The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Fifth Sunday in Easter
Today we continue with our series “Surprise!” on the book of Acts. All about finding God in all sorts of surprising places and people.
Our man Peter’s back in the picture again this week. You’ll recall that Peter started out as a failure. He was Jesus’ right hand man but denied him and ran away when the going got tough. But then after an encounter with the risen Christ, Peter found himself filled with bravery and boldness, spreading the message of God’s love and forgiveness. Even under the threat of imprisonment and death. A couple weeks ago, he found himself in front of the council of High Priests, giving an explanation for his trouble-making behavior.
This week he finds himself, though, defending himself to his peers. The church. His fellow Jewish Christians.
“Now,” it says. “Now the apostles and believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the Word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘why did you go to circumcised men and eat with them?’”
The circumcised believers criticize Peter it says, for eating with uncircumcised men.
Now, it sounds a bit unfair to choose your dinner companions based on a particular surgical procedure. But it’s more than that. “Circumcised” and “uncircumcised” here are cultural terms. Circumcised means those who follow the law of Moses, the way of life given in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. “And uncircumcised” are those who don’t. If you follow the law, you’re spiritually clean. If you don’t, you’re spiritually unclean, impure, polluted. And it’s contagious.
It sounds backwards, of course. But it’s kind of like when kids play with other kids who just seem to get them in to trouble. We’ll say that those kids are a “bad influence.” We’re worried that our kids are going to catch others kids bad behavior. Spiritual uncleanliness is like that. It rubs off on you. And before you know it you’re eating ham and oppressing widows and orphans. One bad apple could ruin the lot.
So even though Peter may have been doing good the church is worried that in rubbing shoulders and befriending people like this over a meal, he might become like them. And if he becomes like them, he might do the same with the church. It could bring this whole good thing they’ve got going down. That’s why Peter’s in trouble.
He’s in trouble. And he’s gotta defend himself. After all, he could be jeopardizing the peace and harmony of the community. “Let me tell you all about this dream I had…” he says.
He was fasting and praying one day. And he went in to a trance, and had this vision. There was this blanket being lowered from heaven. And the blanket was wriggling with he says “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.” It’s chock full of stuff like pigs, raccoons, snakes, and vultures. The sheet touches down, and Peter hears God speak: “Get up,” God says. “Get up, Peter. Go and eat.” Worst picnic ever.
I mean, for Peter, it’s not just gross, or weird. It’s all spiritually unclean, the law says you can’t touch this stuff. Peter’s a righteous guy. He follows the law, so he says to God “nuh uh. No chance. Haven’t done it yet. Never gonna do it now.” And really, he’s just following God’s prior orders.
But then God issues a new order: “what God has made clean,” God says. “You must not call profane.” So grab that snake, Peter, and go to town.
The dream happened three times, he says. He wasn’t quite sure what it was about. I mean, I love how Peter knows that there was more to this dream than permission to sauté sewer rats or to spit roast a Komodo dragon. The dream didn’t make sense at first. But he thought, “I gotta pay attention to this.”
And one day, he says, the doorbell rang, and there were three unclean gentiles out on the porch. And finally the dream clicked. “The Spirit,” he says. “the Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between us.”
Long story short, Peter says it led him to a house where a gentile named Cornelius lived. And there Cornelius explained that he, too had a dream. One where he was to send for a man named Peter who would share with him life-changing news for him. And his family.
And so I began to speak, Peter says. And the Holy Spirit fell on all of them, just as it did on us. God was thick in the room as Peter spoke. Sharing the message of God’s love for all, God’s mercy and grace for all people in Jesus Christ.
Aha! So the dream wasn’t about eating unclean food at all. It was about not making a distinction between us and them. It was about hanging out with unclean people. “What God has called clean, do not call profane.” God led me to cross this boundary, Peter says, so Cornelius and his family could receive the same acceptance and transformation that I’ve been given. That all of us have. “If then God gave them the same gift he gave us,” Peter says, “Who was I to hinder God?”
Who was I to hinder God?
Peter thought goodness, holiness, and spiritual maturity were things that we cultivate by not exposing ourselves to bad, unholy, or spiritually immature people. That the spiritual life is all about preserving our own purity before God. But he came to the realization that it actually got in the way of God’s work in the world.
And like Peter, this is, of course, is the constant temptation of the church and Christians in any day. To see the Jesus Way as something we keep and cultivate for ourselves. At best we’ve thought we’ve gotta keep people who we see as unclean away until they get everything right. The church’s history with gays and lesbians is perhaps the most obvious example. With the language of “dirty” or “impure” applied with zeal.
It’s the temptation of the church. Which is ironic for Christians because if it weren’t for this episode with Peter and Cornelius, we’d all still be on the other side of the fence. Still unclean gentiles if Peter hadn’t taken the risk. But truth be told it’s a temptation for everyone. It’s human.
I’m glad that Christopher Bates is here with the Eureka Club—he knows what it’s like to serve people who struggle with mental illness. People fenced off, and treated as unclean.
And some of our most intense boundaries now are political. Whether it’s those rednecks who don’t share our progressive political views on climate change, gender-free washrooms, or (for the love of God) Donald Trump. Or it’s those airy-fairy new agers who don’t have any respect for our traditions, and can’t seem to put any boundaries on their spoiled kids.
We may not be worried about eating snakes or whether our dinner companions are circumcised or not. It’s to seal ourselves off from unclean ideologies and ways of living. Out of the fear that they might rub off on us. And feel righteous about it. It’s our natural instinct. Our default setting as a species. This text is a mirror to our own temptation to preserve out own holiness at the cost of others experiencing the love of Christ that we’ve experienced. And the Spirit’s power to make new.
The Spirit showed Peter that following Jesus is actually about taking risks that put our own purity at risk for the sake of drawing in. For sharing God’s love with other people who haven’t experienced it yet. No matter how “unclean” they may seem to us. The Apostle Paul says that Jesus, who was without sin was “made sin for our sake.” That God himself put aside all glory, purity and holiness to get down in the dirt and grime of human existence, taking on the brokenness of human life to heal it. God who is the very definition of holiness fears no impurity. Whether real or perceived.
Which means the only way that God heals and reconciles the world is by bringing together wildly different people under the love of God poured out for all in Jesus Christ. It’s through busting down existing boundaries in love, not by throwing up new spiritual fences. By extending the table… rather than taking select reservations. In God’s eyes no one is unclean.
And Cornelius was a good guy, a righteous person who hadn’t yet converted, according to Acts. But it goes beyond the good and righteous, too.
There’s a story that the great Baptist preacher and civil rights activist Will Campbell tells. He was attending the trial of Sam Bower, former imperial wizard of the White Knights of Mississippi, one of the most violent cells of the Ku Klux Klan in the sixties. Campbell went to the trial to support the family of Vernon Dahmer, a black man who died standing in his burning house, firing away with a shotgun so his wife and children could get out. Bowers was on trial for setting the fire.
Campbell had known Bowers for years. So he went to the defense table. Campbell drew a lot of heat for approaching a monster like Bowers, let alone sitting with him, showing him compassion. There’s nothing more unclean than an unrepentant white supremacist murderer. “Campbell has switched sides,” they said. Worried that Campbell had become one of them.
When Bowers was convicted and being led away, Campbell says,
“I wanted to go back there and say goodbye to him, but they wouldn’t let me. A guy who covered the South for the Boston Globe saw me standing there looking at Bowers, and he said, “What are you thinking?”
I said, “I feel deep compassion for that man.”
‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Why would you feel compassion for any man that brutal?’
I said, ‘Because he’s a prisoner of the state. Jesus admonished us to visit with prisoners — no questions asked.’
The reporter said, ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why extend this man the courtesy — unless you’re some kind of a goddamn Christian?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess I am some sort of a goddamn Christian.”[i]
I’m not sure how things unfolded with Bowers later on. Whether he repented of his crime or his sin. But I do know that Campbell’s Peter-like willingness to risk uncleanliness made repentance more possible. It made salvation a possibility, even if Bowers didn’t take it. Like Peter, he followed God’s instructions to “make no distinction.” So Campbell risked his own spiritual purity, and his own moral standing before the world. But he was “some sort of a goddamn Christian.” So who was he to get in God’s way?
That’s what happens when, like Peter, we’re willing to follow the Spirit’s leading. When we stop trying to maintain distinctions between clean and unclean, believer and unbeliever, sinner and saint. When we get our own purity, our own need to maintain righteousness out of God’s way. By grace we become like Peter—instruments of God’s healing salvation for a world in need.
The Spirit’s always drawing us outward. No matter who we see as unclean, in God’s eyes all—from the righteous Corneliuses of the world to the wicked Wizards of the KKK. All have been made clean and worthy. Not by any identity we hold, accomplishment, or merit we’ve earned. But purely by grace, by unconditional, one-way love. “If then God gave them the same gift he gave us, who are we to hinder God?”
May we let the Spirit drag each of us, whether willingly or kicking and screaming, towards people and places we wouldn’t normally touch with a ten foot pole. And in doing so, may those who long for it learn of God’s love through us. And may we come to know the height, depth, and wideness of God’s mercy through them.
Because who are we to hinder God?
[i] Jeremy Lloyd, “Radical Grace: An Interview with Will D. Campbell,” The Sun Magazine, accessed May 16, 2019 https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/293/radical-grace