September 18, 2016 “Get Over It” – Acts 10:1-23
“Get Over It”
September 18, 2016 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I’m preaching to the choir this morning. No, I’m not literally preaching only to you fine people who sang so beautifully for us a few minutes ago. I’m “preaching to the choir” in that image which pictures the preacher turning around from a congregation of unconvinced, half-hearted sinners to address a message to those seated behind the pulpit who already believe and practice wholeheartedly what they’re hearing.
You seated in front of me demonstrated last Sunday that you totally get the point of our text for today. You already believe and live out in hospitality and friendship what God had to convince Peter of by saying it three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” and most of all that means the people He has made. You worshipped and ate and talked with brothers and sisters in Christ who speak a different language and whose skin may be a little different color from yours. You already understand what Peter had to learn more than once by hard experience. You are a beautiful choir singing Jesus’ praise to the world. Way to go.
So we could read this passage together now and just pat ourselves on the back. And you would deserve it. I believe that. But let’s see if there’s not something more we can hear and apply to ourselves as we work through this story of visions God sent to two very different men.
The first man was a Roman centurion, a member of a regiment, the Italian Cohort, which would be sent to occupy all of Palestine within a couple decades. As verse 2 explains, he had a relationship with the God of Jewish people. It says he was already doing two of the three great acts of Jewish piety, giving alms to the poor and praying. Only fasting is not mentioned. Verse 3 tells us his devotion was rewarded with a vision, an angel who in the next couple verses directed him to send for Peter where we left him last week in Joppa.
When God is starting something new, reaching out with His love in a new direction, visions are sometimes part of it. Some of us know personally a Muslim woman who had a vision of Jesus and became a Christian. One of you shared hearing about a Jewish man who was given a vision of Jesus. Cornelius was God’s new direction back then and he received a vision that pointed him toward someone who would tell him about Jesus.
Verses 7 and 8 show us Cornelius choosing three men, two slaves and a faithful soldier under his command, explaining the vision and sending them off to Joppa to get Peter. The great tension in the story arises in verse 9. Tight as they are drawing near to where Peter is, he’s not quite ready. As he goes up his roof to pray, Peter is still very Jewish in the way he looks at the world and other people, and in the way he eats.
I remember sitting in the posh Notre Dame faculty club and watching a famous philosopher carefully study the label on a can of tomato soup the waiter brought out from the kitchen for him. That professor was an orthodox Jew. He was trying to make sure the restaurant’s soup contained no meat broth, not because he was vegetarian, but because meat must be prepared kosher to be acceptable for Jewish consumption. He was trying to find something in that restaurant he could eat.
Jewish faith, by God’s design, came with a whole set of what seem to us peculiar diet instructions. Trying to be faithful to what God said in Leviticus, they not only avoid certain foods, but insist the food they do eat be prepared in ways consistent with what Scripture implies. Keep kitchen vessels used for preparation of milk products separate from those used for meat. Animals slaughtered for meat must be killed in a specific way. As you probably know, it’s called “keeping kosher,” a complicated set of dietary rules to avoid eating anything which God designated as “unclean.”
Peter’s own vision in verses 11 to 13 represents a serious and shocking attack on his Jewish upbringing and diet. He had already changed some. He was, as we learned last week, living in the house of one Simon, a tanner. Contrary to typical Jewish custom, he was in constant proximity to dead bodies of animals. He may not have touched them, but he could not possibly have escaped the smell. He would have been continually reminded that this was the home of a man engaged in an occupation generally considered unclean.
That could be why he was on the roof for his prayers. Up there a breeze from the Mediterranean Sea would blow the tanning odors away and he could breathe deeply. It was so relaxing that he got hungry and then drowsy as he waited for food. At that point God entered his reverie with a disturbing vision.
Roof tops were often covered with awnings and that may have been the source for Peter’s image of a large sheet being lowered from heaven. It’s described as held by its four “corners.” The word for corner is an unusual term used in Greek medicine for the corners of bandages. It’s evidence that the writer of the book of Acts really was who we think, a medical doctor named Luke. It also suggests to us that God was about to use the contents of this sheet as bandage and healing for a disease in Peter’s soul.
Verse 12 says, “in it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” This is the same three-fold division of the animal kingdom in Genesis 1:30, beasts of the earth, birds of the air, creeping things on the earth. They’re all here in Peter’s sheet vision, the unclean pigs which were the most common meat, along with dormice and ostriches and other creatures which Romans ate, but which Scripture told Jews not to eat.
The crux of the vision is the instruction in verse 13. Last week we read how Peter told a man and a woman to “get up” when he healed them. Now, Peter is told to “get up” for a new purpose. “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
Peter in verse 14 is flabbergasted. He speaks like any good Jew would, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Maybe you can imagine how Peter felt. Perhaps you’ve traveled and encountered food and cleanliness customs different from your own. Missionaries are full of stories about cooking pots full of worms and such. In Ecuador you may be offered chicha, a drink made by local women who chew yucca or manioc and then spit it into a bowl where it ferments. You may have enjoyed the carne asada last week, but you might have felt different if it had been menudo, a Mexican soup made with tripe, beef stomach.
I used to say that I would try any food once. There’s been a couple of times I’ve regretted that and there’s are some foods I just won’t eat again. Peter felt that way when presented with this tarp full of unclean animals. And he was told not once, but three times to violate the diet habits of a lifetime. “Get up and get over it,” God said.
Verse 17 says Peter was awake and “greatly puzzled” about his vision when the messengers arrived. He was about to learn that the divine call to get over his food prejudices was part of an even greater imperative for him to get over everything which separated him from people like a Roman centurion named Cornelius.
Verse 2 told us that Cornelius “feared God.” It is a special term for a whole class of Gentiles who appreciated Jewish religion. They accepted Jewish monotheism, believing there is one God who created and rules the world. But they were not full Jewish converts. They did not become circumcised and follow all Jewish law, like the diet restrictions. But they read the Hebrew Scriptures and prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God-fearers respected Jewish faith, but were not quite part of it. These Gentiles accepted Jews, but Jews did not fully accept them. In particular, they would not eat with such Gentiles. It would be impossible for a Jew to sit down at a Gentile dinner table without breaking the food laws. So in order for Peter to do what the messengers coming from Cornelius asked, to go with them and enter his house to stay awhile, he would have to come to grips with lifelong habits and training.
Peter’s vision is not just a metaphor for overcoming prejudice. It’s not just an object lesson from which he was to draw the conclusion that just as no foods are ultimately unclean no people are finally unclean in God’s eyes. That’s true, but Peter had to actually get over the food thing so that he could get over the people thing. To be a Christian witness to Cornelius and his family, he was not only to theoretically accept them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. He had to actually sit down at their table and eat pork or rabbit or shrimp or whatever non-kosher, “unclean” meal they prepared for him.
You might think this is pretty simple for you and me. Here we are twenty-one Christian centuries later. In Mark 7:19, Jesus said that it’s not what goes into our mouths which makes us unclean, but what comes out. All the mean, vulgar, vicious, false things we say are what defile us—not the food we eat. To that verse, Mark adds his own comment, which he got from Peter, that by those words “Jesus declared all foods clean.”
We might even think that abolishing Jewish food laws is a relatively minor point about the Christian Gospel. I even make a joke of it at our house. As I tend frying bacon on Friday morning for the men’s breakfast, I often remark that this is one of the excellent privileges of being Christian. We get to eat bacon and sausage!
But it’s not just a joke and it’s not really a minor issue here in Acts, nor in the New Testament as a whole. Eating habits were a major struggle for first century Christians both Jew and Gentile. That wonderful heavenly truth of unity between people in Jesus Christ came down to the simple, practical matter of what was on the table.
Linus in Peanuts once said, “I love mankind. It’s people I hate.” We might say that we like people, but we hate what they eat, how they live, the language they speak. The things which separate us from each other are still there. We can sing about our unity in Jesus, but the rub comes when we have to actually be with a particular person or group of people.
