Sources: Bread of Angels by Barbara Brown Taylor, Shameless by Nadia Bolz Weber, Sermon by Shannon Kershner of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, and Theology From Exile Volume I The Year of Luke by Sea Raven
I was reading a book 2 weeks ago and the author referenced this chapter that we just read about Peter’s vision of the blanket coming down from the sky with all sorts of animals for food that he was forbidden to eat by Jewish law. I hadn’t thought about this story in a long time and it kept sitting with me these two weeks and reflecting on what was God really try to say to Peter in this story and what is God saying to me in the story. As I continued to think about it and read more about it from various authors, I realized that Acts and this story in particular is one of the most important ones in the New Testament.
The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John highlight the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus. But what was going to happen to this movement that Jesus had started once he was gone? When we really examine the 12 disciples, they didn’t hold up well under pressure. They were pretty weak when tested while Jesus was alive and after his death. But then the Day of Pentecost comes, and the Holy Spirit comes and fills the believers with power to preach, do miracles and heal. These weak men are transformed into men of character, vision and strength all from responding to the spirit of God within them. These disciples along with mostly Jewish followers start to spread this good news of the gospel and set up faith communities in various towns.
For many years I didn’t understand that Christianity in its infancy was all about the Jewish religion. It was mostly Jews that were joining in these Christian faith communities and these converts believed that Christianity was fulfilling the teachings of the Jewish faith, the promises given by God and reforming the faith. The Jews had been God’s chosen people and Christianity would continue that storyline. The resurrection of Jesus was the arrival of the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for. The conflicts within the earliest churches were between Jews that kept very strict traditions and Jews that had adopted more customs from their Hellenistic surroundings. But it was without question that to be part of that early Christian community, one had to at least continue to follow the strict traditions of circumsion and dietary laws.
But a problem began to emerge as the Holy Spirit was coming to all kinds of people including Samaritans and Gentiles. Was this going to mean that the Jews and Gentiles were on the same footing before God? Was it possible within the gospel that Jews would have no reason to exclude Gentiles and Gentiles would have no reason to look down on Jews? Would they really have respect and tolerance for diverse points of view? How could the Jews allow Gentiles and Samaritans to become members of the Christian church when they weren’t circumcised and ate forbidden foods? How could they be in a faith community together?
There were many in the early church deeply struggling with these issues and Peter was definitely one of them. He had been a devout Jew his whole life, kept all the strict dietary laws even as he became a disciple of Jesus. We remember a few stories about Peter; walking on the water to meet Jesus but then sinking when he stopped believing, cutting off the ear of the soldier when they confronted Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and denying Jesus 3 times when asked if he was a disciple of Jesus. However, Peter’s faith was deep and God’s spirit transformed him and he became a leader in the early church and was preaching and healing and showing folks a new way to live in Christ. But he struggled with Gentiles becoming Christians unless they were willing to adhere to the Jewish traditions. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You do understand how it is forbidden for a Jew to associate with or to visit a person of another race.” Jews were not even allowed to have a non-Jew in their home or visit the home of a non-Jew.
All this changed when Peter received his “leading” from God. In that moment of spiritual awakening and understanding, Peter has a visual image of a blanket coming down from above with all kinds of restricted animals. He hears a voice telling him to kill the animals in the blanket and eat them. Peter’s response was a strong no way would he violate his Jewish covenant. The voice commands him 3 times to kill the animals and eat and finally makes one of the most astounding claims in all of the new Testament. What God has created is not unclean. This vision changes everything for Peter and also it changes forever the purpose and life of Christianity. Peter was told that one of the most important elements of his faith no longer held true and that he must discard it.
The non-Jew but God-fearing man of Cornelius shows up at his door after the vision. Peter realizes in that moment that he must step into his spiritual awakening and welcome the man into his home and then travels to Cornelius home. He declares to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-35 that he truly understands that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.
This is radical stuff to the community. How could centuries of tradition be tossed aside? Peter knew how much this would change everything in their religious and social culture and that their foundation and identity would be split wide open. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story in her book, Bread of Angels. She helps us understand the huge issue the dietary restrictions were to Jews by saying, “Imagine anything that, for you, is the dividing line between Christians and other people – the one thing that makes us who we are, that is not negotiable, that we cannot let slide without letting slide our whole identity as people of God. And when you have figured out what that is, get ready to let it go.”
This story is a story where I fall in love with Peter because Peter believed in the idea of continuing revelation and listening to the Divine Light within to radically shift his belief system. With this vision to Peter and Peter listening to God’s voice, the norms that guided their religious community would reject exclusivity and restriction and explode with inclusion and radical hospitality. Peter’s actions and declarations did not go over well with his Jewish leaders in the community. They felt that he had sold out and had crossed a line that never should have been crossed. He had violated the law and that could not be accepted. Peter explained to them how God had spoken to him and revealed this so clearly and how could we stop the Spirit moving in new directions within us.
I was reading a sermon by Shannon Kershner of the Fourth Presbyterian church on this topic and I love what she says about what Peter was feeling about his vision. “Peter knew he was in the house of a Gentile because of God. He had not wanted to come. God’s Spirit had compelled him into that place with those people. Suddenly all those people—the ones he avoided, the ones whose politics made him sick, the ones who scared him by their difference, the ones who bored him with their normalcy—all of them received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same gift he and his fellow Jewish Christian leaders had received. Apparently, without asking for permission, or asking for approval, God simply decided to give the same gift of new life and intimate presence to those outsiders, just as God had given it to Peter and the other insiders.”
What is in your blanket that you are holding onto so tightly and can’t let go today? Who are we keeping out or separating from, rejecting, demeaning and ignoring? I have been asking myself this question all week and I see a few people that are in that blanket for me.
And what about our First Friends faith community and the wider Christian church? What traditions are we holding on to that God is telling us to let go? Who are we collectively rejecting and excluding?
Barbara Brown Taylor in her story says, “How often in the church do we try to say where the Spirit may or may not blow, when the only thing God has asked us to do is to try and keep up with it wherever it goes?” Where is the spirit blowing with you today? Will we keep up with the spirit here at First Friends?
I ask that you reflect on these questions as we enter our time of waiting worship. If God is speaking to you directly please hold that message tenderly in your heart and reflect on what it means and what you do with it. If God is giving you a message to share with all of us, please be faithful and stand and wait for a microphone to be brought to you.