1 Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
Put yourself in Elijah’s place. Some really dangerous people who have killed your friends are looking to kill you. Unlike them, you are unarmed. So you are hiding out to save yourself. But suddenly a stranger—soon to be a friend—momentarily unnamed, finds you and asks why you are holed up in a cave? As Elijah did, you tell your story to the stranger. As was the case with Elijah, your friend, happens to be Yahweh. Or to use a modern term, your friend happens to be God.
Next comes the proof. Yahweh told Elijah that he will take very good care of him. Basically his word is “With me at your side, no one and no thing can harm you.” Proof: a wind storm that splits rocks cannot blow Elijah away; a devastating earthquake cannot swallow him up; and fire—indeed, a conflagration—cannot singe him. Consequently, with such a friend protecting him, Elijah can face his enemies fearlessly. Instead of his being on the run, Elijah’s persecutors are put to flight. He need not hide out; he need only speak out. And what does he say? Baal, the god whom he refuses to worship and whom his enemies honor and cherish, will be crushed and so will his followers. Yahweh has just demonstrated that he, not Baal, controls the elements, and, consequently, life and death. That’s the message that Elijah brings to the Israelites. When they listen to him, they survive; when they don’t, they perish. Only 7,000 survive.
Paul’s message in his letter to the Romans is similar in its own way. He tells them not to be intimidated by the Israelites who do not recognize them as followers of Jesus. And that lets the apostle Peter, who has identified himself with the Jewish followers of Jesus, know that not having undergone the ritual of circumcision, as the Gentiles have not, does not deny them fellowship with Jesus. To follow Jesus is something altogether different from birth for both Jew and Gentile alike. Neither need do impossibly senseless things like trying to bring Jesus down from heaven or up from hell. These are as inconsequential as circumcision itself. Indeed, only one thing identifies a Jew or a Gentile as a follower of Jesus: “Confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead and you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
Also, in short order, Paul brings us back to where today’s readings began by asking the Romans:
Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
“Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, I alone am left, and they are seeking my life: But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (Romans 11:3-5)
Thus is Paul’s message to the Romans crystal clear. They are equal to the observant Israelites in God’s eyes. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:5). And what is expected of each of them and each of us is the same:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)
So how does Peter fit into all of this? Peter, metaphorically, is treading in dangerous waters to say the least. I can sympathize with Peter’s actual physical position because once upon a time I completely forgot that I knew how to swim—indeed, it didn’t enter my mind that an ocean is water just as pool is water, a touch saltier to be sure as well as a touch rougher as well, but it is still able to support a body whose feet have left solid ground. That is, if I could swim in a diving pool, I should be able to swim in the sea. The basic technique is the same: relax and put your head down in the water so your body can lie flat and allow your stroke to begin again. But forgetting such simple swimming logic left me to those who hauled me to shore. I simply forgot what I knew how to do and had to be taken to dry land. And just as a lifeguard and his fellows brought me safely to shore, Jesus took Peter’s hand and brought him safely back to his boat. Both of us, happily, survived!
Now Peter’s forgetting relates to the rough water that churned up for him when he insisted that the Gentiles were not equal to the Jews when it came to being Jesus’ disciples and God’s love for them. Paul, through Jesus, brought him back to his senses. For the message to Jew and to Gentile alike is the same, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians makes irrefutable:
Finally, Brothers [and Sisters], whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever making for the right, whatever loveable, whatever admirable—if there is any virtue, anything of high esteem—think on these. All you have learned, have taken from tradition, have listened to, have observed in me, act on these, and the God who brings peace will be yours. (Phil. 4: 8-9) [Garry Wills translation.]