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Acts I: Peter and the Jewish Christian Church
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"Then Peter began to speak to them: 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." – Acts 10:34-35
The Acts of the Apostles – Introduction
The Acts of the Apostles is the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, written by the same evangelist who wrote that Gospel. The author uses “I” language in the opening verses of Acts (as he did also in the opening verse of the Gospel), as he tells to whom and for what reasons he wrote his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. The author shifts (at times) to the use of “we” narration, notably in chapters 16, 20, 21, and 27. This implies that the author—usually identified as Luke the physician (See Colossians 4:14.)—was an eyewitness to some of what he narrates in the latter half of Acts.
The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the earliest days of the Church’s history, from the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, through the various ministries of Peter and Paul—the two central figures in Acts—and concluding with the journey of Paul to Rome, where, in the closing words of The Acts of the Apostles, Paul is recorded as “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). Luke organizes the dramatic stories of Acts around the ever-widening movement of the Spirit, which spreads from its initial descent in Jerusalem throughout the entire Mediterranean basin, concluding with its arrival in Rome, the center of the known world.
St. Peter and the Jewish Christian Church
The first two chapters of Acts summarize the concluding days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, during the time of the Resurrection, and concluding with his Ascension and promise that the Holy Spirit will descend upon them and empower them to become Jesus’ witnesses and bearers of the Gospel “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Peter is portrayed as the leader of the band of apostles, as they await the coming of the Spirit, and while they wait, they choose a replacement for Judas, so that the number of the apostles could again be twelve—one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
When the Spirit descends upon the apostles at Pentecost, Luke portrays that event as the reversal of the disastrous division at the Tower of Babel of a united humanity into peoples of various tongues who could no longer understand one another (See Genesis 11:1-9). At the Feast of Pentecost—a Jewish festival marking the giving of the Law on Sinai—Jews from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem, for Pentecost was one of several pilgrimage feasts in Jewish practice. These Jews speak a wide array of different languages, and as the Spirit descends on the apostles, these rather untutored Galileans are given the ability to speak in many languages so that each group of Jews from each land can hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed in their native tongue. Already Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would empower the spread of the Gospel to the end of the earth has begun, for each of these Jewish language groups will carry home with them the Good News that they have heard while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem.
But whenever the Spirit works to offer something new, the change attracts and inspires some, and stirs up resistance and even fear-filled hatred in others. It is important for us to remember that Jesus himself was a Jew, and so were all of the first apostles. They had been raised as Jews and their understanding of God, and of right religious practices, were the product of their Jewish heritage. And so, The Acts of the Apostles is, in part, a story of the debates among Jesus’ earliest followers about whether Gentiles (non-Jews) can become followers of the Way (which is Luke’s name for the Church). As Luke sets these debates forth, Peter is portrayed—initially—as the upholder of a more exclusive understanding of the Church’s mission. As the story of Acts unfolds, Peter seems at first to believe that Jesus came as Messiah for the Jewish people, and therefore Peter holds that anyone who wishes to become a follower of Jesus must first become a Jew. In this way, then, Peter seems to envision that the Jesus Movement will be a new way within the already multiple “denominations” of Judaism at the time (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii), rather than a distinctly new Way to which God is calling not only Jews, but also Gentiles.
Of course, these debates among Jesus’ followers were not the only debates at the time. Jews who heard of Jesus had also to discern whether they believed Jesus was the one God has sent as Messiah, or not. In chapter five of Acts, Peter and the other apostles are forbidden by the Sanhedrin—a sort of Supreme Court of Jewish teachers—to teach in Jesus’ name. But Peter and his fellow apostles refuse to obey the Sanhedrin, saying that they must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The tension and lack of surety about what to believe about Jesus that is circulating among faithful Jews is portrayed by Luke as having reached even into the Sanhedrin, where the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel cautions the Sanhedrin not to move too fast or with too much surety, saying: “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39)!
In one of the most dramatic scenes in the early part of Acts, Peter’s own conversion from one who believed that only Jews could become followers of Jesus to one who understood that God was also calling Gentiles is narrated in chapter 10. His conversion happens during a time of prayer, when Peter falls into a trance, and has a vision of a huge sheet being let down out of heaven, filled with unclean (nonkosher) animals, and hearing a voice that commands him to rise, kill, and eat. Peter resists, seeming to believe that this voice is not of God. But the voice persists, saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” We are told that this happens three times, before the sheet is drawn back up into heaven (Acts 10:9-16).
Despite this commanding vision and voice, Peter remains perplexed and does not know what to make of the vision. But immediately afterwards—in what Jung and his followers would call a synchronous event—a Roman centurion named Cornelius sends men to find Peter and invite him to come to Cornelius’ house. Peter ponders the invitation, and while he does so, he hears the Spirit tell him, “Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20). Peter goes and when he meets Cornelius he finds that God has spoken to Cornelius during prayer and told him to seek out Peter. And Cornelius and his whole household ask Peter to speak the Good News to them. This series of events moves Peter to a new place, and so he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). As Peter finishes preaching the Good News to those gathered with Cornelius, we learn that “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days” (Acts 10:44-48).
Though Peter’s conversion from one who excluded Gentiles from the Church to one who welcomed them happened in such a simple and direct way, the battle within the Church over the welcoming of Gentiles or not certainly did not proceed so simply or smoothly. We can tell from some of Paul’s letters that it took the followers of the Way a while to discern who could walk that Way with them: law-abiding, circumcised Jews only, or Gentiles as well. Next week we will see how Luke tells the story of Paul, and Paul’s role in the coming of Gentiles into full welcome as followers of the Way. The decision of whether Gentiles could be welcomed or not was a crucial one for the future of the Church, for if Jews and Gentiles could not sup together at one table, then the followers of the Way could not make Eucharist together and so would not have been able to be bound into one communion through table fellowship that broke down the barriers of class, nationality, and religion, which divided the ancient world into insiders and outsiders. The Church still struggles with divisions to this day, but the crucial decision to welcome Gentiles into the fold at least set the Church on a trajectory of welcoming all who wanted to follow Jesus, no matter what their background.
– Bill Rich
"St. Peter and the Angel" by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)
Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained—
unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening—
And along a long street’s
majestic emptiness under the moon:
one hand on the angel’s shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed...
And not till he saw the angel had left him,
alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream. More frightening
than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.
Had the angel’s feet
made any sound? He could not recall.
No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
He himself must be
the key, now, to the next door,
the next terrors of freedom and joy.
"Tears of St. Peter" – Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
“St. Peter Freed from Prison” – Gerrit von Honthorst (1590-1656) - See Above
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