September’s column from the Scottish Catholic Observer.
So far in this series about the early Church we have heard about the Apostles and Saul. We learned about Stephen and his martyrdom. But what about Peter; Jesus made him the head of the Church. What was he up to and what can we learn from that?
Apparently Peter was travelling round the country, from one place to the next, preaching the good news. He arrived in Lydda and found a man named Aeneas, paralysed and bedridden for eight years. Peter commanded him in the name of Jesus to get up, he was cured. Sure enough the man got up and everyone was amazed. They were all converted to Jesus.
At that time there was a woman in Jaffa nearby. Tabitha, as she was called, was renowned for her good works. She became ill and died. There were disciples in Jaffa and when they heard Peter was close by they sent to Lydda for him. Peter went straight to Jaffa and went to the room where Tabitha lay. The room was full of mourners and Peter sent them away. He knelt and prayed and then spoke to Tabitha and told her to stand up. The woman opened her eyes and got up. Peter called the mourners in and showed them that Tabitha was alive. Many converts were made in Jaffa and Peter stayed there for some time.
Why did Peter bring the woman back to life? If she had been a good woman then presumably she would have been received by God. This is something that has puzzled me for a while. The woman he raised from back to life must have died again at some later time; either that or she is still alive somewhere. If our aim is to enter this new life after death why bring the woman back?
I can think of two reasons for this. They both involve signs. It is good to remember that people in those times did not think in what we would regard as rational ways. Rational thinking is something we associate with scientists like Isaac Newton who made us associate cause and effect.
So what were the signs in raising someone from the dead? Well, firstly it was a sign that Jesus had power over life and death. It showed that this Gospel that Peter was preaching had unimaginable power. The second sign is a bit more subtle. It is a sign that becoming a true follower of Jesus involves us in taking on a new life. In baptism we die to our old life and rise to a new life, putting matters of the world in the background and putting Jesus in the foreground of our thinking.
Teaching that it is important to discard old ways and adopt new ones can be seen as dangerous talk. The authorities certainly thought this was dangerous talk as we shall see. Meanwhile a centurion called Cornelius, a devout, god-fearing man who prayed regularly, had a vision in which an angel told him to send to Jaffa for Peter. Cornelius was in Caesarea, some distance away from Jaffa so he sent two servants in search of Peter. While they were on their way Peter had a vision in which God showed him every sort of animal and told him to kill and eat them. Peter replied that he could not eat anything that was profane or unclean. God told him that he had no right to call anything God had made clean profane.
Peter was puzzled by this vision. No wonder, you might say; it is certainly strange. Soon the men came to fetch Peter and the Spirit told Peter to go with them because it was the spirit who sent them. Peter listened to the men and agreed to go with them. Next day they set off and reached Caesarea the following day. Peter talked with them and told them that it was forbidden for Jews to associate with people of another race. He told them God had made it clear to him that he must not call anyone profane or unclean. That was why he had come to bring the gospel to them.
The Holy Spirit must have enabled Peter to understand the meaning of his vision. Peter had realised for the first time the true nature of the Church. It was intended for all of humanity, not just for the Jews. Now he really understood that this was not just an extension of the Jewish religion, it was much bigger. Peter had to explain this to the Apostles who were surprised and said that God can grant “even the pagans” repentance that leads to life. I suppose that means us.
Round about this time Herod started persecuting the Christians. He had James, brother of John beheaded and this made him popular. He decided to do the same with Peter. During Passover week he had Peter arrested and imprisoned. The plan was to have a trial after Passover. Squads of guards were assigned to watch Peter in case of any attempt to escape. Meanwhile the small Christian community prayed night and day.
You will recall the story about how an angel appeared in Peter’s cell and released him from the chains that held him. He led Peter out through locked gates which opened by themselves and into the city. After walking the length one street the angel left and Peter was left alone, realising for the first time that this was not a dream.
This might seem unreal but what convinces me is what happened next. Peter went to a house where the Christians were gathered to pray for him. He knocked on the door and the servant recognised his voice and ran inside to tell the others. She forgot to let Peter in. No one believed her and while they were arguing Peter was left outside, still knocking to get in. You couldn’t make that up, could you?
This story is a difficult one for people to believe today. Believing in miracles is out of fashion. Why would God intervene in human affairs? Why work miracles for some and leave others alone? I think the lesson here is that God has a plan and it will not be thwarted. As we saw earlier, God had a role for Saul and intervened to set Saul on the right road. He had set Peter as head of the Church and was not about to see Peter executed; not until he had fulfilled his role at any rate. This is worth remembering when we hear people predicting the demise of the Church. We have survived far worse in the past.
Apart from the miracle there is something else in this story. You notice that all the impossible things were easily overcome. The chains were released, the guards avoided and the doors were opened. God did those things. The simple thing, opening the door to Peter when he knocked, was a problem. That was the human part.
I think the message here for me is that God is making great efforts to reach me but I’m too easily distracted to notice. Just like the servant girl I hear Him knocking and go running off before I open the door to Him. The question is, what am I going to do about it? I think the answer seems to be found in how the Christians responded to Peter’s arrest. They prayed constantly. Maybe I need to do more praying and more listening to what God is trying to tell me.