Nothing Common, or Why Peter Would Have Been Your BFF

We are pleased to have Brooke, from ExpertTextperts, return as our guest.

I was reading the book of Acts (because when your religion class is Christian History it’s still more a religion class than a history class, and also why would you ask that?), or as my favorite apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland, has affectionately renamed the book: “The Acts of the Resurrected Christ Working through the Holy Spirit in the Lives and Ministries of His Ordained Apostles.” (See Acts 1)

Anyway, as I was saying—I was reading the book of Acts in the 10th chapter. This chapter has a couple of stories most people are very familiar with. Cornelius the Centurion is fasting and around 3 pm he says a prayer. An angel visits him and tells him to seek out this guy, Simon Peter who happens to be living in Joppa with a guy named Simon, who is a tanner. Cornelius is a faithful guy and wastes no time; he sends three men to find Simon Peter, which men leave the very next day.

These three guys are coming close when Peter is praying around noon and has his own vision, which initially seems to be completely unrelated. A picnic blanket full of foods that are very much the opposite of kosher (think entire slabs of bacon) pops up in front of him and tells him to eat. You may think that he’s just hallucinating from praying in the noonday sun on top of the roof, but this is a vision telling Peter that the times they are a changing. Peter protests and then thinks about what happened for a while. In his meditations, the Spirit whispers to him and tells him there are men looking for him. This would freak me out, but Peter goes to meet them.

Cornelius’ men have a sleepover with Simon Peter and the next day they all head back to Cornelius’ house, complete with a party of Peter’s buddies from Joppa. When they get there, Cornelius has organized his own party to hear what Peter has to say. Greeting Peter at the door, Cornelius leads them all into the house to meet everyone. That’s the part of the chapter we seem to be most familiar with, probably because Sunday School discussions have at this point led us too far off topic and we ran out of time.

Here’s the cool part.

The first thing that Peter does upon meeting this group of Gentiles is announce that Jews being friends with Gentiles is against the Law of Moses. Um, not cool, Peter, not cool. But then he follows that up by saying that God corrected this idea, it is now officially a fallacious sentiment. Specifically, he says, “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (KJV, Acts 10:28).

I don’t mention this to make anyone feel judgmental; this is a much a call to repentance for myself as it is for anyone else. No one is common. No one is unclean. The more popularly quoted scripture comes a bit later in verse 34, stating, “God is no respecter of persons.” But I prefer the version in verse 28. I should not call anyone common or unclean. We teach our Young Women that everyone is divine in nature. This is the underlying principle here. No one gets shunned, no one gets left out, and no one is common or unclean.

Not even this guy!

Now, for the record, “unclean” goes beyond a day or two without a shower. “Common or unclean” has a stronger connotation in terms of the Law of Moses—common or unclean things landed you in a literal Mosaic purgatory. If you came into contact with something common, you usually made an animal sacrifice after a few days or so of living in solitary confinement. In this way, the “holier than thou” attitude was taught in a literal sense for years, but the big difference between Judaism and Christianity was the Gospel of peace. Christ’s mission was to shift the entire Judaic paradigm (fun fact: the word “Christ” comes from the Septuagint translations, yay Hellenization!). If you’ll recall, the first four Gospels cover a lot of Christ spending time with publicans, sinners, and other “unclean” types. The Pharisees and Sadducees—two Jewish groups who famously didn’t agree on hardly anything—judged Christ harshly for the company he kept. The apostles spent approximately 3 years with him in the flesh as well as an additional 40 days with the resurrected Christ and up to this point they just didn’t get it. The entire time, Jesus had tried to teach them by example that society was changing; the separation between clean and unclean or Jew and Gentile had to go. Now, through a revelation, Peter finally got it and proved that everyone is equal before God and you have no excuse to stand “holier” than anyone else. No one is common or unclean.

Given this revelation, I’d be willing to bet that Peter would have been your friend. I’ll try a bit harder to be your friend too.

No one is common or unclean.

Comments

  1. Thank you. I’ve been feeling very common lately.

  2. Mary Bliss says:

    I think you’d appreciate this observation from William Barclay in response to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 9:13 when he quoted Hosea, saying, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” in response to Pharisaical condemnation of his dining with “publicans and sinners”.

