the tears from our eyes and giving us comfort and peace.
In the mystery of Christ’s love, all times and places are brought together so that we can be sitting at the table of the last supper, receiving the bread and wine along with the new commandment, and also at the end of all things, receiving the fulfillment of the promise, and also at the very beginning, eating from the tree of life—all at the same time as we live and work and go about our business in these very days, among these people that Jesus is inviting us to love by laying down our lives for them.
Perhaps the most mysterious part of this love is that it not only brings all times and places together, but all people: Jews and Gentiles, women and men, destitute and wealthy. It is in our coming together across what divides us that we see Christ and experience his promise most fully. The church in Jerusalem is angry with Peter at first for breaking taboo, but when they hear what happened, they rejoice with him.
As we seek to follow Christ ourselves, we may do well to ask who the “Gentiles” are in our own context. Who are the people who are so different from us that we feel we have nothing to learn from them? Who are the Corneliuses we are being called to love as Christ has loved us? They are where we will find Jesus at work, alive and well. In loving and serving one another, the risen Christ is revealed to us.
We may feel free to obey Jesus’ commandment or not; either way, we will still be Jesus’ friends, still be welcome at his table. Nobody is getting smote. The worst that will happen is that we might miss running into our friend. The commandment isn’t given to us to make us obey, but rather to show us where to find our risen Lord.