Peter knew from the Hebrew Bible that God was the God of the Gentiles as well as of Jews. He knew Isaiah 42:6 promised that the Servant of the Lord, who he believed was Jesus, would be a light for the Gentiles as for his own people. He knew Jesus Himself had healed the son of a Roman centurion. He probably knew about Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian eunuch. But now he had to face the practical outcome of all that. Three Gentile men were at his door and inviting him to the home of their master. He had to get over his worries about what he ate.
What do you and I need to get over still? Yes, we had a wonderful time worshipping and eating together with Spanish-speaking folk last week. I think most of us could do the same with Syrians or Africans or Chinese or Native Americans. Some of you have. But when we do, what are we holding back? What do we still need to get over?
When people in our denomination talk about racial reconciliation, one of the big topics is getting over a sense of superiority, a sense that we are the ones in control of the situation, that we are the ones offering a place at the table to different sorts of people. What we need to get over is the idea that the table belongs to us.
We had such a fine time last Sunday. I can’t say it enough. But basically Valley Covenant white, English-speaking people welcomed our Hispanic brothers and sisters into our place, let them join in our worship service, let them sit at our tables on our chairs. Are we ready now to go the other direction? Can we step back and let them be the ones who plan and lead the worship, be those who decide how the meal is arranged, and be the leaders who choose which language gets spoken when?
Several of you have expressed a desire to do another joint service and meal with Manantial de Vida. But as some of us heard last Sunday, they want to be the hosts next time, to invite us to their worship service at 2:30 in the afternoon instead of 10:30 in the morning, to have us listen to their pastor through a translator, to join them in a worship service that’s not quite the style we are used to.
Can we do it? I think so. As I said, I think you are the choir. You already get the idea and are making beautiful music of Christian unity to God. All I’m suggesting is that just like our literal choir, we have to keep at it, keep practicing and sometimes learn some new music. And we may have to get over some of our attachment to old music and ways of doing things in order to sing that song of unity in all its true glory.
Hey, it’s hard. Sometimes it’s not language or race we have to get over. It’s education and poverty and lifestyle. For me it’s a lot easier to sit down and share a taco or kimchi or curry with someone from another country than it is to sit down and eat with some of the homeless folks who will sleep in our sanctuary on cold nights this winter. They may speak English, but people who live on the street feel more different than folks with jobs and homes and cars who speak Spanish. I’d like to get over that feeling too.
So it’s not just race. It’s clothes and hair and body odor and dirt. It’s politics. It’s sexual morality. Not that some of those things don’t matter. We want folks to be able to be clean. And political views and sex lives need to be transformed by Jesus. But all that can’t be allowed to separate us from others. Not even things like I often joke about, beer and bowling and bass fishing versus wine and chess and fly fishing. All our preferences and prejudices, large and small, in every area of life, may be things we need to get over like Peter got over eating pork so that he could share the good news of Jesus Christ.
It’s hard, but as we experienced last Sunday, it’s also full of joy. Looking ahead a bit to chapter 11, when Peter went to Jerusalem and reported on his experience at Cornelius’ house, the final outcome of it is there in 11:18, “And they praised God…” We got to praise God in a wonderful way last week because we were blessed to get over some of the stuff that gets in the way and come together in Christ. And it gave us all joy.
That’s the slogan I heard at a One Hope meeting this past week. One Hope is a gathering of pastors from many different churches in our area. Their stated aim is to “join together to show Jesus’ love in the Eugene/Springfield community.” But they said that when that happens, when we come together and someone sees Jesus’ love and accepts Christ as Savior like a woman did during the Project Hope kid’s fair last month, then there are two results: God gets the glory and we get the joy.
There were people here last week, both in worship and at our meal, who belong to neither church, who as far as I know are not Christians yet. We came together to show the love of Jesus to them like Peter came together with Cornelius to show His love in that house. When we do, just like then, God gets the glory and we get the joy. Let’s get over all the other stuff and get that joy.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj