When St Peter is Wrong

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the life-blood of the Church. St Paul informs the young pastor Timothy that from his childhood he has been trained in "the sacred writings," referring to the Hebrew scriptures, and that they are "able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim. 3:15) We believe that the Bible is inspired of God for informing God's fallen creatures (fallen from the right ways of God, from a right heart, and fallen into an errant or sinful mindset) of how they can be reconciled back to God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This, claims St Paul, can be derived from reading "the sacred writings" (of the Hebrew canon).

When we encounter discrepancies in Scripture, discrepancies or errors related to geography, genealogy, numerology or a misperceived eschatology, we may rightly intuit that these issues do not undermine the God-inspired writings that relate to humanity the way to be reconciled to God by grace through faith in Christ. Again, St Paul writes, "We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers." (1 Thess. 2:13, emphasis added) Yet not all scripture is thusly equally effective. Consider the following:
Q. Are all parts of the Bible of the same value?

A. No. Parts of the Old Testament have been superseded by the New, and the old Jewish laws [particularly ceremonial laws and regulations] are not obligatory for Christians, although we may learn much from the principles behind them. We must also remember that the social situation in which we live is very different from what it was at the time the Bible was written. God's truth, love, and justice never change; "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8). But the world changes, and we must learn to show God's love in our lives where we are.
We do not stress an equal weight of significance upon Hebrew genealogies, for example, as we do Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the accounts of Christ's atoning death and subsequent resurrection, or the commands from St Paul on proper and practical living in Christ. This is why discovered discrepancies and minor errors do not trouble me. If St Paul believes that Christ will appear in his lifetime, and that does not occur, then I am not troubled: the apostle is not immortal; he does not possess the immediate mind of God to know the exact timing of Christ's return.

St Peter is no better. But what surprises me most about this apostle is how, even after being shown by God that he is to treat all people equally, he still fails to do so and is confronted on the issue by Paul. What this event should inform us is that these men are fallen and sinful creatures just like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they are bent toward sin; they are not yet fully redeemed. They will, quite inevitably, err.



About the year 43 CE, some ten years after the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit demonstrates the manifest presence of God in undeniable form to all gathered and to thousands of people at the Feast, Peter "falls into a trance" and sees a vision:
He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. (Acts 10:11-16)
That this occurs three times indicates Peter's stubborn refusal to believe that he is not bound to keep the Jewish kosher laws. But then another happenstance is encountered that sheds light on the vision: he is requested to enter the home of a Gentile, which is contrary to Jewish law (Acts 10:28), and there present the Gospel to those gathered. He concludes: "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean" (Acts 10:28); he then concludes: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34). Unfortunately this new disposition eventually escapes his new practice.

The apostle Paul confronts Peter for his sin of, yet again, distancing himself from Gentiles -- this time Gentile believers in Christ who are now considered, by Christ and by all other believers in Christ, his spiritual brothers. About the year 50-53 CE, Peter arrives in Antioch, and eats with the Gentile believers. (Consider that sharing a meal with others is cherished in this culture.) However, when certain people arrive in Antioch from James, Jesus' (Jewish) brother, Peter separates himself from the Gentile believers "for fear of the circumcision faction." (Gal. 2:12) Worse, though, is that Peter's actions influence other Jewish believers to imitate his segregation. Paul writes:
But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile [by not keeping kosher regulations] and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners [a Jewish perception of all non-Jews]; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Gal. 2:14, 15, 16, emphasis added)
Notice that Paul relegates Peter's sinful segregationist perspective a Gospel issue. Meditate on that profound truth for a moment. Separating from others because of a perceived class, ethnic, or orientation status is to oppose the very Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not permitted, necessarily, to consider this a lesson for the Christian spiritual: the vision God shows Peter is not restricted to a Christian context: "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." (Acts 10:28, emphasis added) Had Peter considered that, if God loves and embraces all people then he can certainly love and embrace all people, then he could have avoided offending God and offending others. May we likewise learn from his error.

__________

Beverley D. Tucker and William H. Swatos, Jr., Questions on the Way: A Catechism Based on the Book of Common Prayer (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 2006), 33-34.