Acts 11: 1-18
As you would probably surmise, this is a favorite passage of vegetarians everywhere. A vision of all kinds of animals accompanied by the mandate, “Go kill and eat” (v.7) is just what we’ve been longing to hear God say.
And if you read Acts you’ll notice that this is the second time this whole story is told all the way through. First, in chapter 10, all of this actually happens to Peter in “real time” and then, here in chapter 11, he retells every detail to the apostles back home in Judea.
Why have Peter retell it here? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not just so we vegetarians will listen up and get it. But it may be so that all of us will get it. Just in case you missed it the first time in chapter 10, here it is again.
It may be so that we, the readers, can hear and observe Peter doing theology. We’ve talked some about theology this spring and this story is a weird but perfect example of how you “do theology” – out in the world you find God in places and people you weren’t expecting and have to work out how this can be. Peter takes the raw materials of his strange trance, his visits to strangers, and his experience (and theirs) of the Holy Spirit and works on them and on himself to readjust, to realign himself so that he is in line again with God and can say in verse 17, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
If all that isn’t reason enough to repeat the story, perhaps it’s because this moment in the life of the early church marks a turning point in Christianity. At this early point in the history of the faith, Christians were still Jews. They believed that following Jesus was part of their Jewish faith, not a new religion but a deepening of the old. When Peter gets to Jerusalem, it’s “the circumcised believers” who speak out to question what’s been happening. Other than the folks Peter has just left, all of the male Christian believers at that point were circumcised – because they had all been Jews first. Everyone followed Jewish laws and customs, with new Christian practices “added on.” You’ll remember that Jewish purity laws were quite specific about how to eat and what to eat and with whom. Jesus ruffled feathers just by asking a tax collector to come down from a tree to eat dinner with him.
So here’s Peter, not only eating with Gentiles, but eating all kinds of animals deemed impure or unfit for consumption – as if he doesn’t recognize the difference between clean and unclean, sacred and profane.
When the Holy Spirit blows in and Peter follows where he’s called, those distinctions become less distinct and the whole shape of what we now know as the Church changes. Without this twice-told story, we very well might not be here together tonight.
After the sheet-vision and the voice from heaven telling Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v.9) – which happens three times (in each telling) – the Spirit tells Peter to go with three strangers to Caesarea “and not to make a distinction between them and us” (v. 12). They get to Cornelius’s house, who has also received a message from an angel, telling him to send for and listen to Peter, “who will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (v. 14).
When Peter gets there and starts witnessing, he tells everyone back home, “…the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (vv. 15-17).
Now that’s doing theology! That’s living on the edge. That’s obedience – a leaning in to listen to God speaking in the midst of all life.
Because Peter listens and does his theology we are here to hear the story again and to know who it is when we feel the Winds blow through our lives.
This issue – who’s in and who’s not – didn’t stop with this story. Think about modern church fights over sexuality and social justice. We are here because of this turning point in the faith and this story is here to remind us of this continual task – to take the raw materials of life and faithfully do our theology, to be obedient to God’s vision, making sure not to replace it with our own puny versions of vision.
If God gave them the same gift of the Spirit that God gave us when we believed, who was I that I could hinder God?
A seminary professor of mine tells a story about a woman who was in one of his churches years ago. She was devoutly opposed to drinking alcohol and they were discussing this one day. My professor mentioned to the woman that it was Jesus himself who turned water into wine. To this she responded, “Yes, and I think the less of him for it.” It’s an extreme example – thinking the less of God for God’s own actions, thinking she knows better than God what’s right – but it’s not uncommon, is it?
Our good friend, biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, writes about this story, “The reason the text continues to be urgent [emphasis mine] is that the church finds endless ways to reject the trance, to reject the Spirit and to set up distinctions…[This is a] move from heaven to break open the earth beyond our pretentious arrangements….The break is the truth of the gospel” (“Blogging Toward Sunday, Walter Brueggeman, www.theolog.org). The break is the truth of the gospel. Let that sink in.
This is an urgent matter. And we clearly aren’t done with our own pretentious distinctions yet. Not in our churches, our communities, our relationships. Just a week ago the governor of Arizona signed into law another way of making distinctions. With “reasonable suspicion” that someone is an illegal immigrant, law enforcement will be required to question them about their immigration status. It’s that “reasonable suspicion” phrase. What’s “reasonable”? What’s “suspicious”? A lot of the outcry about this new law concerns the fear of racial profiling. How else might we suspect someone is undocumented if not by the way they look or sound? How are these necessary legal distinctions made and how should Christians be part of this conversation?
The witness of Peter’s story is a witness about how to remain faithful to tradition in new and changing circumstances. It’s about holding fast to God – but also making sure it’s God you’re holding onto so steadfastly.
It’s a witness about what it means to be Christian, to be one who follows a God who was incarnate, made flesh. If by creating us and then by becoming one of us, God has hallowed – made holy – human bodies and human life, who are we to set limits on that holiness? Who are we to limit where God is allowed to show up in the world with distinctions like sacred and profane, holy and secular?
God shows no partiality. This means it is not our church, not our work, not our spirit – but we get to participate. We get to witness with and serve with and sit in the pew next to… drug dealers, old ladies, old lady drug dealers, families with two dads, coal miners, bankers, and undocumented immigrants. We get to eat with the men at PACEM, Street Sense vendors on the streets of D.C., elderly low-income folks in transitional housing, soccer moms, UVA students, Tech students – Christians and others who don’t think and act like we do. No partiality, no distinctions. All touched by God.
It’s a tall order but the good news is that we only have to go where the Spirit blows us. Look at the story again. God gives vision, dreams, Spirit, belief, and baptism. What are we called to give? Obedience, silence, praise, and non-hindrance.
I have a question for you: If you were to slip into a God-induced trance today and a sheet came down from heaven, what would you see? What would be on your sheet? Transgendered people? Democrats? Bible thumpers? Veal? Non-recycled paper? Certain kinds of Christians? Certain kinds of non-Christians?
What makes us distinct as Christians are not the distinctions we make, not the ways in which we classify people and things into good/bad, sacred/profane. What makes us distinct as Christians is that we are called to be a people who do not make those distinctions. In Christ there is no east or west…
The perennial questions posed by Peter’s story are for us, too. How is God butting up against your ideas of God? How is God pushing you – like a strong Wind – to re-view your ideas of sacred and profane? Where are the self-imposed distinctions God is challenging you to erase?
What do we do to hinder God? And what do we do to change those hindering ways?
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis