Scripture (Acts 11:1-18) can be found here…
How many times in church have you heard something like this: The Hebrew Scriptures are Law; and the New Testament is Love? Or, The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is all about punishment, but Jesus is all about forgiveness?
I’ve heard those things, and I’ve heard them a lot. Heck, I’ve even preached some version of them. There are so many ways we Christians have been encouraged to think about Judaism as a religion that was profoundly flawed, and which Jesus came to fix. And while there is no doubt that Jesus critiqued the religious practices of his own community, that can be a sign of love and hope for the future. Dozens and dozens of commissioners critique the work of the body at each and every Presbyterian General Assembly; that’s not a sign they are trying to destroy the church; it’s a sign that they love it.
I have promised myself and you that I would work hard to provide us all with a fuller and more compassionate understanding of Judaism, as we seek, together, to follow in the path of our Jewish savior. This passage offers us an opportunity to do just that.
I follow Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on Twitter, and she is my new guru about all things pertaining to Judaism. Not too long ago, she offered some wise and educational words on Jewish law. But before diving into the specific subject matter, she put the following question to her Christian readers:
“If someone was like, hey, I have a Diet Coke and some Oreos, that'll do for communion, right? Most of you'd probably come back with a pretty strong no, right?” (10 Feb, 2019).
She’s right, of course. Presbyterians are absolutely flexible about the type of bread we share, and we may drink either juice or wine; but Oreo and Diet Coke communion? For us, that would be beyond the pale. It’s a non-starter.
The good Rabbi continues, “That's because Communion is a particular thing, and not everything or anything will get you there. The fact that it's bread and wine” [or, in our case, the fruit of the vine] “matters… the idea is that this encounter with the holy has to happen in a certain way for it to work—for the proverbial engine to go on, for the ritual to do its ritual magic, yes? Got that? OK.”
And now, she gets to her real point. She writes, “Don't ever call Jews legalistic again. Don't ever suggest that having an investment in the how it happens is pedantic or dry. For us, it's not pedantic at all. It's passionate and invested and spirited and joyful. Jewish law is meant to impact just about every aspect of our lives, but not in a harsh or limiting way. In a, things matter and have consequence sort of way. In a, here are more opportunities to connect with the holy, sort of way.” (10 Feb, 2019)
In today’s encounter with an Easter person, Peter is suddenly challenged about what, for his entire life, has been his passionate and invested and spirited and joyful practice: eating according to Jewish law, also called “halakha,” which means, literally, “the going,” or “the path.” Like Rabbi Danya, Peter was raised in a community in which the things they ate, the blessings they said, the Sabbath rituals they observed—all of these offered daily, sometimes hourly opportunities to connect with the Holy One.
But now, something has happened.
We hear about it in flashback. Peter, who, last week, was traveling in Joppa, has returned to Jerusalem, and there he’s met with strong words of disapproval, because he sat at table with Gentiles. The people who disapprove are described using what is perhaps the most specific practice that sets Jews apart from Gentiles: the text calls them “the circumcised brothers.” Here was their concern: Gentiles were considered ritually unclean, which simply means that they would have some restrictions placed on them about where they could go, and what they could do in a Jewish context. But remember, too, the Temple in Jerusalem—the holiest place for Jews—was constructed with a portion dedicated entirely to welcoming Gentiles, so this is not about rejection. It’s about time and place and situation. As Rabbi Danya would say, it’s about the how-it-happens. And Peter having dined with Gentiles raises some eyebrows.
Peter explains: While he was in Joppa, he had a vision.
It was a strange one. In Peter’s vision, something like a large sheet is lowered from heaven containing all kinds of animals he is forbidden, by Jewish law, to eat. But a voice identified as the Lord tells Peter, “Get up, kill, and eat.” And he refuses—he is a good Jew. “Never,” he says. But the voice shoots back, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
This happens three times. Each time, Peter gives the same response. Finally the sheet returns from whence it came. And immediately, three messengers come for Peter, to take him into Caesarea, to the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, a Roman centurion. And that voice speaks again: this time, it’s identified as the Spirit.
