In order to be faithful to the gospel of Christ, we must have boundaries, right? There are things that are normal and proper – limits to what we do and believe. And yet to be faithful to the gospel, there is this nudging, this incessant prodding, as the Holy Spirit pushes us out beyond our limits. There is this nagging voice always whispering in our ear, “Are these limits God’s – or are they ours?”
Peter believed in limits. We learn that in the reading. We could easily think that Peter’s limits are simply the dietary laws of Leviticus. But, there is a much larger issue going on here.
Peter believed in the validity of all the Levitical laws. Those laws not only said what you could eat, but what you could wear, which nation you should belong to, how you should worship and who you should love. You see, for Peter and some other church leaders, you had to be a Jew in good standing to be considered a follower of Christ. To be in good standing you had to be “pure” and live up to all the laws – end of discussion.
Well, actually not the end of discussion. To be a Jew in good standing, you had to live up to those Levitical laws that the hierarchy decided were still binding. Just as in current times, some were and some weren’t. The Levitical laws have been used selectively ever since they were formalized. It just depended on who was calling the shots at the time.
Now let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the Levitical laws were silly. Laws about life and purity in Peter’s scripture, our Older Testament, had been at one time a life and death issue for Israel. But Jesus, many times did battle against the legalists upholding the Levitical Laws, and put his emphasis on the commandments and the prophets. Jesus had said that the time for these rigid laws was over, and that love trumped self-righteousness.
A short time after Jesus’ death, however, the church in Jerusalem still maintained a strict understanding of who could be a follower of Christ, and how they should act. And Peter was a member in high standing of the church leadership and, as such, supported maintaining a strict adherence to the Jewish laws.
Then came the vision at Joppa, in which Peter was shown how his standards were misguided. A sheet was let down from the heavens – a sheet filled with all sorts of animals. Many of them were considered “unclean” by Jewish laws. But Peter was told, “Rise, kill and eat!”
Repulsed and indignant, Peter had replied that he had never been guilty of eating “unclean food.” Peter was staking a claim to being a faithful observer of Jewish purity standards.
Now, to be clear – this was not about food. Food was the analogy played out in the dream. This was about the purity laws in general and, since the rest of the narration tells about delivering the Good News to the Gentiles, the vision was specifically about who does and doesn’t qualify to be a follower of Christ, as well as how to follow Christ.
When Peter refused to “eat”, he was stating, in no uncertain terms, that he did not, and would not, minister to Gentiles – to people who did not follow the traditional Jewish rites. But the voice and the vision came three times, and each time he heard, “Rise, kill, eat!” He also heard very clearly, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
When he awoke, there were men sent to him from a Roman army officer, Cornelius – a gentile, a member of the occupying army. Peter went and met Cornelius. He ate with Cornelius. He baptized Cornelius. Peter saw that the vision and the voice were not so much about unclean food as about unclean people and unclean behaviors.
Then Peter understood that the voice said, “Don’t call anything I have created ‘unclean’.” This is a passage about change – more specifically about re-examining what has been established as normative behaviors – the rules for right living, right attitudes and right worshipping. The food analogy works well – especially since one of our two sacraments surrounds the table and being fed by the body and blood of Christ.
Preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once told about a church he knew.
He remembered it as the status church – First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire was a membership requirement at First Church. People in need were out of the question. People of Color need not apply. As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Its members simply grew older.
Much later, as an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the “right type” existed, he guessed. He had occasion to go back to that town, and he discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant oddly enough. He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners. He looked down the nave of the old church and where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar.
He walked out the front door, back down the steps, muttering to himself, “Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table.”
I am going to imagine that nobody reading this sees much similarity between their church and Craddock’s First Church. That doesn’t mean, however, we can’t learn from what happened there.
In Ephesians 3: 10 it is written: “… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …” A banquet conjures up a conspicuous feast of culinary treats – different foods for different palates. The Christian church, historically, has claimed to offer the banquet of Christ’s love to the world. First Church had no such variety, but offered instead a bland plate of one kind of food.
I am English. How many of you would consider English food the stuff of banquets? Don’t get me wrong, I love English food – once in a while. I mean, I have a fond recollection of meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread – all served with gravy. But variety isn’t a hallmark of English food, is it?
You can have a roast with meat, potatoes, veggies, Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Or you could have a pie with meat, potatoes, veggies, pastry and gravy. Or you could have a stew with meat, potatoes, veggies, bread and gravy. The biggest difference in English food is in how the flour is used – bread, Yorkshire pudding, pie crust or whatever.
Of course, then you have that great invention of English cuisine – the sandwich – where you put something – usually the left over meat – between two pieces of bread. Let’s face it – the highlight of a truly English meal comes at the end when you get crackers and cheese, and pound cake with custard. Just makes your taste buds want to jump and shout, doesn’t it?
What do you find when you go to a buffet restaurant? All kinds of foods, probably, but aren’t they all relatively bland? A buffet makes money by making foods that are acceptable to as many as possible, even though they may not be exciting to any. Would you generally consider a buffet to be a banquet? It’s basic sustenance in abundance – but not much richness.
“…so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known”
That’s not an English meal being promised by the church – nor a buffet. It is a banquet. And all First Church offered was a buffet of sameness.
None of us like change – all of us tend to feel threatened by change – feeling a sense of loss. It’s messy – it challenges our comfort – it makes us re-examine who we are and what we call “normal” and “proper”. I have many times been considered an agent of change – but even I resist it. I like the comfort of familiarity my way, too.
Peter saw a vision from God that challenged his concept of normal and proper. “There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.” These were things that, historically, had no place in Jewish cuisine and, especially, in Jewish worship and ceremony.
To put it in our terms, these things were not church to Peter. Matter of fact, they were the opposite – they were unacceptable to Peter. But Peter also heard, “What God has made clean, you must not profane.” Peter embraced this message and opened his vision for Christianity to include the Gentiles. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t be here this morning. We are mostly the descendents of those gentiles.
There are questions for the church lurking behind today’s text from Acts. One question: Will we allow the Holy Spirit to prod us – to give us a renewed vision – to drag us, as it dragged our apostolic forebears before us, kicking and screaming, all the way toward the wideness of God’s mercy?
Or will we hunker down right here, and limit our church to folk just like us?
Will we opt for safe and secure?
Will we keep our limits firmly fixed?
All that remains to be seen but I hope not. If the church answers yes to these questions, I believe it will be the death knell of church as we know it. Change will occur anyway.
Who is today’s equivalent of the gentiles? That may be one of the most important questions. I’m not sure we can answer it without further conversation.
But the other important question that we need to think about is, “What kind of meal are we going to offer them?” A safe one? A buffet? Or a risky one? Like a banquet, “… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …?”
Acts 2:17 repeats the prophecies of Joel and Daniel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young people shall see visions, and your old people shall dream dreams.
Where is our vision, sisters and brothers. What do the visions and dreams mean? What is the meaning of the prophetic image? How are we to continue to find ways of offering the banquet to our neighbors around us?
I am honored to work with each of you, as brothers and sisters in the faith, as we discern what the Holy Spirit has in store for us here in this place. It is important that we talk about it, though. We need to gather intentionally to pray and work to understand what God has called us to do. To commit to some deep spiritual, soul-searching, prophetic work together?
Is the church ready for this? Time will tell.