Communal Sin in the 21st Century, Pt. 6

Jul 28, 2020

Though we struggle mightily with the concept of communal sin in our 21st century context, it’s vital that we recover a basic understanding of wrongdoing that takes us beyond narrow individualism. How else can we account for grave systemic injustice in all of our institutions? Trying to lay the blame at a single person’s feet is not only naïve, it vastly oversimplifies the problem. In this six-part series, we’ll take a close look at some of our nation’s abiding communal sins, taking into account systemic racism, communal sin in politics, the church, the entertainment industry, and the workplace. Having traced these destructive patterns in our cultural moment, we’ll then turn to the biblical account of communal sin and see how it both makes sense of our dilemma and offers the only feasible hope. In this final episode, we’ll consider the example of the Apostle Peter, a man who experienced a full-blown moral revelation, only to fall back into old prejudices.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. This is a podcast where we explore signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in. Hey, well, welcome to the final episode of this six-part series on Communal Sin in the 21st Century. If you've been with me for this entire series, hey, thank you very much. I know it's been an arduous journey and I hope it's been helpful to you. I hope it's been thought-provoking.

So now we come to an episode that I think is a little bit more on the encouraging side. It's my hope of course that all of the previous episodes also contained robust notes of hope and encouragement, but I'm aware this has been difficult subject matter. So I appreciate your patience and I appreciate you bearing with me here. But I think this episode really is deeply hopeful.

So I want to talk about the Apostle Peter in this episode. And Peter gives us just a very interesting picture. Dallas Willard in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines says actually, when he's talking about the Apostle Peter, he says, "When we look at the life of Peter, we really gain some powerful insight into just how magnificent the possibilities are for a person. In terms of their transformation, in terms of moral breakthroughs."

And I've mentioned this before on this podcast, but with Peter, his life is punctuated by so many highs and so many lows. You think about the incident where in the same chapter in Matthew, on the one hand Jesus asks his Apostles, "Who do people say that I am?" And they say, "Well, some people say you're a prophet. Some people say you're Elijah. Some people..." They give all these different answers to who Jesus is. "Some say you're John the Baptist even."

And so Jesus of course does something that is his custom. He turns it back around on them, and he says, "Well, who do you say that I am?" And it's Peter who steps up. Peter is very bold by the way, he often steps out and he says, "You are the son of God." And of course, this is the famous passage where Jesus says to him, "Blessed are you Peter, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

And he gives this amazing prophecy, "And I will build my church on this rock." Peter, of course, Petra, meaning rock. "And the Gates of hell will not prevail against it." That's a pretty good moment. That's a great moment on your resume right there as a disciple. Peter is probably feeling fairly good about himself.

But then in the same chapter, just a little while later, Jesus starts to talk about his crucifixion and his death. And Peter says, "No, no, no, may it never be. May these things never happen." And so we go from Jesus saying, "Blessed, are you Peter, flesh and blood did not reveal this to you." We go all the way from that to, "Get behind me Satan, for you or a hindrance to me."

So you got these extreme highs, these extreme lows, Peter of course, when Jesus is walking on the water and all of the Apostles are terrified in the boat. And they at first think that they're seeing some kind of a ghostly apparition. When they finally realize that this is Jesus, Peter's the one who says, "If you the Lord, command me to come out of this boat and walk on the water to you," and he actually gets out of the boat and he actually walks on water. It really is remarkable.

But then of course, he begins to take note of the fact that he's standing on water in the midst of a storm and he freaks out and he begins to sink. So again, extreme high, extreme low, and Jesus of course rebukes him there gently, "Why did you doubt?" And of course the ultimate picture of Peter's failure when it comes to Jesus's betrayal. When Jesus has being led to be crucified, Peter follows, now a lot of the others have abandoned him. Peter's going further than most of the other disciples at this point, he really is bold. He really is courageous here. But then of course, we come to the place where the servant girl asks him, "Hey, aren't you one of his disciples? Aren't you one of his associates?" And he denies it vehemently three times, just as the Lord has predicted, even invoking an oath at the end there.

