How appropriate that one of the lectionary readings for today is Acts 10—Peter in the house of Cornelius. This event is not a retelling of the Easter story itself. Nor is it the record of a resounding “hosanna” that is reflected on the psalms or prophets as they anticipate this great and wonderful day. Rather, it’s a much more mundane story of transformation, so perhaps we can relate it to our lives when we move away from the echo of the trumpets and sugar-high of hot-cross buns and Easter candy and put away our Easter dress.
If you have journeyed through the readings for holy week, the travails of Peter will be fresh in your mind. He has taken umbrage when Jesus asked if Peter loved him, he has slept when Jesus asked him to watch, he has pulled out his sword when Judas and the troops came to take Jesus in for questioning, and he has denied Jesus three times even after Jesus told him what would happen.
How “relatable” the Peter of Holy Week seems! Negotiating relationships, weariness, defensiveness, alarm, and failing to profess our love for Jesus we it would be risky. Sigh. Been there. Anyone else? Anyone else run out of patience at a critical moment (preparing for the Easter breakfast or navigating the coming and going of family or with an errant choir member or musician)? Maybe we didn’t have a handy sword, but we might have wished Jesus was present to heal the ears of those who were. Anyone else so exhausted by the preparations (flowers, food, clothes, music, extra services, regular duties ...) that they sleep-walked through the actual celebration? Anyone else ... well, you get the picture.
We don’t know much about what Peter thought or felt when he and John actually listened to the women’s stories from their early morning trip to the tomb, but we do know that he and John went charging off to get to the bottom of it. John arrives first, but Peter—suddenly bold as compared to his attitude in Pilot’s courtyard—pushes forward. You can imagine that Peter was glad for something physical to do that morning after holing up with the others during the Sabbath. You can imagine that these sleepers ached for forgiveness of their weakness.
What a different view of Peter we get in the interaction with Cornelius. God speaks to him in a dream and he listens. So different from the night when Jesus warned him him he would deny him and Peter did it anyway. He goes on to the home of this non-Jewish soldier of rank, which would seem like an even riskier place than the courtyard fire where servants of the household talked about the day’s strange events. This time, instead of denying Christ, he tells the whole story for the benefit of Cornelius and the household. This time, instead of resisting Jesus’ pleas that Peter demonstrate his love by feeding Jesus’ sheep, Peter recognizes these “sheep of another sheepfold” and makes a radical claim: Jesus’ redemption extends to them! This section of the story ends before he gets there, but we know that Peter goes to the Jerusalem Council to advocate for the mission to the gentiles.
This is a transformation to celebrate! Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not just a theological renewal movement inside a small Semitic sect. Instead, we see the work of Christ in the context of the covenant with Abraham—“through you all the world will be blessed.” We who were once far off are brought near. And even those of us who have lived our lives thinking about ourselves as “insiders”—we don’t remember not being part of the church, being confident in God’s love, being able to confess our love for Jesus—even we can be forgiven when we don’t live up to all that we know and feel. Even we can learn to pay attention differently when God speaks to us. Even we can have our theological understandings challenged by the claims of Christ. Even we can use our longing for action, our impatience, our boldness and our advocacy for the service of the Kin-dom.
This Easter tide, may God help us to hear invitations that challenge us, to press through boundaries that are erected by the world and even the church in which we live, to accept Jesus’ forgiveness for our failures and to advocate for those who the world sees as “outsiders.”
Thanks be to God for the transformation that is possible in each one of us and in all of us together through Christ Jesus. May we take hope in the story of Peter and accept God’s grace for ourselves again today, and may our own transformation lead us to work for the transformation of the world that God so loved.
Harriett J. Olson is the General Secretary and CEO of the United Methodist Women.