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."
Like the deer that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning for you, my God. (R./)
My soul is thirsting for God,
the God of my life;
when can I enter and see the face of God? (R./)
O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain
to the place where you dwell. (R./)
And I will come to the altar of God,
the God of my joy.
My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp,
O God, my God. (R./)
"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."
Saint Peter learned how to be a pastor from actual practice, on the hoof, as it were. Going out from Jerusalem to coastal Caesarea to tend Christ’s flock, he found himself addressing a gentile household. He discovered that their baptism was not their first time to receive the Holy Spirit, for he saw that they were already clearly guided by the Spirit. Although, like Jesus, Peter himself was an observant Jew who followed the laws and rituals of his people, he could not refuse baptism to people he recognised as chosen by God. So without hesitating, he baptized them!
What courageous leadership Peter showed, pointing the way forward for the church of future centuries. And he had to show his courage in another way, equally vital for today. When challenged by other members of the church for his daring initiative, Peter patiently explained why it was necessary and right. 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 can recognise that flavour of openness and encouragement also in pope Francis’ style of leadership; and of course, like Peter, he faces stiff opposition from those who should know better.
This process in the church, where questions are worked out in dialogue, was anticipated by Jesus in the parable of the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd knows each sheep by name, calls each one by a sound which reaches into the depths of the individual. Each life-changing decision, whether for the group or for the individual, must be in continuity with our past but also in union the one who promises a deeper life, the Good Shepherd who calls us by our name.
In our times too the Spirit may intervene surprisingly and lead our pope and bishops to new decisions that are needed, like Peter in the early days. Coming up to Pentecost, we and our leaders need to tune in to what the Spirit wants to change in our church, to make us more effective channels of the grace of Jesus for the men and women and young people of our day.One could say, in a phrase of pope Francis, that Peter's tendency was to build briged rather than walls. His mindset is revealed by the question, 'Who am I to stand in God's way?' When the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and his pagan household Peter realized that God was doing something in the lives of these pagans and that nobody should try to block what God was doing. Then, in the gospel, we see Jesus as the gate of the sheepfold. Far from getting in God's way, Jesus was the gateway through whom God comes to us and we come to God. Jesus is the open gate into the kingdom of God. People can go freely in and out through him and experience God through him.
In a wonderful phrase Jesus says, '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 promoters and anablers of life for others. We are to be channels of grace, like Peter, just as the Spirit of God entered the lives of Cornelius and his household through Peter's message. At the very least, this will mean not standing in God's way, or making faith harder for others to accept. 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.