So again, you've got these extreme highs and these extreme lows. And then of course after Jesus has risen from the dead when he is with his disciples, there's that very moving scene where Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him, three times, and then restores him and restores his ministry and there's reconciliation there. So that's why Peter really does show us a lot of the highs and the lows. In some ways, this is kind of a picture of, for those of you who are believers, this functions as a little bit of a picture of our own spiritual journeys. Obviously we're not heroes of the faith on par with the Apostle Peter, but our lives are often characterized by these highs and lows. Sometimes we see these really magnificent breakthroughs and then sometimes we see failure. And the temptation when we see that failure is of course to despair and to think that we really can't change in the first place, but of course our Lord offers to us forgiveness on the basis, not of our righteousness, but of his righteousness.

So once again, we're going to look at this pattern in Peter, because it doesn't cease after that scene on the beach with Jesus restoring him. And so this is a picture that is sobering to be sure, but I think is also deeply encouraging. And part of the reason it's so deeply encouraging is because it's so very realistic. So we're talking about communal sin here. So let me bring in the background on Peter on this particular incident that I think shed so much light on our own circumstances as well. And I think that will help us, that will help to be kind of a guide for us, a guidance principle in our time, right now, as we're confronting more and more of the consequences of communal sin here in the United States. But there's a remarkable chapter in Acts, Acts chapter 10 all the way through chapter 11 is a very strange and beautiful and powerful picture of the radical nature of the grace of Jesus Christ.

So Peter, who is an Apostle now and who has, by the way, now emerged with really his full ministry credentials. Of course, in the beginning of the book of Acts, in Acts chapter two at the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles and the great crowd hear the proclamation of the gospel, each in their own native tongue. The one who is leading that charge and who preaches that inaugural sermon of the Christian Church is of course Peter, he is the one, he's the rock the church is built on. So he's fulfilling that supreme calling. So Peter now is the hero that he's life has been leading up to. And that culmination point is happening here in the beginning of Acts. But Peter has a lot to learn still. There is much growth that still needs to take place. You know, I have to draw attention to some very wise words from my colleague, Nathan Rittenhouse.

And he said this on the other podcast that I cohost with them, the Thinking Out Loud podcast, but he's pointing out the moral necessity of being able to make mistakes. Now that's a moral necessity for us as human beings because we are not perfect. We are fallen and we make mistakes. We have to recognize them as mistakes. We mess up, we sin, but we have to be able to make mistakes so that we can learn from them and grow so that we can actually really, our more oral imagination can grow. And so that's what has to happen here with Peter, it's what has to happen with us. And so we see this here in Acts chapter 10, Peter gets this, what at first seems to be a somewhat surreal vision, this great big rug coming down with all sorts of animals on it.

And these are animals that for a Jewish person are ceremonially unclean. So Peter is hungry in this vision. This rug comes down with all of these squirming animals and a voice from heaven says, "Take, kill, and eat." And Peter says, "No, no. By no means. No unclean thing has ever touched my lips." And of course the rebuke that's uttered from heaven, "Do not call unclean what the Lord has made. Do not call unclean what the Lord has made clean." And so he's confused by this vision. He doesn't quite understand. And then following on the heels of this vision, Peter is summoned to the house of Cornelius, a Centurion, not a Jewish man. And so Peter obeys, he goes, and it's clear if you're actually paying attention to some of the textual details and some of the, the edge and Peter's voice that comes through, that he doesn't quite understand why he's going. He doesn't really want to go.

So he goes to Cornelius' house and Cornelius is very excited and receives Peter with great joy. And Peter is a little bit, frankly he looks a little bit rude at first. He just says, "All right. Yes, I've obeyed. I've come. I've been summoned. I felt pressed by the Lord. What do you want? Why am I here? You know I shouldn't be here, I'm a Jewish man." So let's pause for a second and understand what a radical paradigm shift this already is, that this...Now there have been ample words that the gospel is going to spread to the ends of the earth. That the command from Jesus is to go into all the earth, baptizing everybody in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that the beautiful outpouring of grace and salvation is going to extend beyond the nation of Israel.

