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The Ministry of Peter
Texts: Acts 9:32-43; Acts 10:9-16; Ephesians 2:11-19; Acts 11:1-26; Acts 12:1-18
August 11, 2018

Sometimes you just have to roll with the changes. Last week Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases—a doctrinal change that will likely challenge Catholic politicians and officials who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment. Francis said last week that executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity.

The pope’s decree is likely to hit hardest in the United States, where a majority of Catholics support the death penalty. The move puts Catholic politicians in a difficult position, especially Catholic governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions. “If you’re a Catholic governor who thinks the state has the right to end human life, you need to be comfortable saying you’re disregarding orthodox church teaching,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. “There isn’t any loophole for you to wiggle through now.”

Sister Helen Prejean, the advocate for death row inmates and subject of the film “Dead Man Walking,” said that Francis wrote a letter helping spare a man on death row in Oklahoma, and that he is well aware of the death penalty debate here. Francis once asked what happened to a prisoner in Texas whom she had enlisted his help in trying to save from execution. The state put the man to death the night before. “It’s a happy day,” she said after Francis’ declaration. “I’m clicking my heels. What I’m particularly delighted about is there’s no loopholes. It’s unconditional.” She added, however, “This is just a change in the doctrine, and it’s on paper. We’ve still got to move it into the pews and make it active.”1

The early church members had to regularly navigate changes in their understanding of church teachings and God’s leading in their lives as they considered the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God often called Peter to the forefront in managing those changing times. The believers would have known some of these teachings all along if they had diligently studied God’s Word. God never intended for Israel to treat Gentiles as second-class citizens. Peter’s experience with Cornelius helped restore God’s intention for the church to reach every race of people. Peter clearly understood God’s message regarding the vision of the unclean animals, but it took the rest of the church a while to catch on.

Though we often think of Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Peter actually first opened the way for him. Once other believers accepted this new perspective and began preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch, then Paul and Barnabas joined them and took up the cause. This new understanding of God’s leading only happened because Peter, a courageous groundbreaker, took the first steps in navigating the church through the process of change.

~ cb

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/02/world/europe/pope-death-penalty.html