Crossing Lines

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

Scott Sauls, a pastor in Nashville, recalls what happened a few years ago in one of his congregation’s small group Bible studies.

A woman excitedly announced that she had seen a car in the church parking lot that morning that had a bumper sticker for “the other party” – that is, the political party that was not aligned with the convictions of the majority of the congregation.  “That means a non-Christian is attending church today!” 

After a few moments of silence, one of the other group members – someone with whom she had studied Scripture for many months – said, “That’s my car.”


Sauls tells the story in his aptly titled book Jesus Outside the Lines.  Christians have all too often felt led to draw lines between those who belong to God and those who are presumably on the outside looking in.

For what it’s worth, it’s always been this way.  The early Church almost became an exclusively Jewish club.  The earliest followers of Jesus, who were all Jewish, had grown up in a culture that saw gentiles as spiritual also-rans.  Gentiles had no chance of enjoying the fullness of the life of God unless they converted to the religious practices of Israel.

Some of the more rigid Pharisees even began each day with this prayer: “Thank you, O Lord, that I am not a gentile, a Samaritan, or a woman.”  Some rabbis taught that if a Jew saw a gentile woman struggling to give birth, he should not do anything to help her.  Why should the world be burdened with another non-chosen human being?   

Now before we start posturing about the spiritual blindness of those who lived in the first century, perhaps we should own up to the fact that many of us also presume to know whom God is eager to bless.  It’s easy to imagine this 21st century prayer: “Thank you, O Lord, that I am not a [take your pick] Democrat / Republican, feminist / traditional mom, drums-and-guitars-in-worship enthusiast / pipe organs only devotee.”  To quote once again the author Anne Lamott, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

A remarkable amount of space in the book of Acts is devoted to showing why the Church, from an early time, moved away from its For Jews Only identity and became populated with multiple ethnicities, backgrounds, and spiritual convictions. 

Historians believe that the book of Acts was originally written on a scroll.  Such scrolls could be up to 35 feet long – but not 36 feet.  There were only so many stories about the early Church that Luke, the author, could squeeze in.  Luke is the only New Testament writer whom we believe to have been a gentile.  It therefore appears he had ample personal reasons for including the pivotal moment when a Jewish disciple first welcomes a gentile into the Jesus-following community. 

That disciple is Peter.  Once again we see the “big fisherman” on the leading edge of what the Holy Spirit is up to. 

The gentile in question is a man named Cornelius.  Not only is he a “gentile pig” – widely regarded by the Jewish religious elites as unfit for membership in God’s kingdom – but he is a despised Roman commander.  Yet this is the person God uses to school Peter into the shocking discovery that Jesus, rather than putting up walls to keep people out, is into tearing such walls down.

The story is fascinating.  It’s too long for us to tell here.  When you get the opportunity, consider reading Acts chapter 10 on your own.

The gist of Luke’s narrative is that Peter and Cornelius, a pair of strangers who live in different parts of Palestine, each receive a word from God that it’s time to meet.  That seems innocent enough.  But Jews were strictly forbidden to let gentiles cross the threshold of their homes.  And no observant Jew ever dared to enter the dwelling place of a gentile.  Both acts would be spiritually defiling.

Yet Peter, prompted by the Spirit, does both.  He welcomes gentile emissaries from the Roman commander into the Jewish home where he is staying, and he himself knocks on Cornelius’ door in the seaside town of Caesarea.  

Peter is experiencing one of those special moments in history when God is saying, “I want you to get something right.  Since the time of Abraham it’s been my intent that the Chosen People would be blessedto be a blessing.  And now it’s happening, right before your eyes.   It’s time for the followers of my Son to start blessing the whole world with the Good News.”

Peter, to put it bluntly, is blown away.  Here’s what he says to Cornelius and the other gentiles who have gathered:

“It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone” (Acts 10:34-36, The Message). 

And this at last is a good place to bring our study of the life of Peter to an end.

There are many more Peter stories worth exploring, not to mention the pair of New Testament letters that bear his name. 

My hope is that these four weeks have provided some fresh moments of encouragement and inspiration in your own efforts to walk in the footsteps of the One who called him Rock.