Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 24, 2016.
Taken from Acts 11:1-18
Just by way of preface, let me note for us that these 18 verses of Acts 11 document what is perhaps the most critical juncture in the life of the early church. What happens here in this church conference is second only to the Day of Pentecost itself in its importance to the Christian movement.
So important is this event, Luke devotes a very long chapter 10 to tell the story of what happened to Peter, while he was up on the rooftop of a friend’s house, and what came after. Then, Luke immediately repeats for us in chapter 11, what he’s just told us in chapter 10, almost word for word.
When a Bible writer does that, what is that person telling us? That writer is telling us: this is so very important for you to get, I’m gonna stop and tell you twice, before moving on.
In chapter 11, verses 1-18, the other Apostles have demanded Peter come back to Jerusalem and explain to them and to the rest of the church what he’s been up to. They want to know why he has baptized Gentiles in the name of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, without first requiring them to give up their Gentile ways
For these other Apostles, Peter has not merely committed a procedural oversight; he has started down a road many in the church believe strikes at the very heart of their movement. It’s a big deal.
So, Peter tells them what Luke has already told us in chapter 10. Peter’s up topside on a friend’s house over in Joppa. He’s enjoying the late morning, but it’s getting on toward lunch. Peter’s hungry. He calls down, “Hey! When’s lunch?” His friends call back up, “Hold your horses! We’re working on it!”
So, Peter waits up there for his lunch, and he falls into a trance. Three times, while Peter’s in this trance, this apparition of a great sheet appears above him. An unseen hand has gathered this sheet up by it four corners, which it now lowers down before Peter there on the rooftop.
The four corners are released, the sheet falls open there before Peter. Peter, of course, is surprised, then shocked and horrified, for what the sheet contains is alive and anxious to get out.
Flooding around Peter come creatures, crawling and creeping and slithering and flying even, animals and reptiles and birds of all kinds: but, not pleasant things at all! They are things Peter never ever wants to see nor touch nor taste.
The sheet releases things that frighten Peter, that make him wretch, that makes his skin crawl, and yet he cannot run; he cannot move, as these filthy things flow under his robes and over his sandaled feet and brush past his face and catch in his hair. And the voice belonging to the hidden hand that’s just set loose this horror upon Peter says to him, “Peter, you’re hungry? You want something to eat? Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
Peter recognizes it is the voice of his Lord Jesus. No, Lord; I have never eaten such things…they are forbidden!
The sheet instantly disappears. But before Peter can catch his breath, or think to move, or shake himself free, once again, the sheet appears above him, the same unseen hand holding the sheet by its four corners, plops the sheet there at Peter’s feet, releases the corners. The same horror unfolds before him; the same command comes for Peter to eat what the Lord has served him; a second time Peter refuses the Lord.
A second time, the sheet disappears; the abhorrent creatures are gone. But, still, Peter remains stuck in place, unable to move or turn away or shut his eyes. A third time, the sheet appears, and Peter, with dread, knows what he’s about to endure for a third time.
I like to play with sermon titles. The first one I came up with was, “Ew, gross. Cooties!”, but then I thought that might send the wrong message to the children. Then, I thought, “Peter: Three Sheets to the Wind!”. But, that might send the wrong message to the adults and might actually get me struck by lightning.
So, I thought, here’s a man suffering from gastronomic distress, a man unknowingly encumbered by the unseen chains forged over many years, a three-fold apparition attempting to unshackle a stubborn heart and a stubborn mind. Of course! Peter is Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
The ghost of Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge. Scrooge dismisses him as a bit of stomach distress.
Marley’s ghost challenges Scrooge: “Why do you doubt your senses?” Scrooge scoffs that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
That’s Peter, up on the rooftop, waiting for his lunch. His trance…who knows? A case of low blood sugar? Heat stroke, perhaps, up there on the roof under the hot sun of high noon? So, naturally, he hallucinates about food. He has a moment of mental confusion distorting a lifetime of religious practice. Peter might have scoffed, “There’s more of lunch than of the Lord about you, whatever you are!”