    “the Pharisees had a view of religion which is by no means dead.
    (i) They were more concerned with the preservation of their own holiness than with the helping of another’s sin. They were like doctors who refused to visit the sick lest they should be injured by some infection. They shrank away in fastidious disgust from the sinner; they did not want anything to do with people like that. Essentially their religion was selfish; they were much more concerned with saving their own souls than to save the souls of others. And they had forgotten that that was the surest way to lose their own souls.
    (ii) They were more concerned with criticism than with encouragement. They were far more concerned to point out the faults of other people than to help them conquer these faults. When a doctor sees some particularly loathsome disease which would turn the stomach of anyone else to look at, he is not filled with disgust; he is filled with the desire to help. Our first instinct should never be to condemn the sinner; our first instinct should be to help him.
    (iii) They practiced a goodness which issued in condemnation rather than in forgiveness and sympathy. The would rather leave a man in the gutter than give him a hand to get out of it…
    (iv) They practiced a religion which consisted in outward orthodoxy rather than in practical help. Jesus loved that saying from Hosea 6:6 which said that God desired mercy and not sacrifice, for he quoted it more than once (cp. Matthew 12:7). A man may diligently go through all the motions of orthodox piety, but if his hand is never stretched out to help the man in need he is not a religious man.”
    ~William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, p.334-335

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Nice post, Brooke!

    This is one place where I think the language of the King James translation really inhibits our understanding. “Winebibber” just doesn’t convey the impact that is necessary. We really do need to understand that according to the New Testament, Jesus actively sought out the company of drunks and whores, and socialized with them.

  4. Shawn H – You are very welcome and thank you, I’m pleased you took something great out of my rambling.

    Mary – Thank you for sharing! Unfortunately, he is completely correct… I’m afraid we’ve all seen people like that or even felt ourselves turn a little Pharisaical at times. Great insights.

    Mark – So true, KJV conveys a lot of the feeling that “this is special” somehow, but not such a great job of conveying the basic idea behind verses and words. Let’s go out and befriend some winebibbers, shall we? And thank you!

  5. Brooke, your post stings, just a little. Outside of office, directly below my window actually, is a favourite spot for a group of homeless gentleman who also happen to be (as far as I can tell) alcoholics. I do not like walking past them every day and so I often take a back alley to the office, which is admittedly a shorter route. But this is no excuse, because when the alley is blocked – which it sometimes is first thing in morning – I do not like to walk past these men. I reminded both of the suffering in the world, my inability to combat it, and, in truth, the fact that I do not want these men to distract me from the things I *need* to get done. Could I stop and talk with them? Yes. Have I? Once. Did I relish that conversation? No. Their anonymous pain is an irritation in my otherwise (Pharisaical) Christian life.

    I admit, that for all my talk of community and fellowship, I am a hypocrite: and I have failed to understand this lesson.

  6. Thanks for sharing Aaron. I’d be lying (and a Pharisee) if I said I were any better than you. I have few opportunities in Rexburg, Idaho, to meet and talk with homeless alcoholics, but I can’t remember the last time I helped a stranger pick up the papers they dropped or even called my sister just to say hi and tell her I love her. I have a lot of room for improvement, and I have been called to repentance. If you do talk to them again, or even wave as you walk by, I’d love to hear how it goes.

  7. Great post, Brooke.

  8. Thank you very much, Jacob. I appreciate it.

  9. Aaron, you are not alone in your hypocrisy. While living in Utah during my BYU years, I went to Conference in Salt Lake a handful of times. I am ashamed to look back and realize that I did not give, even once, to the many homeless who gather around Temple Square during Conference weekend. I do not see anything more un-Christlike than dressing up to go to a multi-million dollar building to listen to Prophets, Seers, and Revelators speak, among other things, about kindness and compassion and charity, only to immediately ignore that advice.

  10. I don’t think the historical Peter was like that. Guess we should thank modern heroizing and the anonymous 2nd century saint who felt the need to posthumously reconcile the venerable Paul with his Judaizing fellow-apostle. I hope posterity thinks I’m awesome like that too, even though I’m not =(.

  11. Jacob H – I don’t think it really matters whether he truly was that great–but at the time the way he took gentiles into his home, visited Cornelius, and stood up for them in front of other bretheren upon his return was downright impressive. I don’t think he was perfect, but the point is that he realized his mistake and opened himself to new ideas, friends, cultures, etc. Even his acceptance of Hellenistic Christians was repulsive to many of the “Hebrew” Christians that did not like Greek culture. Stephen was martyred not just because he was Christian, but because he was a Hellenistic Christian. Historians even suggest that Saul’s persecution was specifically of Hellenistic Christians because foreign at the time equaled evil.

    The point is that this isn’t modern heroizing; it’s a downright impressive paradigm shift for the time, and one we can learn from.

  12. Hi Brooke. I guess I just don’t see it. At the moment, though, I lean toward the view that the author of Acts had access to a collection of Paul’s epistles, and that said author was explicitly reversing the historical roles of Paul and Peter. So I view Peter’s “downright impressive” actions more as impressive historical fiction with, among other things, the political purpose of making the first apostles and Paul seem to agree more than they did. Similar to how I view Deuteronomy as a political text first, religious/ethical document second.

    However, perhaps I should read the eclipse of the biblical narrative or maybe something else substantive someone can suggest? Certainly the “political” motivations behind the texts all but disappear as successive generations and changing times cause the texts to be read in new and perhaps better, more ethical lights. I like the idea that the ethics derived from reading and questioning the scriptures each generation can be seen as itself a divinely inspired process, even if it entails a creative re-imagining of the past. However, I would distinguish between the historical Peter, whom we know little of, from the Peter of Acts (not that I did anything like that in my posts, rather I asserted a different point of view about the origins and historicity of Acts and the personalities of Paul and Peter, which I find more credible).

    It makes me wonder how one could salvage your devotional thought given my skeptical assumptions. I don’t see a “downright impressive paradigm shift” happening for the Peter who never read Acts, nor really for the “Hellenistic Christians” who read Acts. I don’t really see the “Hebrew” Christians reading Acts and experiencing such a paradigm shift for themselves. I don’t see how this isn’t heroizing, a reading to champion a view popular today, which I believe is certainly God-breathed but not necessarily scripture-derived. To me it is as if God’s teachings are being handed to us in a messy almost zeitgeist package with a long and ever-changing cultural history, and the scripture is there to provide an anchor and confidence for our insights at the moment. We can use that confidence for good or evil, adding another page to the package, and it is comforting that so many people, like yourself, are using it for good. Is it still edifying to have your insight without claiming Peter had it?

  13. I don’t take scriptures literally, Jacob – which leaves me able to take whatever meaning I want from the story. I’m cool with that.

    There is a lot to ponder from this post – not the least of which is how we now tend to demonize and marginalize the common and unclean in our own society. I need to be more active in my association with the currently common and unclean, at the physically interactive level and not just in word.

  14. Jacob H,
    Barring time travel we don’t really know what Peter would or would not have done. This doesn’t give us a license to claim that the narrative couldn’t have happened. You can make claims about probability if you like, but not possibility. Know the limits of your discipline.

    All of which is beside the point. The story features Peter having a paradigm shift and we can, theoretically, experience a similar one. The point of the post stands, whether Peter started noshing on bacon or not.

  15. The way I read the OP, its claims are more ethical than historical, so whether the historical Peter did or didn’t behave as portrayed in Acts isn’t necessarily relevant. If, after all, the author of Acts recast Peter to harmonize him with later 1st-2nd century Christianity (and I don’t doubt that happened), then it’s equally valid for us to do the same today. Heck, I’d argue that the entire concept of scripture requires us being able to de and re-contextualize it to fit our present needs–to liken them unto ourselves, as wise men have said–so scripture is by nature more literary than historical. Theres certainly a place for more rigorous historical analysis, and there’s probably not enough of it in the Church nowadays, but I’m not sure this is the place to make that argument. Full disclosure: I’m married to Brooke, so that undoubtably biases me, but I really liked the post on its own merits too :)

  16. John C., I hope I didn’t imply that the narrative couldn’t have happened, but rather explained my own current view. I hope that the impressive insight into the ethical treatment of others need not rely on the historicity of the narrative, and I don’t think it wrong to point out that the insight seems to be more a function of our context than that of the text. I don’t mean that as an insult but to acknowledge it as a way God works. I don’t really think there’s much I’ve said here not in harmony with what others have commented, but maybe my agreement with the point of the post but not some particulars wasn’t clear.

    The kind of likening done here seems better than a reductive reading of the text alone, though it might therefore be effective only if you somewhat agree with the insight already. For instance, if we took something like this and argued about gender and authority in the church, that “no one gets left out”, there might be more disagreement today. A hundred years from now, things might be different. Zeitgeist.

    Casey, Brooke, the post was a great reminder to me to be mindful of who I marginalize. The picture was a great addition. Thank you for the post, although I seem to only be capable of baby steps and backwards steps in this area.

    John C., sorry for derailing the conversation here, and please let me know of any LDS blogs where my approach might be more welcome. I seem to find excellent church historians, but not so many with the same kind of focus and breadth on early Christianity, so maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Does Thomas Wayment keep a blog?

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