Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leaders. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles . Peter describes how he was called from Joppa to bring the gospel to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his household. Joppa, you recall, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world.
In Joppa, the tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house overlooking the vast sea and had a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual kosher food a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and as a good 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 just up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” It’s a gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.
“As I began to speak,” Peter says of their meeting, ” the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning.” It was a gentile Pentecost. He baptized the Roman soldier, his friends and his household. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,”
Did Peter truly understand where his visit to Cornelius would lead? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and fishing boats, 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? Was he ever completely comfortable at a gentile banquet?
Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him as a church leader 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 humbly for the voice of the Shepherd, hoping to hear it and ever surprised by the unexpected coming of the Holy Spirit.
Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and look for signs of the Spirit.