When your teenage child goes away on a trip with their friends the last thing they want is news of their activities to get back to you!. Somehow though this is what happened to Peter and he returns from Joppa and Caesarea to face hostile questions from home. The believers criticised him, saying “you went into the home of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” On the conservative Catholic internet forums there are blogs which are highly critical of Pope Francis because he published a document which tentatively opens the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. Our Anglican church is still prone to disagreements about women: a lady curate in my old deanery was left in no doubt that she was unwelcome in a conservative congregation whether in her collar or not. The common thread in these examples is a robust adherence may be I could say a rigid adherence to doctrine.
Our reading this morning is from the book of Acts, a faithful retelling of Peter’s experience on the rooftop which is told as it happened only a chapter before. “Peter went up onto the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance.” It must have been an extreme shock to Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where the food laws are expounded were after all written by Moses. Peter’s scriptural understanding and long tradition, all he knew said “No, by no means Lord for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the Lord God persisted and three times, by which metaphor we understand repeatedly and strongly, the vision and command were given.
Even so Peter was unsure, as we can read in the earlier “live” edition: “While Peter was greatly perplexed about what to make of the vision, that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” Peter knew Jesus, had walked with him, sat at his feet and listened to him had watched him eat with sinners and yet this event in the roof, this confrontation with something new shook him. The outcome, that he did visit and did eat with Cornelius provoked criticism.
Note that Peter does not respond to his critics by saying “I think that what I did was right” or even by saying “you are wrong” but rested his case in what he and his six companions discerned what God was saying to them and to the early church.
A few weeks ago I was at a small social event when one of the gathering, not a churchgoer, spotting the new rector thought to move in over the canapes and white wine onto the subject of gay marriage. Now I am as fond of doing battle over the knives and forks as the next person but it was neither the time nor the place and in any case the question bore a note of hostility.
The real answer is that it does not matter what the ultra conservatives say about Pope Francis, nor our own anglo catholics about women bishops, nor what the rector thinks about gay marriage: It matters only what God thinks and is saying to us at this time. And like Peter we may be surprised if we really knew but of course we do not.
What I do know though is that the living God is continuing to reveal themselves to us and does have something to say to our time and our context and when we discern that, when we work out what that is, it will allow us to develop doctrine just as the believers in Jerusalem were able to adapt and welcome gentiles to the faith. Peter was gifted a clear vision to give to the Jerusalem brothers “who when they heard it were silenced.” For us it is not so easy; discovering God’s will in our information saturated world of multiple and various opinions, needs grace and prayerfulness, most often more time than we expect, a willingness to listen, to be open, no hostile questions, and most of all love.