On that night, when Paul stormed over to Peter in the cafeteria in Antioch, Peter knew he had been caught. His face flushed, and he began stammering an explanation, and look, Paul is the one telling the story, and sure, Paul was probably in the right. It’s just, here we’ve got Peter standing in front of the crowded cafeteria having a public crisis of conscience. And it could be there’s something in us that wants to tell Paul to take a step back. Could be something in us that feels drawn to go stand beside Peter…
What I’m asking is to notice this impulse in your own heart. It might be more important than we realize; it might be everything.
Last Sunday, today, and next Sunday, the Narrative Lectionary has us spending these three weeks on a particular conundrum that split and shaped the early Church. Given that all the earliest Christians were Jewish, as the Gospel began to spread to Gentile communities, the question arose: Does a Gentile need to convert to Judaism in order to become Christian?
Last Sunday we heard the story of the Council at Jerusalem where Paul and Barnabas, Peter and James were on the same team in this debate. They all argued —No. The Holy Spirit is already working through Gentiles; we don’t have to make converting to Judaism a prerequisite for Christianity. And their side won.
Now in the scripture that Sue read, Paul is so furious you’d think he wrote the letter in all caps. Here Paul is shouting: Hey Church! Our good works can’t save us. Salvation comes to us through Jesus as a gift of God’s grace. It’s not about doing things to earn salvation, even things like getting circumcised or keeping kosher. The law of Moses might be our foundation, but now we have a new path in following Jesus.
And you and I know Paul has the authority to make this argument because Christ’s saving grace actually happened to him. Remember he was part of the lynch mob that murdered Stephen. He used to breathe threats and murder against the Christians until the day that Jesus found him and saved him, and if that could happen to him…
And can you imagine those early Christians who found Paul while he was surviving this crisis? Here God is asking them to come and stand next to this guy! Everybody knew he was a monster! What are their friends going to say! But I guess that’s grace for you… I mean, what are you going to do?
In today’s story what happened was that Peter had begun ministering to the Gentiles. He usually sat at their table; he didn’t worry about keeping kosher with them. But on this night, some of James’ Jewish friends arrive, and once Peter sees them, he panics. He picks up his tray and tries to sneak away to sit by himself. Paul watches the whole thing go down. He sees Barnabas tagging along. He sees the faces of the Gentiles who wonder what they have done wrong.
Paul storms over to Peter: What are you doing! You hypocrite! You don’t get to argue that salvation comes from God’s grace but then when James’s crew walks in you’re ashamed that they caught you eating bacon! You don’t even introduce them to the Gentiles, you just up and leave!
And I know we’re supposed to read this and hear how Paul is right because he is. But it’s also true that Peter is humiliated, and there’s no defending him! He is so entirely human.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares that the Church will be founded upon the rock who is, of all people, this guy. And I love that. I love that because all through the New Testament, whenever Peter appears on the scene, there’s no missing his humanness. It is spectacular.
It was Peter who left his fishing to follow Jesus. It was Peter who, bless his heart, tried to walk on water, and Peter who went up the mountain when Jesus was being transfigured—he offered to set up a tent. It was Peter who might have been Jesus’s closest friend and Peter who denied this on the worst night. It was Peter who Jesus comes to find after getting up from the dead, and Peter who made the speech on Pentecost, and Peter who got sprung out of prison by an angel.
Again and again, Peter defies our categories of good guy or bad guy. He shows us how human people are always more than heroes, or villains, or victims—because he’s been all of those. He’s every bit as much a monster as Paul was back in the day, and Peter is a bonafide saint. Peter is stunningly human, and it means something that the Church was founded on him.
Peter teaches us that the Church is always struggling with the question of who to stand beside and how to stand beside somebody when that will cost you everything…
I recently read the book A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. I learned about this book from Meghan Cooley, and I’m grateful to her. I definitely recommend this book, but it’s intense. If you read it and find you’d like to process it with somebody, please give me a call.
Author Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered fifteen people including taking their own lives, they injured twenty-four people, and traumatized countless others in a massacre at Columbine High School twenty-two years ago.
Right away, the book comes rushing toward us with loving disappointment. It will not do the thing we want it to do. We want to know why. What made Dylan and Eric perpetrate such unimaginable horror? Dylan’s mother takes us through her painstakingly rigorous investigation. What she does find is deeply meaningful. What she does not find is a clear answer to the question —Why did this happen?
If only this book could have explained how the Columbine massacre was the parents’ fault. If only these boys had been victims of trauma, that might explain what went wrong. If only the parents were abusive or glaringly negligent… If only there were vivid red flags that if our children displayed, we would intervene and they’d never be able to pull off a school shooting. But that’s just it… There are not always recognizable warning signs. And Sue and Tom Klebold were not terrible parents.
Shortly after the massacre, a carpenter from Chicago came to Littleton and created a memorial featuring fifteen crosses representing the fifteen lives lost. Well, one of the fathers of a student who was murdered came and ripped out two of the crosses because he couldn’t bear to have the perpetrators memorialized alongside his daughter.
A church planted fifteen trees in their courtyard to honor the fifteen lives lost. Again, someone came and felled two of the trees.
The message is clear: If you want to honor the victims who have died, you better be very careful who you’re choosing to stand beside. This message is drilled into us; we hear it, we get it. Nobody wants to dishonor the victims. It’s just…
What if the murderers have moms and dads? What if they’re grieving too?
Whenever a crisis explodes, the world rushes to embrace the victims, the world rushes to condemn the villains, but until I read this book, I did not realize what the world asks the families of the villains to do. We ask them to disappear. Unless they’re obvious accomplices, the parents of the murderers don’t fit into our categories. “Don’t make us think about them!” demands the world.
But what if the Church could take a different approach? What if the Church knows a little something about showing up and standing beside those who are hurting and those who are hated… And I know.
It really might cost us more than we know.
It might be the case that the world is desperate for this.
In this country, one of the founding stories of Mother’s Day goes back to Ann Reeves Jarvis. She created clubs for mothers. And after the Civil War, these clubs sought to encourage reconciliation between veterans of the Union and the Confederate armies. Her idea was that a mother’s love gives us an entry point for empathy. Because of course there are veterans on both sides who love their moms. Because of course mothers on both sides know the same worry, and heartbreak, and horror. Because of course, Sue Klebold loves her son, Dylan.
And I know what I’m about to say might sound blazingly obvious, but really it’s not:
You are allowed to love a person who has done something terrible.
Imagine if we could be a community who made it our mission to keep on reminding each other of this truth. We won’t let the world demand that you disappear. We will come and stand beside you.
If you need to hear it from somebody else, go ask Paul. Paul will say this love comes from the grace of God, and God’s grace is our only hope of salvation.
If you need to hear it from somebody else, go ask Peter. Peter knows all about loving the person the crowd goes and kills; he knows what it is to hunted down and found out by this same love.
If you need to hear it from somebody else, just ask Jesus. He came into this world to sit at the same lunch table with the kids who are getting bullied.
You are allowed to love the person who is hated. Paul will tell you. Peter will tell you. Jesus will tell you. And you know what? So will his mother.
Thanks be to God.