Year C, Easter 5, 19 May 2019
Trinity Church on the Green
While there are many great lines in our sacred Scriptures, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” has got to be one of the best.
(I’m so glad God has never asked that of me, I’m a vegetarian, it would not have gone well…)
In this Easter season, we get to hear the stories of the newborn church in the Acts of the Apostles. Stories of a church that is truly just learning to crawl and talk, still figuring out its identity and going through some awkward stages and growing pains. The Acts of the Apostles is a unique book in our canon: it is not a letter, nor is it a Gospel. Acts tells the history of the early church.
The first generation of Christians faced a serious question: NOW WHAT? Now that Jesus has ascended to heaven and is no longer present on earth in bodily form, where is the risen Christ to be found? According to the Book of Acts, the primary way that the risen Christ continues to be alive and present is in the community that Jesus formed, the Body of Christ, the Church. And we will continue to hear the wild and crazy adventures of Peter and Paul and the other early believers in the Acts of the Apostles, in place of an Old Testament reading, throughout the rest of the Easter season.
Our story today from the Acts of the Apostles always takes me back to when I got to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is common for Joppa to be one of the first stops on the bus tours after a Holy Land Pilgrimage tour group lands in Tel Aviv. It was so for our group – we landed at 6 am in Tel Aviv, got our luggage and a cup of coffee, and were off on the bus already being talked at by our guide by 8 am, headed to Joppa. I was jet lagged and exhausted, but I clearly remember going to Joppa, or as it is now known, Jaffa. It is a beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast with palm trees and open air markets, along with a large Catholic Church dedicated to St. Peter. If you travel to Joppa, you can see the house that was supposedly Simon the tanner’s.
Last week, our story from the Acts of the Apostles was of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead – that happened in Joppa. Peter then stayed in Joppa for a while in the home of Simon the tanner. Prior to this, Peter had also healed a bedridden, paralyzed man named Aeneas, and as a result, all the residents of the town “turned to the Lord.” So, Peter is working miracles, and gathering followers of Jesus left and right, but so far, they have only been fellow Jewish people.
So, Peter is staying at the home of Simon the Tanner. And Peter goes up onto the roof to pray. Perhaps he has been fasting. Either way, he becomes really hungry, and falls into a trance where he sees a large sheet coming down from heaven. In it were all kinds of four footed creatures, and reptiles, and birds of the air.
Let’s imagine what’s in that sheet: I found one hilarious image that had an elephant, an ostrich, a hippo, an alligator, a snake, and a giraffe in the sheet, among other critters. (I should save it for future bulletin cover art) What do all of these animals have in common?
Peter hears that voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” And Peter says, “I can’t, it’s not kosher!” Ok, he actually says:
“By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” All of these critters are considered unclean by Jewish Law.
The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
This happened three times, because it seems that Peter always needs to hear things three times, and the sheet was suddenly taken back up to heaven. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter has to think about this.
As he does, 3 messengers having sent by Cornelius the Centurion arrive looking for Peter. Peter is still baffled by his vision, but the Spirit says to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter goes down, identifies himself, and asks what they want of him. They answer, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.’ 23So Peter lets them stay for the night, and then goes with them the next day to go to the home of Cornelius.
Cornelius, by the way, in case you’ve forgotten, is a Roman Centurion, and therefore a Gentile.
Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius, and Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet to worship him. Peter says, “no, no, I’m just a mortal and… what do you want of me?” Peter finds that Cornelius has invited a whole crowd to listen to Peter in his home. Peter tells him, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Peter preaches the Gospel to the gathered Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit falls upon them. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter are astounded. And Peter has them all baptized.
Our passage today picks up with Peter returning to Jerusalem, probably feeling pretty excited about this major happening, this mass baptism… and what do the church leaders do? They criticize Peter. They call him on the carpet for breaking the rules. Peter had accepted the hospitality of the “uncircumcised,” and had eaten with them. Lest we forget that a similar charge was leveled against Jesus for eating alongside sinners. And so, Peter tells them the WHOLE story. And Peter concludes by saying, “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?” This silences them. The leaders in Jerusalem realize this isn’t Peter’s initiative, but rather, God working through Peter. They are convinced. And then they praise God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Big change in the life of the church.
We have seen other big changes in the life of the church since, no? The church has continued to see in terms of “clean” and “unclean,” or “us” and “them” throughout its history. The church has viewed peoples of different race, class, ethnic origins, sexual orientations, and gender expressions as being “unclean,” as not being worthy of a seat at the table. We’ve made some progress, but we’re still not quite fully there. We must always think back to Peter’s question: “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?” “Who was I that I could hinder God.” Peter has an astonishing insight in that question. If God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it, who are we to try to limit the mission of God to redeem ALL of humanity? Any time we exclude someone from full participation in the redemptive work of God, Peter’s question should trouble us. It should trouble the church. What if the church had not accepted the Gentiles, and had remained a sect within Judaism? Where would we be today? Peter was convinced that God did not intend to exclude anyone from God’s beloved community. May we all be so convinced also.
At a time when our world seems more divided than ever, we are all called to be like Peter. God enables ordinary people like Peter and like all of us to bear witness to the Gospel. We are called to listen to each other and to discern where God’s spirit is leading us. We are reminded that controversy needs to be addressed, not avoided, and conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored. May we trust the Spirit, and keep finding ways to include, not exclude, to keep widening the circle, to keep lengthening and broadening the table so that all may have a place.