The Apostles were all in a dither! “Peter, Peter! What have you done? Going up to Jerusalem and talking to the WRONG people? How on earth can you think that OUR Jesus, OUR Rabbi would want you to be even getting close to those unclean, uncircumcised Gentiles, much less eating with them? Oy Vey. We fear for your very soul.”
“We Jews are the chosen people. WE have a special covenant with God. Why would you teach those Gentiles, Peter? You know what is clean and what is not. Our Holy Book makes it clear. They are not clean, Peter. They are NOT like us.”
“Calm down!” said Peter. “Listen to me. I was praying and I had a very strange vision. Everything became so clear. I saw something like a big sheet, a sheet coming down from heaven, held by its four corners. Here’s the interesting part: on the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds. ALL kinds, many things that we would never eat. I clearly heard a voice telling me to go kill and eat. Was this a trick? Was God testing me? I said ‘No! No Lord. I have always kept kosher. I would never eat those creatures.’”
“But God told me: ‘If I say it’s clean, it’s clean. Don’t YOU go second guessing ME Peter!’”
“Three times it happened! Three times I heard God. Then everything was pulled back up into heaven.”
“Immediately, three men arrived. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. We went to the house of Cornelius - a good Gentile. He was expecting me. When we arrived, I began to speak to them, just started telling them the good news about Christ when I was interrupted by the Holy Spirit! Remember how the Spirit came upon us? Well, exactly the same thing happened to this family of Gentiles! I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, how could I object to God? It was not my place to hinder God!”
The Apostles sat quietly, thinking. The Spirit had, indeed made all things clear. It was not their place to hinder God’s workings. They began to praise God as they realized that this whole thing was so much bigger, so much better than they had thought. God’s message was for all nations!”
This story is told in Acts 10 and then is retold in great detail in Acts 11. Maybe it is such an important story that it needed to be told twice, to make sure we get the message.
There is good reason for this emphasis. Almost 2000 years ago the early church was consumed by this one question: Who was in and who was out? They argued: “Do we keep it safe and only include those like us or do we go out into the wide world and have fellowship with outsiders?” Peter’s actions just blew them away.
These first followers of Jesus were mostly Jews. They were, from childhood, very clear about where they fit in society. They tried to follow the 613 commandments in the five books of Moses, the Torah. They lived by the purity laws of Leviticus which detail clean and unclean foods, laws against contact with dead animals, guidelines about planting seeds, decrees about lawful sexual relationships, keeping the sabbath, all kinds of purity rituals. These laws encompassed every part of being human from: birth, hygiene, health, marriage, sex, law, death and certainly, ethnicity so Gentiles (hello, like US) were certainly considered impure.
Peter’s vision and then his fellowship with Gentiles defied the clear mandates of this law. But remember, this wasn’t Peter deciding on his own that they needed to ‘grow the church’ by evangelizing outside of their small world. This was God’s doing, this was the Holy Spirit making a clear case for inclusion. Through this vision, through this story about Cornelius, Peter and the Apostles remembered that they had witnessed this inclusion, they had witnessed Jesus going to the prostitute, the tax collector, the leper, the blind, the Samaritan, the children, the women. Outsiders, all of them. Now they remembered and they understood that staying within their comfortable boundaries, staying within the rules of their Holy Book would hinder the work of God, the work they had been given to do. They knew they had to break down the barriers between themselves and the rest of creation.
But this is one of the most basic of human instincts! Us VS Them. Tiny infants know how to tell MOM from every other female. Us vs Them. This makes us comfortable. It feels good to draw these lines, to keep things nice and clear about who is in and who is out.
It is human nature to define ourselves by our groups. I’m a member of St. Marks. I’m an Episcopalian. I’m Mexican and I’m Norwegian. I’m an American. I’m a member of the Varness family. To each of these identities, there is an opposite - I’m not a man, not a dad, not Irish...
We draw lines, boundaries around ourselves, personally, societally and as a church. In the first century church, the lines were drawn over dietary laws and circumcision. Devout Jew or not? Lines are still being drawn in churches today over homosexuality, gay clergy and women’s ordination. Thick black lines of hatred are being gouged in our culture over immigrants, gay marriage and political affiliation.
Here’s an argument you might have heard some time ago in our church: “The Bible states clearly that women should not even speak in church so we shouldn’t ordain them! That’s just changing with the times! That’s not following the Bible!” You know, the same argument was used about slavery. Since the bible mentions how we should treat our slaves, people said that it endorsed the institution of slavery. So we are not following the bible if we free our slaves. Doesn’t that sound a bit nuts to you?
This exact argument is being used today about gay people. The bible says it is wrong so, like women in churches, like slaves, we can’t just change with the times and say it is OK. I’m sure that there are churches out there having heated arguments over women covering their hair, men shaving their beards, whether the universe is 12.5 billion years old or 5,770 years old (as the bible states).
Peter was following the Torah when he told God that he could not kill and eat those animals. God yells at him “I’m telling you it’s OK! Stop with this hangup on rules! If I tell you that it’s clean then it’s clean.” Peter then went out to preach the gospel to unclean Gentiles who followed NONE of the rules by which he lived his life. God so endorsed this outreach that he sent down the Holy Spirit, his ultimate stamp of his approval on these ‘unclean’ souls. Once again, God is throwing out the rule book. He is throwing out Leviticus!
It was not Peter deciding on his own to change things, it was clearly the Spirit of God commanding him to recognize equality in the face of the other, the outsider.
The early church needed this blinding vision to remember the crystal clear actions of Christ. Jesus told his followers that when they gave a banquet, they should not invite their friends and relatives but rather the poor the crippled, the lame and the blind. The outsiders. Paul writes in Galatians, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Talk about removing all distinctions!
Listen to Paul instructing the early church in Ephesus: “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we're now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. That's plain enough, isn't it?”
Jesus wants us to reach out to those outside of our comfort zone. Today, in our Gospel, he gives us one last command: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We sing “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” “We” should not be just those of us singing here today at St. Mark’s. “We” should not be just Episcopalians or Christians. “We” must be insiders and outsiders, black and white, gay and straight, citizen and immigrant. It is not our place to hinder God. This is the Lord’s plan. This is the Lord’s word. Amen.