Yet, somehow, this vision rang a bell in Peter’s memory. Peter recalls something similar from his past with Jesus. Such as that day the Gospel accounts record for us. The Pharisees had attacked Jesus for allowing his followers to break the laws for ritual cleansing.
Jesus shoos the Pharisees away. He tells his followers: what goes into your mouth, goes into your stomach, and then moves on. It’s not what goes into your mouth and into your stomach that gives God trouble. It’s what starts down in your heart and then out of your mouth that offends God. Mark’s Gospel account here adds this note, in chapter 7, verse 19: thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean.
Jesus basically tells his fellow Jews: I know what the Scripture says, I know what we’ve all been taught, I know what you all believe will get you in deep, deep trouble with God. But, that no longer applies. Yes, that law was necessary for the time and place our forebearers once lived…but, it no longer applies to you or me nor to those who come after us.
Jesus tells his followers: You’ve got to revise your religion to conform to what I, Jesus, your Lord, am now teaching you and showing you. What once was useful and needful, are now but chains and shackles for your souls. Be free of those commandments, teachings and expectations. What once was needed has now turned into stumbling blocks.
Now, as you can easily imagine, that was some serious stuff for Jesus to be saying. Matthew records in chapter 15, verse 12, The disciples came and said to [Jesus], ‘Boy, the Pharisees are really ticked off at you for saying that!’
You may know Edwin Markham’s little poem, “Outwitted”. The first line reads, “He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.” The religious leaders called Jesus all those things and worse, didn’t they?
So, it’s not really all that hard to understand why Jesus’ disciples, such as Peter, were so reluctant to hear Jesus on this matter of kosher law.
The thing we modern day non-kosher folks misunderstand is that these kosher commandments were not about hygiene. For one thing, they didn’t just cover food, but they also covered clothing, for example.
These all were ways for the ancient Jews to mark clear boundaries between themselves and other ancient peoples among whom they lived and, especially, to separate themselves from the religions of those other people. These laws were very much about saying, this is who we are because this is who God is.
Now, Jesus is telling his followers, well, no, here is what is closer to the truth of who God is. To borrow again from Edwin Markham, for a time, God had scribed a fairly tight circle of inclusion and exclusion for those with whom God made covenant. But, with Jesus’ coming, with Jesus’ example and teaching, with Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God drew an all-encompassing circle excluding no one.
But, it is so very hard to allow one’s faith find a new form of religion by which to grow and live that faith. Faith is our soul’s sensibility of God, our soul’s conviction of God’s presence; faith is our soul’s capacity to comprehend and commune with God in God’s true nature.
Religion is the container we make, to live out our faith; most often, others have fashioned and passed down to us our religious containers: all those practices and all those statements and declarations and creeds and bells and whistles get spelled out, generation after generation, all shaping a religion to serve as a manageable way to live what our souls have discerned.
Religion migrates down deep into our souls. So, we do not simply change our religion at the drop of a hat; not even if its Jesus himself who’s trying to knock that hat off of us, as Jesus is trying to do with Peter on that rooftop in Joppa.
Have you ever taken off your shoes and taken a good look at your feet? And then looked back at your shoes, and then look at your feet again, especially your toes? We won’t do that now, here in church, but give it try when you get back home.
I don’t really spend time looking at other people’s feet. But, I’m guessing it’s not just my feet that look suspiciously like they’ve conformed more to the shape of my shoes than the other way around.
I had a friend in college named Nina. Nina’s parents were Baptist missionaries in Kenya, and that’s where Nina grew up. At college, where Nina and I became friends, she sometimes bemoaned to us that she’d lost what she called her “African feet”.
Where Nina grew up in Kenya, all children and many adults went barefoot. If they wore shoes at all, they were sandals. The soles and toes of their feet were more spread out, more responsive to the varying shapes and textures of the ground on which they walked.
But, once Nina got into her teens, her parents sent her to a high school for children of Westerners working in Africa. Closed-toe shoes were the norm, as was the case when Nina returned to America to go to college. The shoes began to shape Nina’s feet until one day she realized, she no longer had her “African feet”.
