Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leadership. In today’s reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles Peter recalls his experience 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 in Jerusalem and Judea as Peter and the others proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, perform miracles and bravely withstand persecution by Jewish leadership. The gospel is proclaimed 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 tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa overlooking the vast sea, where he has a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual kosher food a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and reacting like 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, and he goes to Caesaria and instructs Cornelius and all his household and then baptizes them.
Yet, did Peter truly understand all the consequences of his visit to Cornelius? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and the nets of his fishing boat, ever 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. Was he ever as confident in a gentile world as he was in his own? Did he ever understand the gentile banquet?
Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him firmly in charge of the church, holding the keys of authority tightly in hand. Clearly, he is a rock.
I saw another image of Peter 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. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice.