Editor’s Note: This article is based on a devotional that Janet Panning, Mosaic Board member, shared at the September 2021 Board meeting.
In the story of Cornelius and Peter (Acts 10: 1- 48), we have an outsider, Cornelius, who is devout and God-fearing, and an insider, Peter, who is impulsive and enthusiastic.
Peter is processing his vision regarding killing and eating unclean animals when Cornelius’ men arrive, to invite him to Cornelius’ home. After Peter’s testimony, Cornelius and his household become believers and the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out, even on Gentiles. Peter orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I’m not sure Peter even considered circumcising them at that time.
But soon, Peter is back with the other insiders, and the issue of circumcision comes up. In Acts 11, the circumcised believers criticized Peter; “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3, NIV). Peter shares his experience with Cornelius and the work of the Holy Spirit with the insiders. After hearing Peter’s account, the insiders seem to understand. They are excited to hear Peter’s testimony.
But the circumcision issue doesn’t go away. Peter himself may be wavering and wondering whether he did the right thing. Peter, who denied Jesus three times, has a history of being afraid of what other people think.
In Galatians, Paul says that Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. But when certain men arrived, Peter began to separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of the circumcised group. Paul is not very nice when he talks about Peter and goes further, saying: “Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12, NIV)
Where would the descendants of the Gentiles (us) be without Peter? Peter had a dream and somehow wound up baptizing the first Gentiles. Peter was impulsive and reacted to what was happening to Cornelius and his family. He seemed to be oblivious to the theological consequences of what he is doing. Yet, later, he may have actually been afraid, as Paul writes in Galatians, and may have wavered because of what people thought. I can imagine what comments would have looked like about the situation on today’s social media.
Perhaps Peter lacked the confidence that he had acted correctly, since he was acting in faith without thinking of the consequences. Or maybe Paul was right, and Peter just wanted to avoid persecution, so began to separate himself from the Gentiles.
Peter acted in faith and followed the Holy Spirit which led to an incredible welcoming of all the non-Jews into a faith in Jesus. Is it possible that he did this without thinking through the theological implications and without thinking about the consequences to his own safety or his own reputation? I would encourage us to remember Peter as we discern where God is in our own difficult discussions.
Where is the Holy Spirit leading us? How can we follow? Let us remember Peter as we discern where God is when we are among people who are the “outsiders.”
We also need to have grace to forgive those who, like Peter, waver – perhaps from a lack of courage or confidence. And may we also have grace to forgive the “Pauls” in our lives, who highlight our wavering for all to see.
May the God of hospitality and welcome, the God of both circumcised and uncircumcised, be with us as we seek to follow Jesus.