Faith is the substance of our souls; it is our spiritual feet and religion is the shoes. Like shoes subtly but surely shaping our feet, our religion shapes our faith. That’s good and necessary, until our religion starts to distort our faith into something other than or less than the faith of Jesus. We want the living faith of a living Lord.
Jesus’ experience of God would no longer allow him to accept the forms of his religion. He worked and taught mightily to get his followers to understand that they, too, would need to let him redefine their religion. That’s what he was talking about in that familiar metaphor of wine skins and new wine.
Not an easy task at all. It certainly was not an easy task for Jesus to accomplish with Peter. Not here on the rooftop, this day in Joppa, and not in the years that followed. The Spirit of Christ kept on having to confront Peter and challenge Peter to let the Spirit reshape his religion, to change his religion to conform to truth of God as Peter now knows God through Jesus Christ.
That’s why the Lord was scaring the beejeebers out of Peter that high noon on the rooftop was because Jesus had a mission for Peter. He wanted Peter to go to the home of a Gentile, the Roman commander, Cornelius. Jesus wanted all preconditions set aside from Peter’s mind.
Jesus needed Peter to speak with this man and his family, to receive this man’s hospitality and to let Cornelius and his household know, God had redrawn the circle. The Good News, the Gospel, was this: even they, despised Gentiles, were in the circle of God’s love. Period. Just as they were.
So. Let’s say you’re on the rooftop, having this vision. Down comes the sheet. The four corners are turned loose to unfold. What would be inside your sheet? What of your religion would Jesus, today, want you to change, so that your faith and how you practice your faith, are set free, to better serve the Lord?
I can tell you what would be in my sheet. First, you need to know: I like singing traditional hymns out of a Baptist hymnal. I like having a book you can open to page whatever and hold while you sing. Because, I despise singing off a movie screen stuck up front of a sanctuary.
Singing praise choruses projected onto a screen make me to slip into a brief mental coma: my mouth is moving, the lights stay on, but I am not at home for the duration of the praise chorus.
I do not like what I call “preacher casual”. You know the look? A polo shirt, khaki pants and casual dress shoes. I’ve got a preacher suit, thank you very much, and a clergy robe because that’s the way Jesus and I like it. Jesus did not dress like he was taking a date to the movies.
Also, honest-to-goodness Baptists hold worship from 11:00 am to precisely 12:00 pm on Sunday mornings. Those are some of the reasons why I joined University Baptist Church, 12 years ago now. I liked how you were doing church.
I am so glad you called me to be your interim Senior Minister, because I was holding my breath, afraid that one day, God just might drop a sheet down at my feet. There, spread out before me, would be an earnest group of worshipers, staring happily up at a movie screen, singing their hearts out to some Bill Gaither tune. A minister of worship arts, in a knit shirt and khaki pants, leads them from behind a keyboard put smack in the middle of the chancel.
A voice would command: “Gary! Rise and go interim!” And I would cry out, “But, Lord, I’ve never reduced myself to such a state of affairs such as that!” Up would go the sheet, only to return a second time. Again, the voice would command, “Gary! Rise and go interim with these folks!” A second time I would protest.
Yet a third time, the sheet would be lowered before me. The voice will command: “Gary! I liketh what they doeth! And by the way, dust off your King James Bible because that’s how they best heareth me!” It maketh my skin crawl to thinketh of it, but, truth be told, God is not wedded to the Baptist hymnal nor clergy in suits and robes nor the Eleven-to-Noon time slot.
What would it be for you? What would be in your sheet that the Lord would lay at your feet?
We could dismiss the Lord as bit of undigested beef, a fragment of underdone potato, or just plain wrong. What a shame for any of us to so lightly slight our Lord. How sad, should we as a church fail to grow our religion to fit the faith God would offer us through such moments. The risk always is that we subjugate our faith to a religion that is too small.
We live in an ever-changing world of possibilities into which God would lead us, to know God more truly and to serve God more fully. God leads us, so we and others may experience that full circle of salvation God has prepared for all of us together, in Jesus Christ our Lord.