Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leaders today. In today’s reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles Peter’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 church seems to do nicely as Peter and the others proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, perform miracles and bravely withstand persecution by Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. The gospel is welcomed even in Samaria and Galilee. Near Joppa, Peter heals Aeneas, a paralyzed man in bed for eight years and raises Tabitha from the dead. (Acts 9,31-43)
Then, the apostle tired and hungry goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa overlooking the vast sea, and he has a disturbing vision. Instead of kosher food he’s eaten all his life a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and reacting as a typical Jew Peter pushes it away. Three times the vision invites the puzzled apostle to eat before vanishing.
Then, 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.” It’s the gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.
“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.
Yet, I wonder 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, he traveled 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? Did he ever understand the gentile banquet?
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 have another image of Peter, 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.
Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer.