May 15th – 5th Sunday of Easter – God’s People Expanded
I was asked recently what Bible character I most relate to. What would you say? Pete Horlbeck said I preach like John. I would like to think I’m saintly like Mary who shouted for joy when she sung about God using her as God’s vessel to deliver us all. Or obedient like Ruth. Or strong like Samson. Or wise like Deborah. Or tenacious and undeterred like Paul. I am much more like look before you leap, foot in my mouth Peter.
Matthew 14:22-33 says, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When he saw the wind, he was afraid, and he began to sink.
In Matthew 17:1-8, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”
Peter, James, and John got an up close look at glow in the dark Jesus, shining in his divinity, so much so that Peter didn’t want to leave. He offers to put shelters up for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He’s taking the mountaintop experience to a whole new level planning to hang out on top of the mountain permanently, but God with a big, booming voice cut that out. I preached last week on the rising of Tabitha/Dorcas. Peter knows how to do it from watching Jesus heal Jairus’ daughter. Again, Peter gets an up close personal seat to all these events. Though he’s not named, I’m sure Peter was among them fighting over who is the greatest disciple after he shared the Passover meal with him on the night in which he was betrayed because he directly mentioned him by name in Luke 22:31-34, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” But [Peter] replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
Big words. And words that he’s going to have to prove later that night. Later on Luke 22:54-62:
“Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”
But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.
A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”
“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”
Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.” So it all came true. Boasting in all his pridefulness in front of his fellow disciples, but as soon as he was out in the world, he’s like a dog with his tail between his legs. Giving Peter the benefit of the doubt, he may have meant it at the time. We all do when the boat is rocking merrily along, but when the ship hits the sand all bets are off. When we get a full gulp of adversity all of us quake in our boots. That’s what distinguishes this Peter, the one in our text today, from the one in the Gospel accounts. We see Peter transformed. We see Peter following the leading of the Holy Spirit. We see Peter having a hand in God’s people expanded and we should do the same.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
We see Peter transformed.
A farmer purchases an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise. The fields are grown over with weeds, the farmhouse is falling apart, and the fences are collapsing all around.
During his first day of work, the town preacher stops by to bless the man’s work, saying, “May you and God work together to make this the farm of your dreams!”
A few months later, the preacher stops by again to call on the farmer. Lo and behold, it’s like a completely different place — the farmhouse is completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there are plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields are filled with crops planted in neat rows. “Amazing!” the preacher says. “Look what God and you have accomplished together!”
“Yes, Reverend,” says the farmer, “but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone!”
Simon Peter is long-past questioning his dependence on the Triune God. He understood that he was doing nothing by his own strength, but the power of the Holy Spirit coursing through him. Peter is not the leap before you look, foot in his mouth, disciple who’s full of himself. But he’s fulfilling what Jesus said in Matthew 16:15-18, “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. Nor against Peter, himself. Remember when Jesus said in the Upper Room where he shared the first Lord’s Supper with the disciples? “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
The devil may win a few skirmishes, but he will never win the war, if we surrender to God’s will, God’s calling in our lives. Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love writes, “Until your knees finally hit the floor, you’re just playing at life, and on some level you’re scared because you know you’re just playing. The moment of surrender is not when life is over. It’s when it begins.” Peter had his knees hitting the floor moment and he is forever changed and his faith has been transformed. You see, his friends in Jerusalem, didn’t see his vision in a dream in Joppa, so he lays it out step by step, bit by bit. He doesn’t cow tow or stutter or appear sheepish in any way. He just lays it out there that God’s people, holding the keys to the kingdom, need to be expanded. Underline several times the word need. Peter was exemplifying what Saint Teresa of Avila once said: ‘We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can — namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s work in us.’
