Peter Follows Jesus on a Downward Road

What appears to be a throw-away line in the Biblical text is not.

peter-in-chora-church-istanbul cropped

A mosaic image of the apostle Peter in the Church of the Chora in Istanbul.

Sometimes we read a something in a Biblical text that strikes us as a throw-away sentence. Upon a closer inspection we realize it is loaded with meaning.

An example is the sentence in the Book of Acts that ends chapter 9. The paragraphs that precede it describe the travels of the apostle Peter around Judea. He visits the town of Lydda. There he heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Then he goes to Joppa where he raises the recently deceased Tabitha from the dead.

It is at the end of this last story that the author states: Meanwhile he [Peter] stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner [Acts 9:43]. We may just skip over this sentence, believing it is just a filler to help bridge the text over to the next story. We feel we have no reason to care where Peter finds accommodations.

But Luke does tell us this, adding that Simon is a tanner. That little detail is what makes this whole sentence suddenly come alive. In first-century Jewish society, tanners were considered ritually unclean. Pious Jews, therefore, would generally avoid contact with tanners, because it would threaten their own purity. Simon the tanner was on the outskirts of both polite Jewish society and the Jewish religious community.

Yet Luke tells us that Peter chose to dwell with Simon while he was in Joppa. That is a bit surprising. It meant that Peter, the respected leader of this new Christian movement, was running the risk of incurring ritual impurity by staying with a participant in this despised craft.

In that little detail we begin to see how corrosive is the impact of this new Christian movement on the traditional ideas of Jewish purity and impurity. Peter is crossing over the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out in the religious community. Furthermore he seems to be walking a downward road, downward in terms of his own social and religious status. How can a respected spiritual leader act like this?

Jesus sets the example

Peter could respond, of course, that he is following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus, too, notoriously crossed over those boundaries. Jesus welcomed and touched lepers. He placed his hands on the dead son of the widow of Nain. He received tax collectors and prostitutes and extended forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery. The gospels make a point of telling us that Jesus often touched such people, creating direct contact with them.

Jesus overturned the Jewish laws on food purity when he announced to his disciples that nothing they ate could defile them. Instead what does defile them is what comes out of them in behaviors like fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, deceit, envy, slander, pride [Mark 7:17-23].

Jesus set the example. The book of Acts shows us how in baby step after baby step, the new Christian movement began live out this new spiritual stance. We see how the Christian movement came to embrace both Aramaic- and Greek-speaking Jews. Then it starts to welcome into the community outsiders like the new Samaritan believers, the Ethiopian eunuch, and now Simon the tanner.

All this is working up to the great and momentous moment, described in Acts 10, when Peter preaches the gospel to the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his family, and the Holy Spirit descends upon these new believers. This is Jewish Christians opening their spiritual arms to the ultimate outsider, the Gentiles. That will change the character and direction of the Christian movement forever.

Significantly it is the story of Cornelius that will follow immediately upon the sentence: Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

 Peter shows that he already has the open heart and mind that prepares him for the momentous vision that follows in Acts 10:9-16. In this vision, Peter is told to rise, kill, and eat a variety of animals unclean by traditional Jewish standards. Peter protests that he has never eaten anything profane and unclean. But the voice in the dream responds, What God has made clean, you must not profane [Acts10:15].

Given this context, the stray sentence about Peter staying with Simon, the tanner, explodes with meaning.

This is the movement of Christianity at its best: welcoming the outsider into the community of faith as an equal with the already established believers. When Christians practice a closed-door policy over whom they will let in and whom not, they betray their heritage received from Jesus and his apostles.

 

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Martha, Peter’s Equal

The faith of domestic Martha stands on a par with the apostle Peters’.

Bible text: John 11:1-44

[Martha] said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” John 11:27

Near the mid-point of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) stands the story of the apostle Peter’s confession of Jesus as the expected Messiah. It takes place near the city of Caesarea Philippi.

In Matthew’s version Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They offer him several answers that seem to be circulating among the Galilean populace. Then Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter responds on behalf of the 12 disciples: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds to this confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!…I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.”

We soon learn that Peter does not understand what he is saying, but Jesus does commend him for his statement of faith. It is a highpoint in all three gospels.

The Gospel of John does not record this incident. Yet John has an identical confession of faith in Jesus. It is spoken by Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus. It comes in John, Chapter 11. This chapter tells of the death of Lazarus and how Jesus raises him from his grave.

When Lazarus falls sick, his sisters notify Jesus. Jesus, however, does not arrive in Bethany until after Lazarus has been dead four days. When Jesus arrives, Martha runs to meet him and upbraids Jesus for not coming sooner.

Jesus reassures her that her brother will rise again. She says she knows that will happen in the final resurrection. Jesus then says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Martha responds: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Her words are almost verbatim the same words that Peter has spoken at Caesarea Philippi.

What I find interesting in this story is the amazing confidence of Martha’s confession of faith. It is strong, certainly the equal of Peter’s. John records this fundamental Christian confession of faith coming from a woman, not a man.

We don’t expect that of Martha. The only other story in the New Testament where Martha appears is a story in Luke 10:38-42. There Jesus visits the two sisters Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is the very model of a domestic housewife. She busies herself in the kitchen preparing a meal while her sister sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him.

When Martha complains about Mary’s negligence, Jesus tells Martha that her sister has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.

It is easy to interpret this story as saying that Martha has chosen the inferior way of busying herself with domestic duties while Mary has chosen the way of higher discipleship. Such an interpretations makes domestic Martha a model of a lesser faith.

But that is not the picture John’s gospel sets before us. In John, Martha is the confident proclaimer of faith. Mary is second fiddle. This involves a dramatic reversal of the more common assessment of Martha and Mary.

In the long patriarchal tradition of Christianity, the realm of women has often been described as the realm of the home and family. Men exercise leadership in the life of faith. But I want to suggest that that is not the viewpoint of the evangelist John. Domestic Martha can hold her own with the apostle Peter as a model of faith.

I belong to a church denomination that believes that God calls both men and women to leadership in the church. Welcome, Martha … and Mary!

Note:

This insight into Martha is not original to me. I encountered it in a lecture by Professor Phillip Cary of Eastern University. He discusses the confession of Martha in one of his lectures in his series, The History of Christian Theology. The lecture series is offered by the Great Courses Company. I recommend the series to anyone who might want to explore the unfolding of Christian theology over the centuries.