Impossible Is Possible

Acts 10:44-48 (and also earlier in Acts 10) – The 6th Sunday of Easter – for May 13, 2012

“…the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45)

In order to fully appreciate what prompted the very Jewish Peter, a.k.a. the future first Pope, to declare that Gentiles—non-Jews!—were acceptable for baptism (Acts 10:44-48), I backtracked a few pages and verses.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus bequeathed a new name on Simon the fisherman. Simon became Peter the disciple. In Greek, Peter means “rock.” Jesus famously called the erstwhile angler a “rock upon which I will build my church.” Aha! Pontiff #1 was a “rock star.”

What! Pigs can't fly!? (photo from PA Photos)

Peter-nicknamed-Rock also seemed to have stones for brains. After all, the traditional first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church—eventually known as Papa, Summus Pontifex, Pontifex Maximus and Servus servorum Dei—was the same guy who lied about Jesus. The future Pontiff #1, warming his hands around a fire while religious bigwigs grilled Jesus, denied knowing the preacher from Galilee (Luke 22:54-62). Old Rocky didn’t lie once, but three times . . . and it makes me weep every time I read it. Indeed, Luke reported that Simon Granite-for-Brains Peter also wept after lying, lying, lying.

And yet I’m grateful for Peter’s deceit and tears. As a sometimes less-than-honest and occasionally weepy modern day follower of Jesus, I’m glad to share some dubious character traits with Pontiff #1.

There’s more to Peter’s rocky start. Before Saint Metamorphic changed his mind and announced baptism could be a full-service sacrament in Acts 10:44-48, he grappled with a dietary dilemma. Near the beginnings of that chapter he did what proper Jews then and now do: he prayed. At noon, according to the Bible, he’d trudged up to the roof of a building and went about his ritual of prayer.

And lo, his prayers were answered . . . or weren’t answered?

Praying can be a dangerous endeavor. Whether through traditional words, in humble silence or even when we spontaneously blather on, confessing or justifying mistakes, prayer means we’re conversing with God. However The Lord God Almighty can be notoriously cranky with the Divine side of the chat. Or perhaps, to be a tad more reverent, the Holy One is oft mysterious and unfathomable.

But I’ll stick with cranky because sometimes . . . I pray, but God seems silent, indifferent. It gets worse. I pray, fervently or routinely, and God answers. But it’s not the answer I wanted!

As Peter bowed his head on that long-ago roof, it was the same for St. Sedimentary. Instead of sharing a few quick and humble prayers, he experienced a vision. A “large sheet being lowered to the ground” contained “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” I suppose you could say . . . pigs flew*! The vision implied that pigs, and other creatures, could be served on your plate. For a Jew, this was scary stuff. There were certain foods they couldn’t eat. It was ritual. Tradition. Sacred. Eating the “wrong” food wasn’t a cultural or religious faux pas, but a life and death issue.

New, unsettling insights weren’t over. That rooftop vision also helped Peter The Igneous (and sometimes Ignorant) understand that baptism wasn’t for a secret-handshake, special-inner-circle, old-boys-club activity, but a wide-open wild and wet invitation to everyone.

Eliminating food restrictions and encouraging baptism for all seemed as likely as, well, seeing pigs fly . . .

And yet, for Peter, those future hams and bacons had taken flight!

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carol became one of the first to coin the pigs phrase. It’s an expression of speech known as an adynaton, or something that is a “declaration of impossibility.”

“Thinking again?” the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin.
“I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried.

“Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly….”

How dare, in Wonderland, Alice imagines she could think!

How dare ancient restrictions like what food to eat or new restrictions like who should be baptized might be ignored. Peter, because of or in spite of all of his faith and faults and fickleness, witnessed the impossible. The God revealed by Jesus can be unruly with the rules. The God who Jesus reveled in, who often seems too silent, can also be quite boisterous.

I’m indebted to the Bible’s unvarnished depiction of Pontiff #1, whose faith was as solid as a rock and as dense as a rock! It would be easy for me, without examples like Peter, to choose the safest way or safest words while worshipping at the altar of adynaton.

For Peter then, and us now, God (a.k.a. the One Who Unsettles) often declares that the impossible is possible.


*The “flying pigs” photo images comes from here.

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1 Comment

  1. First a few words from my Churlish half… My professors at the Moravian Theological Seminary would object to calling Peter a Pope, or even calling him the Bishop of Rome. If I were to trust Wikipedia (sometimes yes, sometimes no) the first “Pope” was Clement I at the end of the first century, CE. But I’m not above tweaking the tail of the tiger in classes now and then, when I joked about the fact that Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, was making a pun in Koine Greek! Well, the joke was on me, because the pun in Greek on Peter and petrus (rock) also exists in the Aramaic word for Simon. (Sorry, don’t have my ARamaic dictionary at hand. to give you the right word.) The professor gave me a slightly distempered look (not the first time I got one from him.)… (By the way, I’m temped to count all the pros and cons of “Saint Metamorphic” to Saint Sedimentary” and “Saint Ignius” (sic) The Catholics may dislike the last one…Back to being nice.

    I love the discovery of the word adynaton. Now I have a word which describes the essential nature of Zen koans (or at least some of the more famous ones.) I wonder if anyone has compiled all the adynatons in the Bible. The most famous one, I suppose, is the notion of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. That something suggested is plainly impossible is a sure sign that the solution is to be found in an unexpected direction, as in my favorite image from Wittgenstein’s Investigations, “…when you do you best to go though a door which does not yield, the thing to do is to turn around, and see the open window behind you.”

    By the way, I often sense that prayer is a koan screaming to get out and yell at me to turn around to find the window.

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