Sermon: Simon the Tanner (Easter 5C)

Acts 11:1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘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. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The 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. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If 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?’ 18When 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.’

Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We miss a fairly important detail in our first reading today because it precedes it. In Acts 11 we heard Peter’s defense of his actions in the previous chapter. One small detail that Peter leaves off in his recap of that encounter in Joppa is who he was staying with while there. Luke tells us, three times (!) that Peter is staying in the home of Simon the Tanner[1] in Acts 9 and 10. Why on earth would Luke add this extra detail about Peter’s host three separate times?

Well, I imagine people around here who have been to Colonial Williamsburg a time or two might have a better sense of what Luke is relating in that detail more than most Americans. While CW doesn’t have a tannery you can visit the leather works there and learn about how animal hides are treated, or tanned, before they can be worked into leather clothing. One of the things you will quickly learn is that tanning hides is a very smelly, and rather unpleasant, process, involving a lot of blood, guts, and brains.

Now, the only things we know about this Simon fellow are that he lived in Joppa, he was active enough in the early church that he could have the honor of hosting an apostle, and he was a tanner. That’s it. But we can make some assumptions based on those scant details.

The biggest and most important assumption we can make about this Simon is that he was likely viewed as favorably by Jewish culture as the tax collectors were viewed. Being a tanner meant that Simon was hip deep in dead animals and blood for the majority of his day. A reality which would have sent the fastidious Pharisees running for the hills. The Jewish religion at this time was heavily concerned with cleanliness. And being a tanner would have meant that Simon was constantly in danger of being ritualistically unclean.

His job would have meant that it would have been difficult for Simon to attend worship gatherings at his local synagogue, or even celebrations among his neighbors. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the purification code found in Leviticus and Numbers, but if you would like to, check out Leviticus 11 or Numbers 19. To sum the relevant purity codes up, interacting with dead animals that were not killed following kosher rules made one ritualistically unclean for the rest of the day. So in order to interact with his Jewish neighbors, or attend worship, Simon would have had to either not work at all beforehand or take the extra time to follow kosher rules about slaughtering animals (if he slaughtered them himself), thereby losing either income or time.

But it wasn’t just being potentially ritualistically unclean that would have been the problem. Rabbinical writings in the Talmud indicate that tanners were generally considered to be smelly, unclean, and immoral too. Isaac Oliver points this out in his article, Simon Peter Meets Simon the Tanner: “Thus, a baraita [teaching] cited in b. Qidd. 82a [a teaching from the Babylonian Talmud] forbids tanners from becoming a high priest or a king. But tanners are not the only workers singled out in this passage. Several other professionals do not qualify, including goldsmiths, carders, handmill cleaners, peddlers, wooldressers, barbers, launderers, and bath attendants. In this same baraita, the rabbis place all of these professions under one common denominator: any man who engages in any of these trades supposedly possesses an immoral character because of his extensive interaction with women during work hours. Hence, the rabbis explicitly state that such people are exempt from serving as a high priest or king not because they are unfit (דפסילי משום לא), but because their vocations are demeaning, literally ‘worthless’ (זילי).”[2] [brackets mine]

It’s interesting to me how societies generally transfer their view of certain occupations to the people who work in them. I find myself frequently annoyed at the conversations I sometimes hear about how some labor should be considered “less than” other labor. Such views today are generally attributed to service industry jobs, and the people who work in them. Our society generally looks down on servers, janitors, garbage collectors, and the like. Much the way Peter would have been taught to look down on tax collectors and tanners…until he encountered Jesus Christ.

But clearly at this point in his growth Peter has only taken a half-step towards the radical inclusivity that Christ taught. He’s willing to be hosted by someone of a “bad” or “lesser” occupation. Which shows he’s gotten over some of his nonsensical bigotry, but there are still some vestiges of prejudice at work in his heart. And so we have the Spirit speaking to the gentile Cornelius and sending Peter a vision. A vision quite radical in its message.

Remember my brief reference to Leviticus and Numbers? Those chapters I pointed you towards also list all sorts of animals that are simply unacceptable. And, of course, the Israelites being human, extrapolated that instruction to mean that since those animals are considered unclean, then any person or group of people who raised or consumed them were unclean as well. What a great way to dehumanize others! And look! Two thousand years later and humanity is still steeped in this anti-Christ and anti-human attitude.

It’s like we go out of our way to dehumanize others. We hear the command of Christ to love one another and then do everything possible to encourage hate and violence instead. It’s enough to make one despair. Where is the Spirit’s vision sent to those who are so full of hatred towards their neighbors today? Where is the call to love prodigally being voiced in our society? Where is the radical grace, love, and inclusivity that Christ preached to be found today?

