As I write this post it is MLK day. It is an important day for everyone in our country and in some ways for the whole world because of The Reverend’s dream for freedom and unity.
But such a dream existed long before that great speech on an August day in DC. Ultimately this dream existed in the mind of the Creator who created all of us to be equals to each other. For those who seek God with a whole heart the cry of “Free at last!” is music to the ears, but for the hard of heart it is nails on a chalkboard. For a person in the latter category there is a call for repentance to open up ones heart. To do so would be a conversion. This is not the same as coercion, but I will get back to that.
One such conversion is documented on Simon Peter. He was a Jewish man by birth in the first century. He spoke Aramaic at home, Greek in the market and Hebrew in the synagogue (when he was not banned). Greek or Latin were languages of conquerors to his people. He had grown up praying for a hero to fight might with might and drive “those people” out.
But then God gets Peter’s attention to address that. First, He tells a gentile centurion who learned to worship the God of Israel and showed kindness to the poor to send for Peter. Then with that part in motion, He warms up Peter’s heart muscle to go beyond his xenophobia (fear of the Other).
Acts 10:9 “About noon the next day, as they [Roman soldiers] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14 But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”
God pulled a Mr. Miyagi on Peter. For those of you who have not seen the Karate Kid, the movie has a karate tutor teach karate first by telling the kid to sand the floor, paint the fence and “wax on, wax off”. These tasks were menial, humbling, beneath him. But the lesson was in the labor waiting to be revealed. God talks to us in ways where we understand slowly by perking up our ears and often it is stretching us beyond how we think things ought to be.
Also we should note that three times is more than a charm for Peter; it is a matter of grace. Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus forgave him using the question, “Do you love me?” three times. At this point, Peter may have had at least a guess that he needed to go beyond the box of what he called unclean. Without forgiveness, he himself would be unclean.
17” Now 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. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’ 22 They answered, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.’ 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.”
With the Karate Kid, the manual labor was to train the kid for real combat but he did not know it at the time. Likewise Peter opens up to real peace with a Jesus that wanted to break down every wall, because of the cross, and all about the way of forgiveness.
Peter starts walking out the lesson by taking them into the house he was staying in. He cannot deny that this is the hand of God. What is important to see is that Peter is not coerced but guided into this step.
This is why the real heart of unity and freedom comes through the good news of Jesus. We have had laws on the books increasingly since Martin Luther King Jr, but legislation cannot change people’s hearts. Laws only change behavior. Jesus, when represented in humility and collaboration, will change the whole person.
I would like to tell you that Peter has a complete conversion on his prejudice, but that is not the case. Despite the position he was put in, he fails to stand with his gentile brothers in a social situation later. This is sad because, “Not to stand, is to stand” (Dietrich Boenhoffer).
But if we fail to walk in love and stand for those around us who are marginalized, we know we have a reference point to go back to. It is not in laws or social engineering but in that “God so loved the world…” and that He is calling us to cooperate in that broader way of living.