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Reflections on the Sunday readings

Peter Grows Up

Acts 11:1-18  •  Psalm 148  •  Revelation 21:1-6  •  John 13:31-35


In this week's Sunday readings, the best story comes from Acts. The Acts 11 reading is based on the longer story in Acts 10. To begin, Peter has a strange dream involving animals in a sheet or net being lowered down to him, along with directions from God to begin eating these creatures. Peter, raised with a specific set of religious dietary rules, is repelled by the thought. All of us, I suppose, have at least one food that fills us with disgust. This was what Peter was feeling, when given these strange directions from God.


Previously, in the most recent Sunday reading which included Peter, Peter was confronted with Jesus' question: do you love me? Before that, looking at the bleakness of the world without Jesus, he had decided to go fishing. Before that, early on the day of Jesus' crucifixion, Peter was denying any knowledge of Jesus. Before that, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of a slave involved in the arrest. Jesus quickly stopped his immature retaliatory response.


What will Peter do this time, with this strange dream of animals in a sheet lowered to him? Will he succumb to his immediate reaction of disgust at the foods represented in it? Interestingly, he begins by choosing to think about it (Acts 10:19), rather than go with his first impulse. Next, when a Roman military leader shows up at his door, he is accepting and welcoming.


The Roman military leader was a centurion of the Italian cohort, suggesting that he was the commander of a large group of soldiers from Italy who were stationed in Caesarea. The tension between the foreign Roman rulers and the Jewish inhabitants could be intense. Peter begins by saying that everyone knows they are not, at least by Jewish standards, supposed to be speaking to each other. Next, he makes an amazing comment: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.


As children, some of us may have had parents who had a rule not to "call names." Others may have been reprimanded for this conduct while at the same time observing that the adults were quick to label others with many negative words. In still other families, there may have been no principle around this behavior. Peter, for his part, apparently has been giving a lot of thought to his reactivity and labelling of 'unclean' foods. He has moved from a limited interpretation of the dream as involving dietary choices to a broader understanding of all that it implied. It was not simply that the all food groups were now open to him, it was that the community of people following Jesus should be open to all.


As human beings, we are creatures naturally prone to looking out for our own group. Children often make fun of others, ridiculing and excluding those who fail to fall in line with the group. God, on the other hand, as Peter came to see, shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). Peter, like most of us, took a long time to grow up. Somehow, thinking about it, getting clear about what he was trying to do and what was getting in the way, seemed to help.


For reflection

13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.


 In what ways do I still need to grow up? What would a more mature self look like?


Where was I able to be impartial today? When did immaturity rule?

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Good Hearing

Acts 9:36-43  •  Psalm 23  •  Revelation 7:9-17  •  John 10:22-30


It is a great thing to have good hearing – physically to be able to hear and understand what is happening around oneself. This Sunday's reading explores good hearing at many levels, beginning with the physical. Sheep, it turns out, have good hearing. They can select their own shepherd's voice from among many, knowing which one to follow.


While people are different from sheep, we are perhaps also more like them than we tend to realize. Our capacity to hear and distinguish among sounds is a similarity we share with sheep and many other animals. Voice recognition may have been adaptive to mammalian species; knowing the location of other members of the herd or flock may have been an advantage to both predators and those preyed upon. In this story, Jesus perhaps could tell from the tone of the questions coming to him that he was being preyed upon, and by the story's end (v. 31), his death by stoning was a distinct possibility. 


When challenged in the temple, Jesus shifts attention from himself as shepherd to make the point that his sheep are an unusual flock: a flock of those who recognize his voice. Most flocks, in a traditional sense, would consist of family groups of rams, ewes, and lambs. But Jesus here claims that his flock consists of those who can hear in his voice the way they wish to follow.


He makes this claim at an interesting place and time. He is in the temple in Jerusalem during what we now call Hanukah. Hanukah celebrates an event that predated Jesus' life by about 160 years – roughly the same amount of time since our own Civil War here in the U.S.  Briefly, the Jewish people, led by Judas Maccabeus, revolted against Roman rule, winning some concessions to their own way of life. In the end, a Roman ruler married a descendant of the Maccabean family to seal the new relationship between the groups.


When Jesus makes the comment that his sheep would know his voice, did he mean to imply that his sheep might even include some of the hated Romans? That is mere speculation. What is clear is that he suggests that people have a choice about what voice they hear, attend to, and follow. As humans we do have many choices not available to other mammals. For example, we have the choice of understanding our own history, including both vague scriptural references such as 'The Feast of the Dedication' and our own family's story as well. When following what is an automatic pattern, we have a choice of stopping and listening to our own inner voice, deciding whether what is automatic is still serving us well. When getting upset or reactive to what one is hearing, we have the choice of slowing down and trying to understand more clearly. When getting confused – when feeling blamed, afraid, angry or ashamed – we can stop the cycle of blame and hear the voice of a different shepherd, a voice of comfort and grace, proclaiming a bigger picture: the redemption of our species and indeed all of life.


This week's reflections


Psalm 23:1-3 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.


Morning reflection: What do I want to listen for today?


Evening reflection: When did I hear more clearly? When did I lose my way?

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Going Fishing

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)  •  Psalm 30  •  Revelation 5:11-14  •  John 21:1-19


The long gospel reading begins with Peter's announcement: I'm going fishing. All six of the other disciples gathered that night decided to follow him, and out they went. Fishing, after all, was what they were doing when Jesus first called them, back in the day. Now Jesus was gone, but they still knew how to fish. All night long they labored, catching nothing, presumably becoming increasingly despondent and frustrated, when someone on shore asks them if they've caught anything good to eat. With his coaching, they drop their nets in a different spot, catching plenty, and someone recognizes that it's Jesus who is talking to them.


Many beautiful moments in life begin with recognition, whether it's picking out a loved one at a crowded airport or finding the open arms of a child who has recognized you. What is more difficult is to recognize what one is supposed to do every day, or with the rest of one's life, as it is more comfortable to keep doing what one already knows how to do. As the story continues, Jesus and Peter take a walk, where conversations on important subjects often seem to happen.


Jesus may have selected Peter for this walk after considering his leadership qualities, which boiled down to a simple ability to decide to do something, even if it was only going fishing. Whatever the reasoning, Jesus' method in their conversation seems to be something along the lines of an if-then sequence. If you love me, then feed my sheep. Jesus does not begin with an analysis of Peter's personality traits, nor an assessment of his gifts and talents, as part of the discernment process. Jesus begins by asking Peter to clarify what's important to him, taking time to establish that he – Jesus and what Jesus stood for – matters more than anything else. Once this is established, Jesus gives commands rather than asking more questions, telling Peter to feed and tend to his sheep.


In a sense, what he is telling Peter to do is an expansion of the fisherman's role. Once again, the story has returned to food, although this time it is the sustaining bread of life that Peter is to work to provide. With this new vision, Peter and the other disciples can begin to think through next steps for their work. The vision begins with clarifying what is important to oneself, which provides the energy for the work ahead. Recognizing and working from one's principles creates joy in living.


This week's reflection:

Psalm 30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

Morning reflection: What are my operating principles? How can I live into my principles in the day ahead? Where might doing what I've always done get in the way?  

Evening reflection: Where was the joy in my day?

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