Discipleship is about wonderful growth – the baptised believer rises from the water on a promise to imitate Jesus, to be made anew in his image. Some time later, it goes bad. Piety and traditions obscure our understanding of God, His ways and works. Reverence becomes the enemy of clarity. Tradition inhibits growth. Reality is too painful, we argue based on what we think God should have done, based on what we think his character should be. It’s an affliction.
Paul said the Jews he knew had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Rom 10:2). As he describes in 2 Cor 3:13-15 they were caught in a religious rut. The glory of God which shone in Moses’ face started off impressive, but it faded. Did Moses put on the vail to hid the glory, or to hide how it was fading? However it was, the same limitation was still holding them back centuries later, according to Paul – they just couldn’t see the glory in Jesus Christ. Their reverence for Moses’ law limited their growth. But even people who have accepted salvation in Christ face similar limitations: stalwarts in the faith fail to grow due to the stifling restrictions of misplaced piety and tradition.
When Peter was confronted by unclean animals and commanded to eat by the angelic voice, he knew exactly what to do: say NO! Peter refused three times in Acts 10:14-16. Our piety, simply knowing what’s right, can get us into some remarkable contradictions. Peter was refusing to obey a direct command from God because of his own personal understanding of God’s word. He was elevating his interpretation of God’s word, and his tradition, over the plain obvious evidence of the vision. Yet he had the spirit! He was one of the inner circle of disciples, a leader in the community, a leading preacher and teacher, personally instructed by the Lord before and after the resurrection. He was also mistaken, misguided – frankly, just plain wrong. If Peter was capable of this mistake we cannot imagine ourselves to be immune, and we don’t have to squint to see very clearly that leaders in our own community have plenty more to learn. Peter was not infallible (no ex cathedra for that supposed first Pope!) and neither are the leaders of our little community.
Did Peter learn? Probably. However even if (as we could perhaps generously assume) he retained the lesson, Peter faced a similar challenge later and showed the same weakness.
Peter was a leading pillar in the early congregation – we know that from Paul himself (Gal 2:9). However Peter’s traditional piety mixed with his desire to ‘maintain unity‘ so to speak (you see where this is going!) led him to flatly contradict the gospel. Jews did not mix with Gentiles – even John tells us so (John 18:28). Peter had learnt that God was no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), but he was still vulnerable to pressure from others to ‘be a team player‘, to ‘maintain unity‘ – not realising the perilous cost. According to Paul, Peter dissociated himself from Gentiles due to pressure from pious Jewish believers (Gal 2:12). No doubt it assuaged their sensitivities and made the whole Jewish faction content while they waited for the next issue to arise. It was ‘keeping the peace’. Peace without principle, but peace. Paul labelled it hypocrisy. The Jewish believers were pious but wrong – just as Peter had been in Acts 10. They exercised influence, played politics, drove wedges to maintain their purity, caused division.
In the incident with Cornelius, Peter was confronted with the evidence that his reading of the Bible was wrong and he had to correct it. Would he? Yes, with some difficulty he accepted the change. Others didn’t accept that his testimony was genuine and later pulled out all the stops to get their own way, to bend others into line with ‘the Truth as they had always understood it‘ – that is, their personal piety. Their reverence, their tradition, their long-held beliefs – it was all a vail over their eyes, preventing them seeing the whole truth of the situation.
The Christadelphian community was founded on the basis of growth. Its founder, John Thomas believed in the necessity of development:
“Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get it right at last”
Is this spirit alive and well? It seems not.
Today we see members of our community insisting on their own readings of scripture, insisting on projecting their understanding of Adam onto Jesus, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the have been wrong. We risk making the same mistake which Peter and others in his community made. Evidence cannot be ignored, the vail must be pulled off and as a community we should have the guts(?) to listen to evidence of God’s works rather than simply dismiss anything which doesn’t match our interpretation. Peter was stopped in his tracks by a vision that only he saw – we shouldn’t carry on as though nothing has happened during fifty years of demonstrable discoveries all over the world that have resulted in great advances in many fields.
If it could happen to Peter it can happen to us – how can we expect to be immune?. Is God continuing to work with our community to bring peace from would-be apostles agitating for a separation from those whose understanding of His creation they despise?. It cost Paul some trouble to do the right thing in that situation. Who is willing to do what Paul did in our day?
 Neusner, J. (1988). The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 980). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
 Thomas, John. (1848) Letter to the congregation assembled at Barker Gate Meeting house, 14 July, 1848