1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If 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?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
In today’s scripture passage Peter tells the story of how he did a 180 degree turn, how God’s spirit convicted him that all he had been taught, all he was raised to believe, was wrong. I’m reminded of the story of three pastors: A Presbyterian Pastor, a Baptist Pastor, and a Pentecostal Evangelical Fundamentalist Pastor all died and went to heaven, where they are met at the pearly gates by St. Peter.
Have I told you this one before?
First St. Peter escorts the Presbyterian pastor into a room where Jesus is waiting to meet him. He stays in the room for about an hour, and when he comes out he has tears of joy and relief streaming down his face, and he says to the other two pastors, “I can’t believe how wrong I was about so many things!” Then he enters into the bliss of heaven.
Next, St. Peter escorts the Baptist pastor into the room with Jesus. He stays in the room for three or four hours, and when he comes out, he’s shaking his head in disbelief, looking troubled. He says to the remaining pastor, “Wow. I can’t believe how wrong I was about so many things.” Then he inters into the bliss of heaven.
At this point, the Pentecostal Evangelical Fundamentalist Pastor, carrying his worn out King James Bible full of dog eared pages and bookmarks, enters into the room. He stays in there for three days and three nights, and St. Peter starts to get a little worried. But finally, the door opens…and out comes Jesus, shaking his head and saying, “I can’t believe how wrong I was about so many things!”
We are in the midst of a sermon series on the Book of Acts, the story of the very first church and the first Christians. We’re trying to learn more about who they were, how the earliest church came to be, and what we in the 21st century church can learn from their example.
And today’s scripture passage marks a critical turning point in the life of the early church. Those of you who grew up in the church have probably heard this story many times before—Peter’s vision of all kinds of animals lowered down from heaven on a four cornered sheet; his initial protest to God that he could never eat those animals because they are unclean, and God’s response that it’s not for us to reject what God has made clean.
I’ve heard many people interpret this story as the reason why it’s okay for us, as Christians, to eat certain things that are forbidden in the Old Testament, like Bacon, for example. As a passionate and devoted fan of bacon, I fully support this interpretation, however, as a trained student of theology, I am also well aware that’s not the real point of the story.
If you read the entire story closely, it becomes clear that the unclean animals are a metaphor for “unclean” people—the gentiles, the foreigners who are outside of Jewish law and practice. A good Jew in the 1st century would have been discouraged from even associating with a foreigner. Notice in verse two, “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Circumcision is part of the process of becoming a Jew, so what’s implied here is that…well, maybe you can associate with “those people,” but only if they agree to be circumcised; only if they admit that their old ways were wrong, and turn to our ways (which are clearly God’s ways!), and become like us.
Fortunately, Peter is not swayed by this argument. He goes to the gentiles, is prompted by God’s spirit to “not to make a distinction between them and us” — or in other words, to accept them as equals, and to give them the benefit of the doubt that God is already working in their lives. Peter’s fellow apostles finally accept and embrace this shift…and when they do, then and only then does Christianity finally explode beyond the narrow confines of Jerusalem and begin to spread all throughout the Roman Empire.
So I think there’s a message here for us, as a church. But also for us as individuals. I’m going to focus on three broad principles from this text that I believe can help our church explode beyond the narrow confines of our current membership, and can also help each of you to greatly expand your relationship with God and other people.
The first principle is this: If you want to hear God’s voice, sometimes you have to get up on the roof and pray.
Peter hangs out in Jerusalem for a long time. But it’s not until he leaves his familiar context and goes all the way to Joppa that he is able to hear what God is saying to him about the gentiles. When you are in Jerusalem surrounded with Jews, you tend to think like a Jew. When you are at First Presbyterian Church, surrounded by Presbyterians, you tend to think like a Presbyterian. If you want to understand the people God is trying to reach in the world, you have to leave your echo chamber behind and go to Joppa. Or wherever it is (here in El Paso) that they might be.
There’s another version of this same story just one chapter earlier, and in that version, not only does Peter go to Joppa, but he goes up on the roof of the house he’s staying in to pray. I imagine that from the roof, Peter can see the city of Joppa, see the people from a different vantage point. If you want to hear God’s voice, sometimes you have to find a way to get up above the fray, and look at the bigger picture.
The second principle is this: Sometimes…God completely changes the rules.
That makes us nervous. We like to say that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God doesn’t change. And might be true of God, but it’s certainly not true of God’s expectations for us. Those change often, in every age and with every context. God had a different set of rules for Adam than he did for Abraham. A different set of rules for Abraham than he did for Moses. And a different set of rules for Moses than for Peter and Paul.
Wait a minute, Pastor, that’s crazy! If that’s true, then how can we ever know what God expects of us? How can we ever know what rules we’re supposed to follow? I’ll get to that in a minute.
We also like to think sometimes that the Bible is a fixed, unchanging record of God’s fixed unchanging rules. But it doesn’t take much Bible study to realize that’s not quite true, either. There are consistent threads that run throughout the Bible, but also plenty of contradictions, changes, and 180 degree turns. Today’s scripture passage is one of them.
