Sermon preached at Paoli Friends Meeting
I have always liked to hear the stories of Peter and Paul. They are the most prominent leaders in the New Testament church, and throughout Acts they are consistently bold and faithful. When I read Acts, it seems impossible to live up to the example of the early church. If Peter is the model for Christian leaders — I fear I fall short. I have never preached Christ’s resurrection to those who declared themselves enemies of Christ. While I might be able to say: “I have neither silver nor gold”, if I say “Rise up and walk”, I am sure to find myself deeply embarrassed.
Reading Acts, it seems that after Pentecost, Peter is always on message. According to Acts, it was Peter who first told the Christians that Christ’s message was for everybody and not only for the Jews. Peter was there when there when the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles in the same way as the Spirit came upon Christ’s disciples. Peter’s response was: “I see that God does not distinguish between persons.”
The Christian community that still exists in Antioch claims that Peter was their first bishop. Acts records that Peter defended the gentiles. In my youth, people showed me the sharp contrast between Peter before, and Peter after Pentecost. Before Pentecost, Peter was frightened of a servant girl — after Pentecost, Peter stood boldly before those who killed Christ and might kill him too. Peter stood boldly until tradition tells us that he died by crucifixion.
Many of my early examples in life were of the holiness school of thought. I’ve listened to revivalist preaching, and I am sure that somewhere, I am numbered as one of the people who were ‘sanctified’ at such a meeting by a holiness preacher. You see there was an idea that you were saved, then sanctified — and sanctification was something that came at a moment — as opposed to something we slowly grow into. I even took a holiness theology class when I was a student at Barclay college, taught by a man who claims to have lived without the influence of sin in his life for over 40 years.
One thing I must say about this view of self is that many people who claim that they are above sin are deeply convicted of sin. Because they do not accept that it is their own, they call out the sins of others. Now, I can think of few things less useful than being convicted of another’s sin — it does neither person any good.
Now, I rather like many aspects of this holiness teaching. First, I like that it offers a doctrine of salvation *from* sin, just as scripture teaches. Too often people speak of salvation from hell, or the final consequences of sin, but offer nothing for this life. Holiness offers salvation that includes our life on earth. Another thing I like about holiness preachers is that they embrace miracles. God does work miraculously in our lives — God changes our heart and transforms our mind. Whether this happens slowly, or immediately, I think we should embrace it as God’s work — and to be fair, I have known people who have changed quickly.
I am deeply thankful that we have Paul’s epistles and not Acts alone. Acts really does focus on the positive. In Acts, the apostles are always full of courage. Whatever they attempt achieves miraculous success. The only hint of problems in the church are found in a few words about the Jerusalem council showing that there was “great debate” about what the requirements would be for gentile Christians.
Paul’s writings however go deep into the controversies that plagued the early church. While Acts memorializes, Paul deals with the difficulties that are present. The difference between these two stories is the difference between stories that we might hear at a funeral, and the stories we have while people are fighting. Paul’s story tells much about what was going on — and if I may, I would like to try and harmonize the story of the early church between the accounts of Paul’s epistles and Acts.
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared and gathered his disciples together again. At the time of Pentecost, about 120 remained out of all those thousands who listened to Jesus teach. At Pentecost, the disciples, especially Peter, discovered a new found courage and the ability work the same kinds of miracles that their master Jesus worked before. They spoke boldly before those who could kill them — and they continued to do so even as those like Stephen were put to death.
One thing that all the disciples had in common for the first few months is that they were all Jews. As Jews, they grew up with stories about how they were God’s special people. Not only that, but their recent history had been one of occupation by foreign empires. Luke tells us that right before Christ went up into heaven, the disciples asked if “now was the time” to attack Rome and re-establish Israel. The new Church had a lot to learn.
It took several miracles for the followers of Christ to accept that Jesus really did mean the whole world: First, Peter had to have a vision commanding him to eat what was unclean — this vision was further explained that he was to visit with, and eat with someone who was unclean. Short of this miracle, Peter was not ready to accept that Jesus came to make clean those who were unacceptable.
When Peter went, he saw that not only was he called to do this — but that the Holy Spirit came upon these unclean gentiles in exactly the same way that the Holy Spirit came on those who lived and learned directly under Jesus. Peter saw first hand, through God’s miraculous intervention that: “God is not a respecter of persons.” After this, Peter started to change. Tradition holds that he founded the Christian community at Antioch — which was the first largely gentile Christian community.
The news of Gentile Christians, strong in the Holy Spirit challenged some deeply held beliefs of many of the Jewish Christians. Those who thought that our diet makes us unacceptable to God, or that a man must alter the body he was born with in order to become acceptable to God found that something happened that did not fit their understanding of how God related to people. They lost their special position of divine favor. Jerusalem sent a delegation to investigate what happened in Antioch — and, not surprisingly, some of the delegation felt it was most important to convert the Antioch community to Judaism.
When this delegation came, Peter apparently stopped eating with the gentile Christians. Even though he was convicted that the attitudes that he grew up with were wrong, he was afraid of his fellow Christians, and what they might think. Peter fell into his old sinful behavior of moral cowardice — and remained there until Paul gave him a bit of a tongue lashing. Remember, Paul opposed Peter in front of everybody because he snubbed the gentile Christians in the presence of the people from Jerusalem. Peter knew better, and Paul corrected him.
Peter and Paul went to a council called at Jerusalem, where the monumental decision was made that Christianity was something for all people, and not only those who accepted Jewish laws and customs. Both Peter and Paul are remembered as supporting the Gentile Christians at this council. Then, almost all of Paul’s books tell us that those who felt Christianity should only be for Jews ignored the decisions of the council. Paul spent his ministry fighting to create an understanding of Christ which did not include making Gentiles into Jews, while his opponents told the Gentile churches that there was no salvation without circumcision. After both served God faithfully, both, by tradition, died in Rome. Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside down.
For me, there are three points of good news in this story, The first point of good news is that God does not distinguish between classes the way people do. I was born in a working class home, in a working class town. For those who judge by what people do for money, I am ‘inferior’ to the middle (or professional) class. When I took classes on “church growth”, my demographic was largely ignored as the middle class people (and pockets) are more desirable. For me it is good news that God does not discriminate due to ancestry, wealth or poverty, nor any other reason. By the grace of Jesus Christ, we all stand equally before God.
Second, this is good news for me because people I deeply respected have failed, sometimes in spectacular ways. If Peter did not fail in a spectacularly hurtful way, I might think that these people were merely fakes and hypocrites. I might have a polarized view that caused me to idolize them one moment, and demonize them the next. This is good news, because I am allowed to recognize that these people are human — and, to remember that Christ is merciful, and will work with them and though them just as Christ worked with and through Peter.
Third this is good news for me, because I am not always perfectly loving, nor full of courage, nor am I always merciful. When I examine myself, I see many moments where I fell short of the example that Christ set for us. I am able to see that a few words spoken in anger do not separate me from God’s love — but God continues to walk with me and work with me. I cannot claim to have achieved perfection, and no matter what a former teacher said, this neither disqualified Peter, nor does it disqualify me.
Paul got it right when he scolded Peter saying: “we know nobody is justified by works of the law… because by the works of the law, nobody is justified.” Where the law measures, it measures failures. The gospel is based in the rather simple fact that Jesus Christ is merciful and chooses to walk with us. We do not need to become good enough to approach God, but instead God came to us. The good news is not that God promises us the power to succeed — it is that God remains faithful, loves us, and remains with us even when we fail.