HAVING LONG AGO ago awarded the apostle Peter the prize for being the subject of the saddest sentence in the Bible, I recently added to his trophy shelf the dubious distinction of uttering what I suggest may be the most awkward sentence in the Good Book.
Here’s the powerhouse figure of the early church at prayer in Joppa, in Acts 10. If you’d say anyone knows God well it would be this Peter 2.0. Humbled by his denial of Jesus and restored in a tender post-resurrection encounter, his one-time loud—but frail—bravado has given way to quiet, unshakable courage.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, he has stood before large crowds and told them they need to repent. He has defied the authorities’ order to shut up about Jesus, and ended up in jail. In just the last few days he has healed a man bedridden for eight years and raised a woman from the dead.
Surely Peter is as close to and in step with God as is possible.
Then, as he prays, he has some kind of a vision. In Acts 10:16-19 we read how animals, reptiles, and birds are served up on a sheet, with the instruction for Peter to kill and eat them. His response?
“By no means, Lord…”
Peter’s knee-jerk reaction is in accord with all he has known and lived, obeying the Jewish dietary laws that preclude eating things considered unclean. He has learned well what God has said. He’s just not listening to what God is saying.
Peter has to be told the same thing three times before he finally gets it—an echo of his three-part restoration by Jesus on the shores of Lake Galilee (John 21).
Peter’s initial response to what he hears is almost comical. After all, the words “By no means” and “Lord” can’t really live in the same sentence. But when I read this exchange the other day, I didn’t chuckle at Peter’s dimness.
Instead, I cringed, and wondered, When have I said the same thing?
If Peter and I were to be matched in a spiritual cage fight, it would be no contest. He’s a heavyweight, and I would struggle to make flyweight. So if he could miss what God was really saying, chances are good I can too.
It gives me pause. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to something that challenges what I think I know, there may be times when I might do better with a knee-bend response.
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