Well, I hope it’s here, right here at St. Stephen. I hope we can get out of the Spirit’s way enough to proclaim to the world around us that the divisions and dehumanizing must end. The best time for taking action on being radically loving and inclusive was long ago, but the next best time is now. So let’s be bringers of God’s vision! Let’s call out the anti-Christ and anti-human messages which tell us to divide ourselves and look down on one another the way Peter was called out by the Spirit and the way he would go on to call out the church in Jerusalem. Let’s be people of radical love and inclusion the way Christ loved and included others, even the oppressed and marginalized. Let’s be Peter…let’s be better than Peter!

This is urgent too. Look at the world around us. There are so many divisions. So many calls to dehumanize others who are different than us. Transgender bans, “don’t say gay” bills, rising antisemitism and islamophobia. All these things targeted at those considered “other” or unclean. All these are anti-Christ and anti-Gospel. And it is our responsibility to stand up against this rising tide of hatred and dehumanization and oppose it. We are called to be people of radical love. That’s how we show forth our faith. That’s the surest way to walk the Way of Christ. After all, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[3] So go and love…even the smelly, unclean tanner. Go and love your transgender or gay neighbor. Just go and love. Amen.

[1] Acts 9:43, 10:6, 10:32 (NRSV)

[2] Oliver, I. W. (2012). Simon Peter meets simon the tanner: The ritual insignificance of tanning in ancient Judaism. New Testament Studies, 59(1), 50–60.  

[3] John 13:35

Sermon: Growth (Easter 3C)

John 21:1-19

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Details are important in Scripture, but they can be easy to overlook! For instance, did you notice what type of fire is waiting on the shore for the disciples to cook the fish they have caught? It’s a charcoal fire. This is a small detail, but a surprisingly important one!

Why is it important? I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I want to examine the start of our Gospel reading for today. The narrative is introduced by explaining that this is a post-resurrection appearance by the Sea of Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee). And in order to explain the location of this appearance we hear Peter say this to the other disciples in verse 3, “I am going fishing.” And where else would he fish if not the Sea of Galilee where he spent most of his pre-discipleship life. However, this comment does more than help set the stage for the rest of the encounter. It also says something fairly powerful about human nature.

Imagine being Peter post resurrection. He is the de facto leader now that Jesus has been raised and seems to come and go from the presence of the disciples. But despite that role, we haven’t heard all that much about Peter since he ran to the tomb to confirm Mary’s incredible story. After that sprint we hear nothing about or from Peter until this statement, “I am going fishing.” And wow is it a human statement!

In the midst of all sorts of confusion and chaos Peter wants to go back to what he knew before his time with Jesus. In one sense we could almost hear his words as an attempt to give up. He doesn’t know what to do as leader of the nascent church and so he wants to return to what he knows…fishing. Let’s be honest, that can be a strong temptation for us too, can’t it? When we’re unsure of where to go next, what we’re supposed to be doing; we often fall back on old patterns and occupations. The allure of the known and comfortable is one of the greatest temptations that humanity faces.

The problem with the allure of the known is that it often stymies growth. At this point I have to assume that the approximately three years (according to the Gospel of John) that Peter has been following Jesus has affected him greatly…changed him greatly. Peter has done a fair amount of growing! But now Peter finds himself in a crisis. Jesus has died and been raised, but it’s all so confusing and chaotic that Peter simply doesn’t know what to do any more…so he goes back to what he knows, fishing. Perhaps he’s even trying to undo the growth he has experienced walking the Way of Christ.

Peter’s crisis is not just from the tension of the known versus the unknown though. His crisis is also a spiritual one. Remember that his major role in the passion of Christ was to deny Jesus not once, but three times. So the tension of the known versus the unknown is further amplified by what is one of the most powerful negative forces in the universe, shame. Were I in Peter’s shoes I imagine that I would consider myself to be a complete failure as both a disciple and a leader of the disciples. After all, how can someone be a disciple if they have committed apostasy, denying their faith? Facing this mountain of tension and shame, I am not at all surprised that he wants to undo it all and go back to what he knows, a life he might hope will be free from tension and crisis.

Thankfully growth is not so easily undone! And even more thankfully, we have a God who is not at all interested in shaming us (despite what some Christians seem to think). Shame is not in line with the character of a God who loves the comos utterly and completely[1]. Shame makes no sense coming from a God of grace and unconditional love.

