When your shoes don’t fit right, life can be very challenging, not impossibly challenging perhaps, but challenging, nonetheless. And when we encounter people with very challenging lives, we try to empathize, to figuratively put ourselves in their shoes. It helps us gain perspective. We try to walk around in their shoes. But we rarely go very far. It’s just a taste. And the fit is never ever perfect, or we’d be walking around in their shoes all the time. And it’s not a good idea having other people walk around in your shoes. Off the bat, it’s intrusive and unsanitary. I’m convinced people who share footwear have already blurred the lines about what’s intrusive and unsanitary, as when mothers and daughters or really close girlfriends do it. I don’t have scientific proof, but it happens rather casually in the movies and on TV. And it’s not as common an experience for men. It might happen among brothers, but hand-me-downs don’t count. I have five brothers and my parents were able to afford shoes for all of us. But I don’t recall any pairs of shoes ever being inhabited by more than one set of feet.
The image of stepping in someone else’s shoes is usually about getting another person’s perspective, or making an effort to experience someone else’s pain, or realizing none of us ever have all the answers. So, when Jesus told his close group of disciples at the last supper that he was changing their working dynamic and was now addressing them as friends, he was inviting them to a closer relationship than what was typically shared between teachers and students. We should recall that previously he encouraged them to call on God the way he did, as Abba, Father. It would have been new for them. According to their customs, the name of God was so sacred no one would ever imagine addressing God in a manner other than when acknowledging one’s utter unworthiness or when pleading intensely for God’s compassion and forgiveness or when extoling God’s eternal praises or when expressing heartfelt gratitude. Israel’s kings and prophets may have referred to God as Father, but they were public figures in what was often a religious setting. But Jesus never hesitated to address God as Father in public and to refer to himself as God’s own Son. In a way he was inviting his disciples to view the world from his unique perspective, to experience that awesome relationship he had with the Father, to taste the genuine brotherly care and compassion he had for all people and all God’s creation, to literally and figuratively step into his shoes.
If we ever wonder what it’s like for God to gaze upon humanity, the pinnacle of God’s created universe, and how throughout human history we are constantly at odds with one another, individually or in groups, fighting, swearing, gossiping, oppressing, complaining, harassing, demeaning, plotting, instigating, hurting, lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, ignoring, depriving, denying, tearing down, and just simply treating one another horribly and disrespectfully, we might begin to understand the risk Jesus took by inviting us into God’s own heart and mind and life. Did he think we would just acknowledge and set aside our selfish, arrogant, and ungrateful ways, seek forgiveness, and reconcile with our neighbor, and live happily ever after? He didn’t just loan us his shoes for a day. He gave us access to his Father. He made us his sisters and brothers. He gave us the very keys to his own house. Is there anything more he would not do for us?
The early church had recently received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they were being slowly introduced to what it all meant. Peter and the other apostles who knew Jesus personally and intimately were thrust into this role of sharing his teachings and way of life and applying them to current and challenging situations. Persecution was an inconvenient consequence of their affiliation with a cultural and religious tradition that failed to recognize the time of God’s gracious visitation. And as many more hearts and minds turned to the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, the message began to reach those outside their cultural and religious tradition. And the Holy Spirit invited Peter to step into his shoes. It is the set-up of this passage we read in the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter was deep in prayer around noontime on the terrace of a house in Joppa along the Mediterranean when he had a strange vision. A large canvas sheet descended from the sky lowered by its four corners containing animals of all kinds, four-legged creatures, birds, and reptiles. Then he heard a voice tell him, “Get up. Slaughter, and eat.” Consistent with his religious training, Peter replied, “Certainly not, sir. For I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.” The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” It happened three times and vanished back up into the sky. And as he was wondering to himself what it all meant, three men came to the door looking for him. They took him to the house of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, who the day before had seen a vision of an angel who had him send for Peter.
Peter put two and two together. “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” All this was happening at about the same time Paul and Barnabas were preaching the gospel to non-Jews in Antioch who welcomed their message. It never occurred to any of them that God’s plan for the salvation of the human family included those outside of Israel from the beginning. And when Jesus invited Peter to step into his shoes, it all came together. “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”
So when Jesus invited his closest companions at the last supper to “Love one another as I love you,” he was inviting them and us to step into his shoes. “As I love you.” Don’t just love one another the way you know how, but “love one another as I love you.” Was he telling us to do something altogether unlike what we would choose to do if it was up to us? We have heard it many times before. He didn’t command us to like one another. Love is not a feeling, but an act of the will. Then he shared an image that would forever describe the depth of his love for us, which he tells us should be the depth of our love for one another. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” To lay down our lives in love will not be easy. We will be fearful. We will struggle. But if we step in his shoes, we might grasp the depth of his love for us. Then we will perhaps grasp the depth to which he calls us to love our sisters and brothers, the same selfish, arrogant, and ungrateful people for whom he gave up his life. Who of your friends do you think would be willing to lay their lives down for you? Who of them would you be willing to lay down your life for?
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” If he didn’t think we were up to the challenge, why did he choose us? Step into his shoes. Now they are our shoes.
Rolo B Castillo © 2021