Correction: Simon Peter was not a Zealot. He did have a temper and no love for the Romans, but there are no known ties to the Zealots. (I got my Simons blended in my mind when I was writing this. It is fun the mistakes we make when teething babies bring on sleep deprivation.)
Today we begin our sermon series on the books of first and second Peter. Before we get into the text, let’s talk about Peter. Peter was quite the character. He wasn’t the greatest fisherman, had a bit of a temper, and when Jesus called him was
most likely involved in one of the resistance groups we call the “Zealots”. The Zealots were a Jewish rebel group that liked to ambush and kill Roman soldiers and officials. Peter had a deep faith and was ready to “take out” the Roman defilers. Watching the progress of Peter’s change in the gospels and Acts is breathtaking in the scope of how God could change someone’s heart. When we first meet Simon Peter he is fishing with his brother Andrew and they were doing so well that they abandoned their nets and boats to follow Jesus’ call. Whatever we want to say, things were going poorly enough that when some guy walked up to them and said “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Mark 1:17b, they had no problem doing exactly that. Peter was married and his mother-in-law lived with them, and it is obvious that he cared deeply for his family, since one of the first miracles that happened after his call is Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter went through life with no filter, and as endearing as it was, his observations got him into trouble as often as they displayed wisdom. My favorite example in when he recognizes Jesus in Matthew 16: 13-23
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter must have been incredibly frustrating to Jesus, since this pattern of displaying understanding then displaying profound lack of understanding is a theme in the gospel’s description of Peter. He got out of the boat and walked on the water, then took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink. He listened to Jesus say “blessed are” and then asked who would be first in the kingdom. He was an earnest and enthusiastic man who had the tendency to do, then think about what he did later, but things did change, if ever so slowly, in him. Even in the previous story we see that he pulled Jesus aside to rebuke him rather than doing it in front of the other disciples. I don’t think that would have happened at the beginning of his association with Jesus. Then the old Peter rears its head one more time, saying “I would never betray you Jesus”, only to find himself denying that he knew him before the sun came up. That experience changed Peter as did Jesus’ forgiveness and commissioning after the resurrection. Peter’s eyes became opened beyond himself and the provincial attitudes dropped away to bear pastoral concern for Gentile as well as Jew. Peter still struggled with wanting everyone to like him and his temper would occasionally come roaring out, but not like before. Jesus had turned a Jewish Zealot into a missionary that would eat at the table with Gentiles, bearing Christ’s love. The disciple who rebuked Jesus for refusing to be a warrior messiah writes to the church at large:
1Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Now Peter was writing to a specific region, a trade route that his messenger would be taking. This area had very little Jewish presence and Peter’s use of the terms exiles of the dispersion refers to those Gentiles and Jews who have gained a share of the inheritance through the second birth of the Holy Spirit. In this instance the exile would not be that they weren’t in Israel, but that they lived in anticipation of the coming in fullness of the kingdom of God, which we still wait for. We, who also have been chosen and destined by God the Father, and made holy by the Holy Spirit, wait. It is a heady and somewhat dangerous thing to think of ourselves as chosen and destined. Human history is full of the kinds of craziness and pain that people who thought themselves chosen and destined have inflicted on humanity. Peter heard the stories about what happened to the Jews when they let being God’s chosen people go to their heads, and it wasn’t pretty. The Jewish exile happened because the Jews thought that they were better than others and behaved in oppressive ways that wandered from God’s priorities that they would be a source of blessing to the nations. This is why Peter tells us explicitly what we are destined to, and it is a doozy. We are chosen and destined to obey Jesus and be welcomed in as family through his sacrifice! God’s grace and peace flows abundantly to people who the “faithful” would have had nothing to do with, you know…us. Peter struggled with this openness to “unclean” people and it took some serious work by God to soften Peter’s heart. In Acts we hear the story of how God opened Peter up to those who were judged as “unclean”.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there.
19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” Acts 10:1-20
To the Jews, simply being a Gentile made you unclean. To a good Jew in the first century, simply eating in the same room as one of us would have profaned them and made them unclean before God. Jesus replied to this “It is not what goes into the mouth that makes us unclean, but what comes out of it.” We have some struggles to walk through as well. It is very easy to start getting similar attitudes about others who we think are unclean, but God is calling us to something else. Peter was taught by the example of Jesus who spent most of his time hanging out with people that the pristine religious thought were the worst kinds of sinner. What is encouraging to us who also struggle in this area is that Peter who travelled with Jesus during his ministry still needed help with overcoming this attitude of exclusionary judgment and God helped him. Until this point in his ministry Peter was perfectly content to preach only to Jews. So here is the tough question for us who have been reborn by God’s mercy in the resurrection of Jesus: Who are the people it will take an act of God for us to go with? Who are we calling “unclean” that God wants to call “son” or “daughter”? Is our hope alive and growing toward others or has it stopped at us?
A living hope does not stop with us, but is a gift we have been given to share. It is a gift that is beyond the limits of our understanding in its scope, but we are afraid. I am afraid sometimes that the gift will be somehow diluted if I share it with “someone like that.” I can’t really get specific on who the “someone” is for you because I suspect that it will be different for each of us and I don’t want to let anyone off the hook through my limited examples. There are people with whom we will not associate for fear of their eroding the gift we have received, for fear of losing what we have, for fear that if we let in people like that, the comfortable way I approach God may have to change. Sometimes I just wish that God would stop having me preach to myself. I need the reminder today that the gift we have is not subject to decay, cannot be defiled, and will never fade. The gift of resurrected life in the kingdom of God is not a limited resource, it will never run dry. Through the resurrection of Jesus our hope lives because it is not affected by anything that goes on around us. Our hope is not found in this world, but in that unseen part of reality in which the presence of God can be directly experienced. We are actually being protected by God’s power and do not need to be afraid of associating with anyone, because the gift of faith allows us to carry God’s salvation with us. God’s salvation from the power of death, from bondage to the systems that destroy, from the ways we miss the mark, is ready to be revealed in someone’s last time. Our hope is living, he has not only faced death, but has died and come back to life! God has made us clean through that resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of that work in us we have an opportunity that is the most wonderful thing we can ever experience. God will work through us. We can share God’s cleansing mercy with anyone and that mercy will never run out. We can share God’s mercy with people who we don’t want to have God’s mercy and that mercy will not only never run out, we will see the seed of God’s salvation planted. Our living hope is Jesus, and he calls us to go out to those we fear, to those who make us nervous, to those who are “unclean” and share the mercy of a new birth into a new family. Our living hope and the world’s is that message that God no longer holds the ways we miss the mark against us, but has opened the doors to the kingdom that all might come in. Everyone can be changed and made whole; there are no exceptions or exclusions to those that God has the ability to redeem. That is our living hope.