So, there in Jerusalem, in the midst of his circumcised brothers, Peter reached the conclusion of his account and humbly asks in verse 17, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” After these men heard Peter’s “step by step” explanation and understood that they were complicit in opposing God’s will, “they were silenced.” What a reversal that was to get the Jewish Christians to welcome the Gentile Christians so whole-heartedly that “they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
We see Peter following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Only a vision of the Holy Spirit could lead Peter to throw out the customs, what was ingrained in him from birth.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey tells of a time when he was giving the children’s sermon. He held up a bag, and pulled a package of barbecued pork rinds for them to munch on. Next he pulled out a fake snake and a large rubber fly, which led to squeals from his young audience. Yancey and a few of the children then sampled scallops.
“Finally, to the children’s great delight,” he writes, “I reached cautiously into the bag and extracted a live lobster. Larry the Lobster we called him, and Larry responded by waving his claws in a most menacing fashion.”
Yancey explained to the congregation that Levitical laws specifically forbade everything they had just eaten. No Orthodox Jew would touch any of the contents of his shopping bag. This is why the message in Acts 11:9 is such radical news: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter knew that this would be a stretch to the people in Jerusalem, but he was hoping, he had faith that the same Holy Spirit that drew him to that conclusion, was working in them too.
The famed Methodist preacher Halford Luccock once published a book of sermons called Marching Off the Map. The title comes from a sermon of his in which he referenced a story from the life of Alexander the Great.
After Alexander’s unprecedented string of victories that opened the way for his army to travel from Asia Minor through Persia and into Afghanistan, his generals came to him one day and informed him: “We don’t know what to do next. We have marched off the map.”
This, says Luccock, is the critical moment of decision, and it doesn’t happen only to world conquerors. Frequently, in life, bold and adventuresome people come across situations in which there is no precedent to guide them.
In such times we are faced with two choices: turn around and return to the security of what we already know? Or forge ahead, marching off the map? Do Peter and the people of Jerusalem trust the Holy Spirit to lead them into a new way, marching off the map? They all shout a resounding, “ Yes!”
We see Peter having a hand in God’s people expanded and we should do the same.
Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II. In France some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried. The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic. The soldiers did not know. The priest sadly informed them that in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard.
So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence. And they laid their comrade to rest. The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers — only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found.
Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them. It seems that he could not sleep the night before, so troubled was he by his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery. So early in the morning he left his bed, and with his own hands, he moved the fence — in order to include the body of the soldier who had died.
Grace means we move the fence. Grace means we don’t judge a book by its cover. Grace means we don’t live our lives based on a series of assumptions. But oh my golly, we live to be let into exclusive clubs. We secretly relish being on the “inside” instead of the “outside.” It’s safe on the inside, where you have a certain status and it’s comfortable. It’s hard to welcome the stranger, the people who are different from you, the ones that don’t use the same words, or language. Maybe they don’t speak churchese. But the Triune God demands, demands for us to draw the circle wide. There’s hymn “Draw the Circle Wide” with lyrics by Gordon Light and arrangement by Mark Miller in United Methodist Worship & Song Hymnbook 3154.
God the still-point of the circle
Round you all creation turns
Nothing lost but held forever
in God’s gracious arms
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide
Let our hearts touch far horizons
So encompass great and small
Let our loving know no borders
Faithful to God’s call
It reminds me of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:26-28 “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We don’t have to hog all the love for ourselves. God’s love is available to all. Our lives can be transformed just like Peter’s. If we ask the Holy Spirit to remove all of the bravado and pride, so that we can follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, we can draw the fence or circle wide. Showing the world God’s love every chance we get. Oh, the Holy Spirit, will guide us and lead us where to go, what to say, and how we should say it. Our God loves a good show and tell story, the believers of the Way, surely saw how the Holy Spirit had transformed Peter, and the world will see us transformed little by little, step by step as we walk in the ways of Jesus, showing compassion when we are hurt, speaking words of love and grace, when it’s so easy to offer judgment and angst, and letting our little lights shine in a world that’s constantly seeking to dim and eventually snuff them out. The Holy Spirit used Peter and may the Holy Spirit use us.