Jaffa is a small ancient port town at the southern end of the modern city of Tel-Aviv. The name of the town is well-known because of the variety of orange that was grown and exported from there in the 19th century, which were used to flavour ‘Jaffa Cakes’ that McVitie’s developed in 1927 and now produce 2 billion of each year.

It is also known as Yafo, Yafa, Japho and Joppa and in the Old Testament is referred to as: the northernmost town of the Philistines in Joshua; and the port where cedar from Lebanon was imported for the first Temple in 2 Chronicles and for the second Temple in Ezra. Most famously, it is remembered as the place where Jonah got on a boat bound for Tarshish in an attempt to a mission to the capital of the Assyrian empire (Jonah 1:3). The Ninevites were reputed to be appallingly barbaric – “more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). To call them to repent must have looked not only like a suicide mission to Jonah, but a pointless one. Even were an unthinkable turn-around to happen, would he even want these people to be on friendly terms with those who had caused his people to suffer so bitterly (2 Kings 14)?*

Centuries later, according to Acts 9, a lady named Dorcas who was treasured by the poor because she made and mended clothes for them, died in Jaffa. The believers, hearing that the Apostle Peter was 15 miles away in Lydda, sent two men to see if he would come and work a miracle.

When Peter came, he ended up staying for some time at the house of Simon the Tanner (Acts 9:43). Tanning was a disgusting business which involved curing dead animal hides by soaking them in human urine and treading in faeces from dogs and pigeons into them for 3 hours with bare feet. Was the upstairs room in which Dorcas’ body was placed in Simon’s house? It is hard to imagine why else Peter would have entered such a ritually unclean space.

We might imagine that it was Simon who insisted on providing hospitality to Peter in gratitude when Dorcas was brought back to life. At some point, whilst a meal was being prepared, Peter went up onto the roof to pray – and no doubt to try to process all this gross stuff he had been drawn in to and to work out how he was ever going to get clean again. It is there, as his tummy rumbles, that God gives him this vision of a sheet full of animals and says: don’t call unclean what I have called clean. At which point, three men who worked for a man named Cornelius 40 miles up the coast in Caesarea turn up at the door asking for Peter to come with them.

Caesarea was the capital of Palestine within the Roman Empire, had a temple to Roma and Caesar Augustus, and was the home of the governor Pontius Pilate who had sentenced Jesus to death. Peter is not only being asked to go into the belly of the beast, but to the home of a Centurion in the occupying imperial army. But he went – from Jaffa, as Jonah reluctantly did before – and it was in that revolting setting that Peter for the first time got to see the Holy Spirit fall on non-Jews and the scandal of the Gospel must have smacked him between the eyes.

How interesting then to look back with hindsight to Matthew 16 where ‘Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’ This Peter we have been looking at was born Simon, son of Jonah. Little could he – or his parents – have known how apt that name was for what God would call him to be a part of.

Surely it is not a coincidence either that this transformation in Peter is relayed in the same chapter of Acts as Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus?

* In his brilliant book “Sympathy for Jonah,” David Benjamin Blower describes Jonah as being ‘called to go to the terrible “other” in search of the image of God.’