So there's ample hints that the Gentiles are going to be engrafted into the story of Israel, but people still can't wrap their minds around that. The vision is to immense for them. And Peter has not wrapped his mind around it. So as he's there and Cornelia says to him, "I've had visions. The Lord has placed this on my heart." And then finally he realizes, he understands the full significance of that vision that he's had, and that it represents the inclusion of the Gentiles in the grace of God. And so he prays for them and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and there's baptism. And this causes all sorts of radical shifts in thinking for the leaders of the early church. In the book of Acts, and there's so much rethinking that has to take place. And this, is by the way, the impetus for a lot of the very detailed verses that come from the Apostle Paul, by the way, that talk about all the forms of life that now have to be reconsidered. Because now that the gospel has gone out cross-culturally and includes the Gentiles.

These are people, men and women who have been deeply involved in lifestyles that are utterly foreign to the way of the gospel. And so this is why Paul spills so much ink on the subject of whether people should eat meat sacrificed to idols, whether they should drink alcohol. These, I mean, all of these different cultural practices that carried immense symbolic significance across the Roman empire, not so different from our own day, right? When we as Christian men and women, here speaking to the Christians listening in the United States for instance, we belong to the Kingdom of God. But we are in a context where we are surrounded by numerous customs that we would deem outside of the will of God. And when we see people come to know Jesus, and when we see conversions, we have to think very carefully and strategically. We have to think missionally, because if people are deeply involved in these different forms of life that are outside the will of God, which is understandable by the way. If they're not Christians, they're not going to act like Christians.

If they have a vision of marriage that is foreign to what the Lord has said, if they have a vision of worship that's foreign. Think about that. These are not, there's no instant off switch for whole ways of life that are antithetical to God. It's a process. Now, there are cases where the Lord does act mysteriously and miraculously and people do experience very quick transformations, but even those stories have a fast transformation. We need to bear in mind. There's a deceptive element here. If we're not careful, we need to be realistic. There may be a very fast transformation, but it's still a process. There are still deeply ingrained habits. If somebody has come to know the Lord and has been rescued and has formerly been a very devout Muslim, there are deeply ingrained patterns of thinking that don't simply vanish overnight. And we can apply this same principle to the realm of somebody who's been outside Christian sexual ethics, somebody who has been following another God or another way of life deeply foreign to Christianity.

You name it, this principle applies, it's not...Even in cases of radical fast transformation, there's still not a light switch option. And so here we see this in Peter's own example, he demonstrates this tough, but very important truth. So he experiences what is a full-blown revelation of God. And he finally, in the house of Cornelius, he recognizes that God's grace now includes the Gentiles. It's not limited to the nation of Israel. It's not limited to the Jewish people and it's marvelous. And so this unleashes really a whole new facet of the church's missionary activities. And you see some of those most dramatically encapsulated by the way, the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. But you also see it in Peter's own writings. If you look at Peter's two epistles, First and Second Peter, those are phenomenally missional and powerful letters that capture what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land.

If you are a Christian, you belong to the Kingdom of God, but you're in a different kingdom. One that is often foreign to Christianity. So what does that look like? How do you deal with the persecution? How do you deal with the hardships? So Peter is quite incisive and wise and inspired on the subject. But nevertheless, nevertheless, in Galatians chapter two, this is a remarkable scene and many theologians have devoted lots of time to it. I believe that Peter Leithart, the theologian who is the president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. I believe Peter Leithart actually did his PhD at Cambridge on Galatians chapter two. But in Galatians chapter two, the Apostle Paul who, and here's another outrageous element here. The Apostle Paul is indeed an Apostle, but his Apostleship comes under the guise of very remarkable circumstances. He is not one of the original twelve who walked and talked with Jesus during Jesus's earthly ministry.

