Acts is a special book, because it really is the only book of its type in the Bible. It is the only book with stories of how the early Christian community had to figure out how to be church in the wake of Christ’s ascension. The story we read this week is one with incredibly dramatic results. Peter has a vision of unclean animals descending from on high and a command to eat. Peter refuses citing Biblical law, but the voice says “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Immediately following this vision, gentiles show up and ask him to accompany them. At which time the gentiles have the same experience of receiving the Holy Spirit as did the first disciples.
One thing we have to understand is just how big a deal this vision is. According to Moses Maimonides, there are 613 rules outlined in the Hebrew Bible, and a very large portion of those have to do with how you eat (What you can and can’t eat, how to prepare it, who you can eat with, when to eat, etc.). To have a vision that is calling those practices into question means a lot more than just questioning what you eat, but really questioning the entire 613 rules and how they are carried out. Especially since the result of the vision is people who were considered unclean being welcomed—an indication that the Spirit had a lot more in mind than just food.
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have understood this. Many in the Christian community continue to use the Bible as a rule book, and don’t understand that this passage isn’t just about what you can and cannot eat. It is about how we understand and apply the law. In other words, this is about not using the law to determine who is in and who is out; who is a child of God and who is not.
Of course, our current era is a testament to the fact that many modern Christians have blatantly disregarded these teachings of the Holy Spirit to Peter. After all, this is inconvenient because it means that we actually have to love our neighbors and treat them as beloved children of God instead of targets. A quick glimpse at the news this morning should confirm that now more than ever we are setting up our own tribes and casting out the “other.” This past week, it was suggested by some in the evangelical community that the great Christian voice that I spoke about last Sunday, Rachel Held Evans, would be burning in Hell. What is it about human beings that we can’t seem to get this whole love and grace of God thing? Of course, this equally goes both ways, and those who would receive my ire, for their thoughtless comments about RHE are also children of God, and it is my personal challenge to remember and embrace that!
I can’t stress how important this passage is this Sunday, because it gets at the very heart of our greatest sins. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have someone on your unclean list, and the message from the spirit here is to throw your list out the window. I sincerely think that the only way to do that is to follow in Peter’s footsteps. You can’t come to embrace what God has called clean until you take the same challenging path as Peter and go sit down and eat with those people that you would rather exclude.
Now you have probably seen the full circle by now. For some in the Christian community, the modern day version of Peter’s challenge is to go and break bread with those that so many in the Christian church have disparaged—the Muslim community. You have an opportunity to do that tomorrow, and whether this is taking on Peter’s challenge for you personally or not, I highly encourage you to come and join us! For others of us in the Christian community, this challenge may be sitting down for supper with someone else who would call themselves Christian, though their beliefs look nothing like yours—say those same evangelicals that are convinced that because I share the beliefs of Rachel Held Evans I will be enjoying a toasty afterlife. Part of what this passage points to is a long held tradition of the Jewish and Christian faiths—if you eat with someone, spend time with someone, get to know someone, and come to understand them, it is a lot harder to call them unclean (Or fill in the blank here with a modern equivalent—enemy, unbeliever, damned to hell, etc.)
The real claim of this passage on us is that if we are to truly follow God’s law, we can’t do it by casting out others. We have to do the hard work of getting to know and understand those who we would call “other.” Who falls into that category for you? Who do you need to take out to dinner?