God may not shame us, but we can certainly feel shame in the presence of God. And we see that operating in Peter here. John 21:17 illustrates this: “Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’”[2] What is the basis of this hurt? I believe it is the shame of having a mirror held up before you. The shame of being confronted with one’s brokenness. The sort of shame that wells up from within and can feel crushing. Let me be clear, I do not believe that this is what Jesus wants Peter to feel, but it is the way humans often feel when taking a good hard look in the mirror.

What is Peter seeing in the mirror Jesus places before him? I’m guessing it’s a charcoal fire. Not the one that Jesus must have started there on the beach. No, a different charcoal fire. The one he stood beside in the court of the high priest. The only other time in all of Scripture that a charcoal fire is mentioned.[3] The charcoal fire that he was likely staring into in order to avoid looking in the eyes of those around him as he lied about knowing Jesus for a third and final time. The charcoal fire he was huddle near as he heard the cock crow and the realization of what he had done began to dawn on him.

I wonder if he stared at the charcoal fire again as Jesus asked him three times if he loved him. Three times in order to mirror his three denials. Three times in order to confront Peter with the mirror of God’s gaze. A gaze which shows us exactly who we are. A gaze which can pierce our souls and lay bare all of the muck and grime we try to hide from others, ourselves, and especially God. A gaze which sees all of us, and loves us anyway.

I imagine Peter staring hard at that charcoal fire as he answers Jesus’ repeated questions. And I think it’s too bad that he likely couldn’t look at Jesus. It would have been far better, and I suspect his answers would have been very different, if Peter had dared to look into Christ’s eyes in the midst of his shame. If he had, I believe, he would have seen what is always at the heart of God’s gaze, loving acceptance and loving challenge.

Jesus sees and knows exactly who Peter is. But Peter, in his shame, cannot meet the loving and accepting gaze leveled at him. Which is too bad because if he could have looked up into the eyes of Christ he would have known the profound Truth of God’s love for him and for all of humanity. And perhaps in the face of that loving gaze his shame would have evaporated away. Perhaps he would have been able to hear Jesus better too, but Peter wasn’t ready yet. The growth will come for Peter, we’ll see it in the book of Acts, but he’s not ready yet. He’s still holding too tightly to his shame. He cannot hear the Truth just yet. The Truth that he is still loved and claimed. The Truth that God is still active in him. The Truth that Jesus has not given up on him. “Feed my sheep” Jesus tells him. Jesus seems to say to Peter, “You’re no longer a fisherman! You’re a shepherd now and it’s time for you to get to work.”

I have been confronted with mirrors at various times in my life. It’s never an easy or pleasant experience. To see yourself laid bare is scary and makes us feel vulnerable. To truly see your self can often lead us to shame. We hone in on all of the dirt and muck and grime of our selves and we despair. Or we ignore our own brokenness completely and pretend to be perfect; which is utter delusion, merely a way of avoiding the mirror altogether.

Neither of these responses are what God wants. God holds up mirrors for us so that we can grow. Growth, spiritual growth in particular, primarily arises out of crisis and tension. The sort of tension that Peter is undergoing in our Gospel today. We cannot grow and change without confronting the parts of ourselves that hinder that growth. And such confrontation can be very painful. Which is why we need that loving gaze of God. That gaze which says to us, “I see you…truly. And I love you…truly. And I want you to be who I made you to truly be.”

I think, in the end, Peter gets it wrong in this interaction with Jesus. That is illustrated in the Greek more than anything. Jesus asks, the first two times, if Peter loves him with agape love. And both of those first two times Peter responds by saying he loves Jesus with phileo love. To clarify, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him in the same way that Jesus loves Peter and Peter just can’t go that far. The best he can muster up, sitting in the midst of his shame-caused crisis, staring at the charcoal fire in his memory, is that he loves Jesus like a brother.

But here’s the thing about Jesus, and therefore about God. God never gives up on us. Peter’s growth doesn’t occur here on the shore. But this mirror work will begin a new stage of it. Jesus’ lasts words to Peter are an encouragement to keep growing: “Follow me!”[4] He says to Peter. “Follow me!” he says to us too. Keep growing! Keep walking the Way of Christ. Don’t sit in your shame and despair. Feel the tension, certainly, but look for the eyes of Christ, the gaze of God. The loving and accepting gaze that sees us completely as who we are and who we are made to be. The gaze that will help us become who we truly are, blessed and beloved children of God.


[1] John 3:16-17

[2] John 21:17b

[3] John 18:18

[4] John 21:22c