You see, when God tells Peter in his vision to eat the unclean animals, Peter is actually citing scripture when he tells God, “by no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” He’s quoting from Leviticus 11, where God clearly says don’t eat these kinds of food.
And yet here we are in Acts chapter 11, and now God is saying, eat this kind of food. Even if we look at the larger metaphor of people—who’s accepted by God and who isn’t—Peter knows that the Bible says if you want to follow God, you have to be circumcised. And yet, through the gentiles, God is telling Peter you don’t have to be circumcised.
Sometimes…God completely changes the rules. Still. Today. This is reflected in the ancient Presbyterian motto, “Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformanda…the church reformed and always being reformed.
But how do we know if the change is really coming from God? As an undergraduate, I attended Oral Roberts University. You may remember Oral Roberts. He was that evangelist in the 1980s who went on television and with teary eyes, told people, “The Lord spoke to me, and said that if you don’t send eight million dollars by the end of the month, the Lord will call me home.” He wound up 4.5 million short of that goal, and the Lord didn’t call him home until 2009.
How do we know if God is really speaking to us? Some people say that if God tells you something, and it matches what God says in the Bible, then it’s true. But that approach failed for Peter. God told him one thing in a vision, the Bible (and all the church teaching in his time!) told him the opposite. What to do? I think there’s a better way to tell.
Here’s the third principle from our text: Look for God’s spirit at work in the world.
Immediately after Peter’s vision, three men, gentiles, show up at his door. Why? Because God’s spirit was already at work among them. When Peter goes to their house, he actually sees the Spirit come upon them, and he recognizes it as the same thing he had experienced on Pentecost. When God is at work in someone’s life, it’s almost impossible NOT to notice a change. Jesus said something similar in Matthew 7. He said you will know them by their fruit. ” A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
So if you’re up on the roof trying to hear God…
And if God speaks to you, and tells you that he’s changing the rules…
And if you go along with God, and see as evidence God’s spirit at work in the world…
Then it’s quite possible your life, your church, your world is about to explode beyond the narrow confines it once occupied. Because I believe that God is still speaking. God is still changing the rules. And God’s spirit is still at work in unexpected people and unexpected ways.
Let me give you just one example. I could give several, but this is a pressing one in our culture today. Several years ago, I was deeply engaged in prayer and study about the controversial and contentious issue of homosexuality. So were many thoughtful, intelligent Presbyterians throughout our denomination. I didn’t study the issue in isolation, in a bubble among people whose minds were already made up, but rather by going out into the world, meeting people, listening to them carefully, and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
But still, I often said to God, “Surely not, Lord! I know what the Bible says about that!” And many times, in many different ways, through many different people and experiences, I received the same message as Peter did: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
[Cue Music: Coldplay, “Fix You”]
As I began to spend time with gay Christians, I saw powerfully the evidence of God’s spirit at work in their lives. I saw (and still see) great faith, hope, and love reflected in their words, their prayers, their actions, and their relationships. I didn’t create it, and it wasn’t something new. It had been there all along; I just hadn’t recognized it.
And some of my fellow Christians criticized me, saying, “Why do you associate with those sinners?” Or, those who thought they were being more kind would say, “Well, maybe you can associate with them, but only if they admit that their old ways were wrong, and turn to our ways (which are clearly God’s ways!), and become like us.
Like Peter, I have ignored that advice, and like Peter, I have been amazed to see God’s spirit and love spread like wildfire through new peoples and new communities, breathing new life into old traditions—even though God has changed the rules a little bit!
There’s another way, I think, to tell when God is truly doing something new, truly changing the rules, and it’s this: There is a pattern that flows throughout the scriptures, and even when the particulars change, this pattern remains.
At first, God walked alongside one person at a time. First Adam, then Noah, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He gave each one rules. They each followed, and (one at a time) God embraced them into his promises. But one person at a time wasn’t enough, so God changed the rules. He gave Moses a new set of rules to govern an entire nation, and bring all of the people of Israel into his embrace at once. But still, it wasn’t enough. Many were still excluded. So God changed the rules again, and sent Jesus, who proclaimed God’s promises to the poor, the sick, the oppressed, those on the fringes of society. But still it wasn’t enough. So God changed the rules again, and this time through Peter and Paul and the apostles, God’s promises were extended to the people of *every* nation, even to the gentiles, the foreigners, the people who had been excluded by the old rules!
Do you see the pattern yet? God’s embrace of people is always expanding, always growing, always including people who were never included before. Even today. And God doesn’t say to those new people, “Come…but first, check the old rules to make sure you’re in compliance.”
No. He says, “Come…just as you are, just as I created you to be. Come, and my Spirit will change anything that truly needs to be changed about you, even if it’s not what the world (or the church) expects!
I know, God says to his children, that you have been called unclean. You have been called profane. You have been called an abomination. You have been called many things.
But come to me, for I have called you clean. I have called you holy. I have called you blessed. I have called you beloved.
Come to me, and I will not reject you, abandon you, or ever forsake you.
Come to me, and I will carry you home.