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The Peter Question: To Lock Down or Open Up?

July 26, 2009

Glynn Cardy

Patronal Feast of St Peter's, Takapuna


The keys to the kingdom, allegedly given by Jesus to Peter, I think are the courage and tenacity to unlock the past and open it to the future. It is as simple and as difficult as that.


Peter’s courage is best exemplified in our epistle reading this morning from Acts 10. The whole chapter is a great little story. It begins with Cornelius, a Gentile, therefore unclean, and therefore outside of God’s blessing and favour. He has heard about the Jesus Movement and wants to get into it. So he sends messengers to Peter who is residing in the port of Joppa [Jaffa].


In the middle segment of the story Peter is on the rooftop at Joppa praying and therefore falls asleep (which I can empathize with) and in his sleep he has a dream.


Now the deep unconscious background to Peter’s dream is precisely the debate that’s going on in the young Jesus Movement about whether to admit Gentiles - people like us. Until then the Jesus movement was merely a sect within Judaism. The debate had its radical, Paul, it had its conservative, James of Jerusalem, and it had Peter stuck in the middle - like your average bishop - who didn’t know which way to go, so he went both ways at once. When he was with Paul he was a radical when he was with James he was a conservative and didn’t know how to decide. “On-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-it is”, you know that kind of psychological disease that can afflict church leaders.


Let’s pause for a second here before we start hailing Paul as the good guy and James as the bad and think about rules and regulations. We need them. We need our rules because we are a potentially chaotic people, we humans. We do terrible things to each other. We need discipline and order. We need road rules in order not to kill each other, but we still manage to anyway.


The history of human culture is the history of the rules that we have devised to keep ourselves from destroying one another, to keep some kind of co-operation and peace and love and human community. But there is something else that we also learn, that the rules themselves are means to ends and never should become ends in themselves, because otherwise they become stupid.


Jesus said to people that he was arguing with about the Sabbath (which is a good example of a good rule, because people need a rest): it was made for us, not us for it. There may come times when we have to cast aside or abrogate the rules in order to respond to the God demand of love. If we don’t have the courage to do that the rules can become tyrannous and actually imprison us. For Jesus the purpose of rules was to hold them firmly enough for them to guide us but not so tightly that we can’t discard them when the need arises.


Back to the story: Peter has this dream. A great sailcloth is let down from heaven and on it there are all sorts of things that are impure to a Jew, things he may not eat, and he hears the voice, and it’s the voice of God. It says, "Rise Peter, kill and eat".


One of the most interesting things in this story is that Peter then quotes God back at God. He says, "I’m sorry God, you have already forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: you’re supposed to have dictated it, and I can’t eat this stuff, it is forbidden, it’s unclean, it’s profane." To which God replied: "Thou must not call profane what I have cleansed". This dream encapsulates Peter’s struggle in trying to understand the authority of scripture in relation to the imperatives of the God known in Jesus Christ.


The dream ends and, of course, if you’re a good Freudian you’ll understand what’s going on. Peter is wrestling sincerely in his unconscious with this great issue that is to confront him. He wakes up. There’s a knock on the door and the servants from Cornelius are down at the gate asking to come in to the nascent Christian community.


In the dream stage the admission of the unclean into the Jesus Movement is all theory, just as we the Church over the centuries have theorized about including people outside our boundaries. But then there’s a knock at the door. And there’s a person there who says, “What you’re theorizing about is me. Your theory, this theology you struggle with, is actually about me and it’s causing me to suffer. Your theology hurts me, gets me beaten up, sometimes killed: Think about it!”

Do you see what’s happening here? God is coming to Peter, not from the past, but from the future. Will Peter provide the leadership to unlock the past and open it to the future? Change is knocking at the door, asking for entrance, and the old rules don’t provide an adequate answer to this challenge.


The history of the Christian religion is precisely the history of a God who comes to us from the future. As an institution we are not capable of recognizing this God because we are fixated on the God who is come to us from the past. We quote the God of the past at the God of the future.


The history of change in Christianity is a history of groups knocking at the door, seeking entrance, and we quote at them the old scripture. Slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realized that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800 years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by rules.


Two hundred years later there was another knocking at the door - this time women, because scripture, God in the scripture, clearly tells us that women are subordinate to men. They are instruments of temptation, gateways to sin - all of those things because, of course, it was Woman that plucked the apple, tempted by Satan. Men have been blaming women ever since. “The woman gave me and I did eat” - and so we kept them subservient. We allowed them in the sanctuary (if they wore their hats) to do the flowers and to scrub the floor but never behind the altar. Never in the nice frocks and glittering garments.


What’s the next group? The gays and the lesbians. They’re knocking at the door. They’re downstairs while the Church is upstairs struggling with the issue. The primates at Lambeth Palace, up on the roof at Joppa - downstairs gays knocking at the door – “Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed.”


Right now in New Zealand there’s another knock at the door. The old scripture said you could give your kids a right thrashing: “He who spares the rod hates his son” (Proverbs 13:24). “You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:14). Kids have been hit, beaten, strapped, caned, in church and out. I know it. I’ve seen it. Those who’ve hit them have often been well-meaning people. They thought violence is a necessary part of discipline. Just as in times past well-meaning men thought that to love a strong-willed wife meant at times to physically discipline her. Just as in times past good masters thought an occasional beating of an uppity servant was necessary. When the law changed preventing such things the men and masters decried the loss of their rights. Similarly this upcoming referendum is a cry from the past to lock out the future.


The Jesus challenge to us is to know when the old rules are over and finished. The Jesus challenge is not to accept every movement of social change, or the Vicar of St Matthew’s so-called liberal agenda. Rather it is to weigh carefully, as Peter did, the demands of love as revealed in the radical outsider Jesus. It is also to be alert to a knock on our door downstairs as God comes to us out of the future.


So, like Peter when he opened the Joppa door, this is the day of decision, a moment of decision for our Church. Will we go into God’s future or will we simply lock ourselves into the past, into the old ways of understanding? The past is comfortable and secure. If we block our ears we might not hear any knocks at the door. Or will we be like Peter and have the courage to open the door, and unlock the past to the insights and critique of the future? You see the keys for the kingdom can be used to lock down the past and secure it, and its God, against change; or they can be used to unlock the gates of the past in order that the future comes into the Church and disrupts it with change.

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