When I was a little girl growing up in Sunday school, I never quite understood why Peter never seemed to get it together. Abiding by rules seemed so effortless and the quickest way to show you were a follower of Jesus. I was, after all, a self-righteous little saint of a girl. As an adult, I find myself more drawn to Peter, feeling utterly relieved both by his mistakes and his blind spots. Peter has become my friend with good intentions whose actions don’t always align with his faith. In the process of his slip ups, Peter is afforded opportunities for discipleship and growth, and he takes them. This is significantly clear in the way Peter’s view of “outsiders” and how his relationships with different ethnic groups shifts over the course of the New Testament. Looking at a few silhouettes of his life, we can follow Peter and his own bias journey.
In one of my favorite stories, John 4, Jesus is traveling with his twelve disciples through Samaria. Because I love this story so much, I wrote about it a few months ago here. Samaria was a “dangerous” place for Jewish Jesus and his twelve Jewish friends because it was the home of a people they were not to mix with, the Samaritans. Yet, because Jesus’ great love for everyone, this group finds themselves doing just that. Through a conversation with a Samaritan woman, Jesus offers her salvation and extends that offer to the rest of her village. In John 4:40, Jesus and his twelve disciples end up staying two days with them. I imagine these two days were full of eating, drinking, talking, worshipping; everything that they weren’t “supposed” to do. This is a powerful glimpse that Jesus might not fit anyone’s expectations, and this is Peter’s first opportunity to confront his own ethnic biases.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, many Jesus followers stayed in Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1-2). When the Holy Spirit came, the faithful spoke in different languages, and Jews from various parts of the world heard the message of the Good News proclaimed to them in their own language. The church was becoming multi-cultural and multi-lingual but was still ethnically Jewish. This would change with a vision from God. In Acts 10, God shows Peter an image of animals; some were acceptable to Jewish people to eat and some were not. God’s instructions were for Peter to eat of anything he liked. Peter refused because he wanted only the food that was acceptable by Jewish standards. After Peter sees this vision three times, Peter is invited to the home a God-fearing Gentile, and then the murky vision becomes clear. He tells Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Act 10:28, 35). Peter shares the Good News with Cornelius, and he and his household put their faith in Jesus and are baptized by the Holy Spirit. The family of God is growing and growing more diverse, and Peter is being discipled into expanding his heart for all people.
It would be nice if our journeys always stayed on the same trajectory, that we always grow without ever taking a few steps back. That is hardly the case for me, but luckily I have Peter to keep me company. Despite watching Jesus up close as he interacted with various people, despite Peter’s radical revelation that the family of God includes all people, he still made mistakes. In Galatians 2:11-13, Peter had been enjoying the fullness of the Gospel and sharing it with others, Jewish or not. He would spend time with Gentiles over a meal until a group of Jewish Christians came to town. Out of fear, Peter reverts back to his old way of thinking and separated himself from his Gentile brothers and sisters. This had to have been painful for Gentile believers. What’s worse is that Peter’s hypocrisy led other Jewish Christians to do the same, and the family of God became divided.
Just as Peter was on a journey to recognize and address his own bias, we, too, are being invited on that journey. Especially if you live in the United States, we are taught, sometimes implicitly, we must protect ourselves from difference, whether that’s difference in skin tone, religion, socio-economics, or some other category. More than any other category, I believe American Christians really struggle to recognize and address racial bias. It’s okay when we make mistakes, but it isn’t okay to stay there. When we stay in our mistakes, we live out a stunted version of the Gospel as Peter did in Galatians. When we recognize them and address them, the Gospel becomes full and vibrant in our lives, and ultimately, we become partners with God, bringing together all the people into the love and salvation of God.
Did Peter stay stuck? If we look to his letters, 1 and 2 Peter, we find a man who pastors Jews and Gentiles. With wisdom, he encourages us to “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind…grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1-2). Like Peter, we can grow up in our salvation. We just need to be brave enough to look at ourselves honestly to identify our racial biases and humble enough to return to the goodness of the Lord. There is love and safety and hope there. We need not fear the process because we have already tasted that the Lord is good.