“Make no distinction between yourself and them,” she tells Peter.
So he goes, along with a small retinue of Jesus-followers. And when he gets there, he learns that Cornelius also had a vision. His vision was to send someone to Joppa to get Peter, because Peter would give him a message that would save him, along with everyone in his household.
So, Peter shares the message. I wonder how he started?
Maybe he said, “Have you heard of Jesus?”
Or maybe, “You know, there’s a really good church in Caesarea… you should give it a try.”
However he does it, the effect Peter’s words have on Cornelius and his household is profound. The Holy Spirit falls upon them, just as it had on Peter and the disciples on the day of Pentecost… and that was a day for wind, and fire, and barriers of language breaking down, and people being baptized.
Peter concludes his flashback story with a rhetorical question: If God gave these Gentiles the same gift we were given when we believed, who was I to hold God back?
And, as far as the story is told here, in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter stops insisting that people have to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. With Peter’s change of heart, a barrier falls down, and it is gone forever.
The laws of halakha are not oppressive. They are not bad. Countless people down the millennia have lived within their boundaries and found that they offered a passionate and invested and spirited and joyful life in which they found constant opportunities to connect with the holy, with God.
But in this particular situation, these laws placed a burden upon non-Jews who were responding to a message about grace. And grace is free; it’s not something that’s earned. Many Jewish followers of Jesus continued to practice kosher eating, to say the many blessings for various activities throughout the day, and to keep the Sabbath day holy. They were free to do that. But in order for the Gentile community to be able to follow Jesus, they had to be free not to do that.
Peter’s change so whole-hearted! And this is what conversion is: it’s a new view, a new understanding, the key that unlocks everything and opens a door, in your heart or your world. For Peter, it was when he saw the Spirit present in Cornelius’ household. He saw the Spirit among those in a way that reminded him of his own experience of being soaked in the Spirit. He was an eyewitness. He could deny it no longer.
Easter people have open hearts, and they may find those hearts unexpectedly transformed when the Spirit unleashes a new heaven and a new earth upon them. And when this happens—barriers fall. Community grows. The gospel flourishes. The living waters flow, and are available to all.
In this transformative moment, Peter is emulating Jesus, whether he realizes it or not. Jesus spends much of his energy throughout the gospels doing what he believes is right—even if that means he’s crossed a barrier normally observed in his community. He has a long theological conversation with a woman at a well. He heals a man on the Sabbath. He heals Gentiles, including the slave of a Roman soldier. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says, at the outset of his ministry, “who has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). Listen to that list of activities God commissioned Jesus to do. Every single one of them breaks down a barrier between people—between the poor and the well-off; between the visually impaired and their community; between the imprisoned and the oppressed, and the whole beautiful world that becomes available to them.
And now, for followers of Jesus, a barrier falls between those whose home was in Judaism and those whose home was in the Gentile world.
How many times have we heard that the Hebrew Scriptures are Law and punishment; and the New Testament is love and forgiveness? Aren’t we forgetting that the Hebrew Scriptures are saturated through and through with grace, and a God who relentlessly seeks after God’s people, wooing them back into relationship with an irresistible love?
Remember what the Spirit says: “Make no distinction between yourself and them.”
What would our world look like, if we made no distinction between ourselves and people we don’t regard as being “us,” but think of as being “other”?
If we saw every single person of every religion, and every race, and every nationality, and every level of ability, and every gender, and every age… what if we saw them all as being pretty much like us, in all the ways that are really important?
Like us, just trying to make their way in the world.
Like us, in need of a safe place to live and food on the table and work that is justly compensated.
Like us, bearers of the Divine Image.
Like us, beloved children of God.
Can you imagine such a world?
It would take the change of many, many hearts.
But picture that world with me. And together, let’s be Easter people, like Peter, with our hearts wide open.
And just watch what the Spirit can do with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.