Scripture Passage – Acts 10 vv 1 – 48
In a much longer passage this week, we have the account of the meeting between Peter and Cornelius which leads to a significant turning point in the life and work of the Church.
I have been responsible for conducting the online Service for Salisbury Methodist Church this week and I have used the Gospel passage set for this Sunday from Matthew Chapter 11. You can find this Service on the Church website. Not wanting to duplicate in that sermon and this Reflection, I saw the opportunity to think and write about St. Peter.
Many, but I suspect not all, will know that we have a very close relationship with the Parish Church in the village of Pitton. In many ways Pitton is a quintessential English village. It has an excellent primary school, a post office, a ‘foody’ pub and a Church. There used to be a Methodist Chapel but when the congregation dwindled beyond the point of no return it closed. Members of the Parish Church bent over backwards to make the remaining Methodist members welcome and, without all the expensive rigmarole of a legal Sharing Agreement, we have developed a very comfortable and happy relationship. We share together each week in the Sunday Morning Service and the third Sunday of each month is designated as the Methodist Service. For the past four years I have acted as the Methodist Minister for the members and, usually, I take that third Sunday Service as well as some of the specials. I love going to Pitton.
The Parish Church at Pitton is dedicated to St Peter. Monday of this past week is marked as St Peter’s Day. We shared in a zoomed special service marking their patronal festival and I too want to honour Peter and add my Reflection on him.
I want to say Thank God for Peter’s honesty.
While not focussing on Mark, as an introduction I do want to say just a little about him. Mark is mentioned several times in the New Testament. Mary, his mother, had a house in Jerusalem and when Peter was released from prison (Acts 12 v 6ff) he went immediately to find the other disciples there. Mark must have been familiar to the disciples. For a time, he was a companion of Paul – a long story – but like Paul he ended up in Rome. There they were joined by Peter and the understanding of the Church is that both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome.
Papias was a Bishop of the early second century and an authoritative writer. He records that “Mark, having become the interpreter of St Peter, set down accurately though not in order, everything that he remembered of the words and actions of the Lord”. Mark, as secretary to Peter, based his Gospel on the eyewitness account of Peter. Mark, the earliest of the Gospels to be written, became the ‘template’ for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Peter, through Mark, is an all-important source of our knowledge of Jesus.
Peter is strikingly honest in the account he shares with Mark. We hear and learn a great deal about Peter in the gospels and it is important to recognise that at least some of the material, material that perhaps otherwise we might not have had, came from him. We hear about that leap of faith when he answers the direct question of Jesus about his identity “Who do people say I am” and then “Who do you say I am” and Peter, first as ever to answer, acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God – Mark 8 v 29. Immediately afterwards, Jesus has to rebuke Peter for trying to put the brakes on the dire warnings about the future with its suffering and death. Jesus uses very strong language “Get away from me Satan.” To be called Satan by Jesus…! Then, after the arrest of Jesus there is Peter’s denial that he even knew Jesus – Mark 14 vv 66ff. Identified by a servant girl who recognised his northern accent as a companion of Jesus, Peter, who apparently alone had made his way into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, is vehement in his denial. And at the cock crow he broke down in tears.
Peter doesn’t hold back from sharing his shortcomings and his failure.
His honesty is a shining example. All too often we don’t want to even consider the hard road of discipleship. All too often, challenged or not, our life is a denial of all that Christ is and demands. All too often we neglect or waste the opportunity of identifying with Jesus and speaking for him. At least we can be sure that God sees and knows us as we really are and offers his forgiveness. In the very short, and probably cut off ending of Mark’s Gospel, the angel at the tomb on Easter Day has a special message for Peter (Mark 16 v 7). The last scene of John’s Gospel is Jesus with Peter on the lakeshore in Galilee and a re-invitation to Peter to “Follow me.” (John 21 vv 19)
To me, our Confession in Church services must always be followed by God’s assurance of forgiveness and peace. That’s how God works – with Peter and with us.
I want to say Thank God for Peter’s decisive leadership.
In the story of the early Church as set out in the Acts of the Apostles, although we are introduced to Stephen and Philip, to Barnabas and then to Paul, it is Peter who is the dominant figure in the first half of that book and its account. Peter comes across as a strong and decisive leader. Peter takes the initiative in finding a replacement for Judas (Acts 1); Peter is the one who explains what is going on when the crowd gathers at the noise of Pentecost (Acts 2); in the name of Jesus Peter heals the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 3); Peter deals decisively with the double-dealing Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5). In the reading that I have suggested for this Reflection, it is Peter who is instrumental in changing both the direction and the future of the Church. The big question was whether non-Jews could be admitted to the Church without having to go through all the ceremony and intent of becoming Jews. Was the door open or half closed? Cornelius, a Roman Army officer, was the one who brought things to a head. You get the sense that it was almost inadvertent, but it really wasn’t. God was at work in both Cornelius and Peter.
There had to be a break with the narrowness of the past. There had to be a widening of the appreciation of God’s mercy and love beyond the limits that the old ways imposed. There had to be an open door for people – whoever they were, to know that they were welcome to share in all the benefits that Christ, by his death and resurrection, has won. Peter seized the moment. In his conversation with Cornelius – “it is true that God has no favourites” Acts 10 v 34 – in his Report to the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 11) and then again to the all-important Council of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15) he argues passionately and cogently that the Good News of Jesus is for all people. I just love the fact recorded in Acts 15 v 6 that there was a long debate. We are not the first generation of the Church to have long meetings or to have to have hard talking about important issues.
Peter tried to make sure that the doors of the Church remain open for all. We today have no less an important role in discussing and deciding on issues that will change the Church. I pray that our leaders show decisive strength and that we the people, guided by God, are ready to listen.