The apostles and believers in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But I replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth." But a second time the voice answered from heaven, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, "Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved." And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are proactive, reaching into the depths of our personality, summoning us to new possibilities of life. Peter learned how to be a pastor by practice, on the hoof, as it were. Going out from Jerusalem to coastal Caesarea to tend Christ's flock, he found himself baptizing a gentile household not to give them the Holy Spirit but because he saw them already graced by the Spirit in visible ways. Although Peter was an observant Jew, like Jesus, obeying the laws and observances of his people, he could not refuse baptism to those he recognised as chosen by God. Without hesitating, he baptized them!
What creative, courageous leadership he showed, pointing the way forward for the church. At the same time he showed courageous leadership in another way, equally vital for today. When challenged by other members of the church for his daring initiative, Peter patiently explained the reason for his action. His leadership is not dictatorial but a blend of inspiration and dialogue. On the question of how gentiles could belong to the church, Peter had decisively opened the door. We may discern that flavour of openness and encouragement also in pope Francis' first year of leadership of the universal church; long may it last!
This dynamic in the church where questions are worded out theologically with an eye to tradition while yet being open to new and startling manifestations of the Holy Spirit, was anticipated by Jesus in the parable of the Good Shepherd. This Shepherd knows each sheep by name, calls each one by a sound which reaches into the depths of the person. Each change in life, whether for the group or for the individual, must be in continuity not only with our past life but also with him from whom our spiritual life is received, the Good Shepherd who calls us by our name. In times like ours too the Spirit may intervene surprisingly and lead our bishops and other leaders to new decisions beyond our expectations, as happened to Peter in the days of the Apostles. As we approach Pentecost, we and our church leaders must seek to be attuned to what the Spirit wants to change in our church, to make us more effective instruments of the grace of Jesus for the men, women and young people of our day.
Peter asks the question, 'Who am I to stand in God's way?' When the Holy Spirit came down upon the pagan Cornelius and his household Peter realized that God was doing something in the lives of these pagans and, at the very least, Peter's role was not to get in the way of what God was doing. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the gate. Far from getting in God's way, Jesus was the gate through whom God came to people and they came to God. Jesus is the open gate onto God. People can go freely in and out through him and experience the life of God. As Jesus says in that gospel, 'I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.' There is a sense in which we all share in that role of Jesus to be the gate. We too are called to be openings for God, people through whom God can enter people's lives, just as the Spirit of God entered the lives of Cornelius and his household through Peter in the first reading. At the very least, this will mean, in the words of Peter, not standing in God's way. We have a role to play in each other's lives but we also have to leave room for God to work. There is a time to be the shepherd and a time to be the gate.