We need to keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when we think about church leaders, especially today.
Look at Peter in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. He’s in Joppa, at the house of Simon the Tanner. Joppa, remember, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world. After Pentecost the apostle strongly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus; he performed miracles and bravely withstood persecution by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. The church was doing very nicely.
Peter saw the gospel welcomed even in Samaria and Galilee. Visiting the coastal areas near Joppa, he heals Aeneas, a paralyzed man in bed for eight years and raises Tabitha from the dead. (Acts 9,31-43) Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus?
Then, the apostle tired and hungry goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house overlooking the vast sea, and he has a disturbing vision. Instead of the kosher food he’s eaten all his life a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and reacting as a typical loyal Jew Peter protests that he wont eat it. Three times the vision invites him to eat then vanishes before the puzzled apostle.
Messengers appear at the door from Cornelius, a gentile soldier stationed in Caesaria Maritima, the main Roman headquarters some miles up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” Here’s the gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,” Peter says as he instructs Cornelius and all his household and then baptizes them.
I wonder, though, if Peter truly understood all the consequences of his visit to Cornelius.Did the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home and family and the nets of his fishing boat, ever become comfortable in a gentile world? Later, the apostle would travel to Antioch in Syria and then to Rome, where he was killed in the Neronian persecution in the 60’s. Did he move as confidently in the gentile world as he did in his own? Would he ever understand the gentile banquet?
The portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him firmly in charge of the church with the keys of authority held tightly in hand. He’s clearly the one whom Jesus called the rock.
I prefer another portrait of him, however, that I saw years ago in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He’s softer, reflective, more experienced, not completely sure of himself. There’s a consciousness of failure in his face. He seems to be listening for the voice of the Shepherd. hoping to hear it.