I have decided that the book of Acts might be my favorite thing to preach. The Old Testament is just weird. With the gospels there's a lot of pressure to explain everything Jesus said and people always want to argue about whether it's true. When you preach the letters in the rest of the New Testament you have to do a lot of theology. But the book of Acts? It's a lot of crazy stories that just are what they are and we get to decide what to make of them. And this morning's story is in my opinion the best one in the whole book of Acts. The context is that this happens after Pentecost, which we will celebrate in a few weeks. As the gospel begins to spread beyond the Jewish people, both geographically and culturally, the question of "who is in?" becomes more and more significant. Jesus' original disciples have been commissioned by him to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching those new disciples to obey everything that Jesus commanded. But up to this point, the Jesus movement was exclusively Jewish, and the Jewish people had a lot of specific cultural practices. Jesus was a devout Jew and followed all of the law, and encouraged his followers to do the same. So as the message spreads, followers of Jesus have to figure out what is essentially the gospel and what is cultural custom. What are the markers of a faithful life? "So let us listen know in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading - Acts 10
Narrator: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said,
Angel: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter.
Narrator: When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him,
Spirit: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Peter: “Surely not, Lord! have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
Narrator: The voice spoke to him a second time,
Spirit: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Narrator: This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him,
Spirit: “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Narrator: When Peter and the others arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up saying:.
Peter: “Stand up, I am only a man myself.”
Narrator: While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them:
Peter: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me, Cornelius?”
Cornelius: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us, Peter.”
Peter: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears God and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Narrator: While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said:
Peter: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
Narrator: So Peter ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
The highlight of our worship this morning is coming together at the table of the Lord. As we sang a few minutes ago, at this table, no one is a stranger and everyone belongs. This table is a foretaste of what we will experience someday when God gathers all people together and we finally realize that our differences are not strong enough to separate us.
That's a hard lesson to learn. We all like to think of ourselves as open-minded. And yet, we all have someone that we do NOT want to be at the table with. We are still allowing our differences to keep us separate. African-American pastor Dr. Howard Thurman said in the 50s that the problem in America is a spirit of separation. And spiritual problems require spiritual solutions. (Legislation, yes. But not legislation only. Our spirits need to be healed.)
That's the lesson that Peter learns in today's story. The separation between people that he assumed was natural, even sanctioned by God in the Old Testament, that separation was healed forever by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a huge lesson for Peter to learn, and changed the course of the church.
And we need to pay careful attention to how the process works. It starts with prayer. Peter is making time to connect with the divine. And while he does, he's hungry. Which most of us can relate to. Usually when I'm feeling distracted during prayer, I feel ashamed of that. But in this story, that moment of distraction is exactly what God uses to speak to Peter. No shame, just remaining open.
The lesson also comes in stages, giving him time to absorb the change. First he's invited to eat an unclean animal, which no devout Jew would ever do. Why? Not just because it's a cultural tradition. Because it's in their sacred text. It's in the Old Testament. Peter doesn't eat unclean animals because to the best of his understanding, God has told him not to! Why would God say no to something in the past but say yes to it now? Because God is still speaking. There are principles of love that transcend rules of culture.
God confirms this lesson for Peter by telling him three times, not just once. If God is leading you to a new understanding, especially if it's something challenging for you, you can expect that God will confirm it.
And since the lesson comes in stages, the first lesson might not be the final lesson. Peter's first lesson was about food, but his final lesson is about people. As the lesson about WHAT is clean works its way through Peter's heart and mind, he realizes that this is not a lesson about WHAT is clean, but about WHO is clean. Although the voice told Peter that he should not call anyTHING unclean if God has made IT clean, when Peter repeats the lesson to the people at Cornelius's house, he says God has told him not to call anyONE impure or unclean. Everyone IS clean. Period. There is no one from whom Peter needs to keep himself separate. The categories that we want to use to keep ourselves separate from other people, those categories are gone. No human is unclean. No one is unworthy of being included in God's Kingdom. Already. Not when they change to agree with our politics or our theology, not when they get out jail, not when they get into recovery, not when they prove they're really sorry, but right now. No one is unclean.
As an Open and Affirming church, we need this story. As a church who believes God is still speaking, we need this story. As people honestly seeking to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, we need this story.
And so beloved ones, let us meet Christ again here at this glorious table. Because as our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, this is the joyful feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races—people with every type of body—come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table.