He is a latecomer and previously he was a fierce persecutor of the church and a zealous Pharisee. And so he meets Christ in a very miraculous fashion on the road to Damascus where he's blinded, where he gets the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" So this is Paul. And in Galatians chapter two, Paul calls Peter out and it's preserved for all time in the words of scripture, this is really remarkable. Now, why does he call Peter out? He calls Peter out because Peter is not eating with Gentiles. He's refusing to sit down and share the table with Gentiles because of the circumcision party. This is a legalistic faction. And if you read the New Testament, you'll see quite a few words devoted to them. You'll see that the circumcision party, it stirred up a lot of controversy, a lot of trouble.

You know what? Has that changed by the way? When you look at the shape of Christian ministries, I mean, you look at the way, a lot of Christian ministers and theologians handle some of the controversies of our age. You can see that little has changed. We've still got people going after other Christians. We've still got these kind of interesting wars about doctrine, about who's in and who's out. And some of that is understandable. Some of it is deeply tragic. Some of it is a huge distraction and some of it paints a very jaded picture for those outside the church. But I'll leave that there. But here the circumcision party are legalistic. They're insisting on actual, physical circumcision. They're insisting on holding to the law of Moses and they're particularly stringent and hard on the inclusion of the Gentiles. And Peter, to save face with the circumcision party, is behaving like a hypocrite. And Paul calls him out.

Now let's pause for a second. And let's remember Dallas Willard's words that in Peter, we see so much of the possibility for human beings. Now I do think that this story is deeply encouraging, but I'm also aware that that sounds a little perplexing right now. How is this encouraging? You know, here we are, Peter, who's made so much progress, who experienced nothing less than a full-blown revelation from the Lord himself about the inclusion of the Gentiles, who has had his eyes opened to see this man now turn and do this. How is that encouraging? Well friends, hear me out. It's encouraging firstly, because it's so realistic. I know that we live in a deeply pragmatic culture, and I know as well as you do, that we want quick fixes. We want instant solutions. And let me tell you, with the pandemic right now, boy, are we ever in a position uniquely right now to recognize that we don't always have quick fixes?

We may have aspirin in our cabinets to take care of that headache instantly, but there's no light switch for coronavirus, and we're not in total control here. This is a process. This is a trial, and we don't conquer, we endure. And as Christians we want to endure faithfully. Peter, he is an Apostle. He is the rock, Peter, but he's also like you and me, a work in progress. And at this point when this is happening, the Lord is not done with Peter. He has more growing to do. It's deeply realistic, but also notice Peter is not expunged from the biblical record. You know, one of the points, just as a side note here for the veracity of scripture, and the integrity of scripture, and the truthfulness of it, is that if scripture were some kind of a fabrication, why would you include details like this?

It really doesn't make very much sense if you're fabricating this whole gospel story. And if you're fabricating the lives of the disciples in some way to flatter Christianity and to make it look good, it doesn't make any sense to show the failings of Christianity's heroes. But they're included here. In all of scripture there's only one person who never fails, and that's Jesus. He's the only one who never fails. God is the only one who never breaks his promises. Everybody else does. And yet God's mercy prevails. Peter is still a work in progress here, but you know why? Also this is deeply encouraging. It's not just that it's realistic. It's not just that we have Peter still included here. After all, both of Peter's epistles are still there. And the truth that's come through him still stands. What's happening here, Paul is demonstrating an act of loving confrontation.

We've talked about this before that love does not preclude confrontation. And indeed, if you truly love somebody, if you really love them and you see them behaving in a way that is inherently destructive, the loving thing to do is to confront them, to risk alienating them, to risk losing their friendship, rather than leaving them to their own devices. Leaving them to their own devices amounts to an act of apathy and hatred. Paul takes him to task and calls him out publicly. Why so public? That's tough. We live, of course, in a cultural moment of “public shaming.” There's an odd new shame and honor kind of dynamic that's emerged, especially in social media circles where people are called out and castigated in front of everybody and people pile on and do that. Is that what Paul is doing here? Is this just sort of virtue signaling?

No. So one thing that you will notice about the Apostle Paul, is if you read him is, he's a very intense management, and he's very hard on the people he loves the most, and he's very hard on himself as well. He has some very strong words for himself. He has some good words for himself as well, but he's very hard on himself also. He's hard on Peter because he loves him, but he's also calling Peter out here. Why? We're talking about communal sin. Peter is a central leader in the church. He's one of the twelve Apostles. He's an eye witness of Jesus Christ. He's one of the key mouthpieces for spreading the good news of Jesus's reign, his life, death, and resurrection. What he does has massive implications for everybody. He is a leader. He is leading forward. He is showing people his example. And in this case, his example is extremely destructive. And his example undermines the very credibility of God's gospel and grace. That's why Paul is calling him out publicly.

Everybody needs to know, the world needs to know that this behavior here, this reversion here, is wrong. It's not the end of Peter's story of course. Peter's life ends in martyrdom. And indeed his glorious death is prophesied by none other than Jesus. So Peter's story is one of redemption and triumph with the help of his Lord and savior and with the help of those that the Lord uses to instruct him. And in this case, it's Paul, a fellow leader. And one who, in many people's eyes, would be a little bit lesser than Peter, just in the sense that he wasn't actually one of the twelve during Jesus's earthly ministry, but Paul is right and Paul calls him out. But this also shows us once again, that the light switch option doesn't just happen. It doesn't happen overnight. Even with a full blown, moral revelation, deeply ingrained habits of sin and prejudice and discrimination don't go away overnight.

So I say this as a challenge and a word of encouragement. I say this as a challenge to those of us who, like me here in the United States, in our cultural moment, we're dealing with lots of fallout and lots of social unrest because of longstanding racial injustice, which is with us to this day. And speaking now as a white person here, we have a lot to work through and we have a lot of repenting to do. And some of you who are finding yourselves just awakening to all of this, there's often, when you recognize the pervasiveness of it, the sheer overwhelming scope and magnitude of communal sin. And when it comes to in this case, racial discrimination, recognizing the subtle and insidious ways that it's co-opted your own thinking, those irrational and wicked lines of thought that have infiltrated your own mind.

Once you begin to see that, it can become very discouraging too. So I say this as a challenge to not run away from that. But I say this also as a word of encouragement to recognize that as you press forward, it's a humbling prospect. Be prepared to listen. Listen to minorities by the way, who have a lot to teach us. Listen, push away the knee-jerk defensiveness and be prepared to grow. Also, be prepared for the fact that changing overnight does not happen. Just like when we're looking at systemic forms of wickedness, be they racism or deep seated political corruption. Those don't change overnight either. There's no “quick fix reform.” There's a process that has to take place and it often strains patients, but there's a process that has to happen. But on an individual basis in each of our lives, this is true as well.

And we can see this in Peter's life, even a hero of the faith like this. Now, let me also say this. I have in many ways in this six part series, cataloged not only difficult passages, it's not been exhausted by the way. There's plenty, plenty, more difficult passages in scripture. But I have cataloged a lot of difficult passages and I've cataloged the failure, the moral failure of some of the key heroes of scripture. Now, that can seem to be a recipe to undermine the very credibility of Christianity, because after all you could say, if you're a person who's got questions. "Well, Cameron, my goodness. Okay, if Christianity is so great, then how come some of the best people are so wretched and have made such massive mistakes. I mean, that's not exactly a very helpful selling point, is it?"

And here's what I would say to you, "If you look to the supreme example of Christianity, the supreme exemplar, the one who doesn't set the standard, the one who is himself, the standard, it is Jesus Christ. It's not Peter. It's not Paul. It's not King David, it's Jesus Christ." And remember, as I said, in the last podcast, it doesn't set the standard because there's not some standard outside of himself. That's higher than he is. He is the standard. So when it comes to goodness, truth, beauty, justice, mercy, hope, faith, love, the embodiment of that all is Jesus. And when we look to the life of Jesus, there is no moral failure. There is no failure. The man is sinless. He will never fail you. That's why Christianity is defined by Christ. Not supremely by his followers. His followers are the ones who will point away from themselves to their Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

If it were any other way, this would have been a recipe for despair, because failure would seem to be the rule of the day. It would just be characterized by ups and downs, ups and downs. But the ultimate standard is himself, Jesus. The one who leads, the one who instructs, and ultimately the one who will consummate history and make all things new. Who will deal perfectly with justice and who will usher in a new heavens and a new earth, who will restore all things. Because our hope is fixed on Christ. Our hope is secure and solid and it's not fickle, it doesn't shake the way we do. It's not punctuated by constant ups and downs. But in the light of that glorious fact, we can look to our own lives and we can see, speaking to the Christians now, we are works in progress and that the theological term for this journey that we're making is sanctification.

And it's not without pain, it's not without struggles, but it's so worthwhile, because our hope is to be just like our Lord and savior. Disciples aim to follow their master and to become like him, not to master and learn his teaching so that they can spit it out on tests and so they can teach people alone. Information and all of that and doctrine theology, it's all important. But supremely, so they can internalize his teachings and live it out and be just as He is. “Be transformed by the renewal of their minds,” to use Paul's language from Romans. And so here with Peter, we see that yes, he experiences this amazing revelation, but they're still deeply ingrained patterns of sin. And yet the Lord in his mercy and in his love sends his servant Paul to call Peter out. And those words are preserved in scripture for us as a warning and a beacon of hope that all of us will mess up, but we need to have ears to hear. I've said this before on the Vital Signs podcast, I'll say it again.

There are few things that are as spiritually lethal as an unassailable sense of your own self-righteousness. If you are in a place in your head and in your heart of permanent moral superiority, where nothing can get through, nothing can penetrate your armor, you are in grave, grave, danger. And your mindset, by the way, is also an extremely dangerous mindset practically. The people around you have good cause to be afraid of you. Those are strong words, but they're true. Look to history, look to the men and women who thought they could never be wrong, and you're going to see a picture of tyranny every time. Some of it on a large scale, some of it on a smaller scale, tyranny every time. We have to be saved, we cannot rely on our own strength, our own resources and our own understanding. We need Christ and his love and the infusion of his grace and the power of his Holy Spirit if we are to triumph in the end. Because that victory doesn't belong to us, it belongs to Christ.

And so in Peter, you see a key figure, a leading figure, again, making a huge mistake, but you see the Lord in his mercy rebuking Peter, because he loves him so that he can grow and so that he can learn. And so that he can move forward. May that be true with all of us, especially in this moment where we have a real opportunity to open our eyes and to listen and to see true injustice around us. That's why in some ways, yes, there's a lot of civil unrest. Yes, there's a lot of fear, and a lot of people are very, very anxious and understandably concerned. But in other ways, we as Christians have a lot to be thankful for right now, because unlike, say about ten years ago or twenty years ago, the sort of moral lethargy that really was influential in many of our huge sectors of thought and among many people, that is kind of becoming a luxury we don't have anymore.

And a growing moral outrage. Yes, outrage culture is not always helpful. Yes, outrage is destructive and can be toxic, but outrage, anger, indignation, it's being sparked off by a growing moral awakening. That really is happening. Now, where that goes and where we land on our definition of justice is a critical issue. But it's in many ways it's a very powerful starting point, particularly for those of us who want to point to Jesus as the embodiment of mercy and justice and love.

So let's not run away from this moment. Let's not cower on the sidelines. Let's not turn our eyes away because it's unpleasant, but let's be all in. Let's be there. Let's be courageous. Let's be the hands and feet of Christ. Let's be those feet that are so blessed that because they bring good news to draw on scripture, and let's be willing to accept criticism. Let's listen, let's be willing to grow. Let's recognize our shortcomings. And let's recognize that we don't have light-switch-fixes, that we are works in progress, and this will take time, but we can stop, lament, listen, and then move forward and do something about it.

So thank you so much for listening to the series, for hanging with me for so long. I hope it's been stimulating. I hope it's been an encouragement to you. But you've been listening to Vital Signs, a podcast where we explore signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. And I am a speaker and a writer here at RZIM

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