Scripture: Acts 11:1-18
A few years ago I decided I was going to read the book of Leviticus. I had managed to make it through about 25 years of being a Christian, four years of a Religious Studies degree, and three years of seminary without ever reading Leviticus, except in bits and pieces. And there’s good reason for that because Leviticus is honestly pretty boring. When you read Leviticus you come across a lot of passages such as this: “When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil. If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, unleavened….If your offering is grain prepared in a pan, it shall be made of choice flour in oil.” (Lev. 2) I slogged through a lot of passages like that.
For the record, Leviticus also has some pretty good stuff in it: Be sure to leave some of your harvest for hungry people to glean, it says. Don’t steal. Judge fairly. Love your neighbor as yourself. Laws like these should stop us in our tracks whenever we try to separate the Old Testament God from the New Testament God as if God just completely changed God’s mind in the middle. Nope; God pretty consistently wants love and justice from us all the way through.
Still, these nice-sounding laws are all mixed together with laws governing what we call the Jewish purity system, which is what Leviticus is known for. These laws govern what kinds of food are clean and unclean. For example, Leviticus 11 tells us that the Israelites may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews the cud, like cows. They may not, however, eat any animal that only does one or the other, like the camel, which chews the cud but does not have a cloven hoof, or the pig, which does have a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud. I could go on. This will be important later. The laws also govern what kind of people, under what circumstances, count as clean and unclean, like someone who has touched a dead body, or a menstruating woman. And they govern how unclean people can become ritually clean again, often by waiting a certain number of days, taking a ceremonial bath, and sometimes getting checked out by a priest. And these laws implicitly or explicitly separated Jews from Gentiles, who would not have followed the same laws.
It’s hard to know exactly where all of these laws come from or why they exist. Some of them, like the dead body one, seem to make sense from a public health perspective, in a time without antibacterial soap. Some may reflect a queasiness over things that don’t fit squarely into one category or another, like animals that have cloven hooves but don’t chew their cud. We don’t always like things that don’t fit into our boxes, and so we call them unclean. Taken as a whole, though, what these rules do provide is a sense of identity: those who follow them are set apart from those who don’t, and remind them that they serve a God who is different from other gods.
There are certainly still people today who try to follow all of these rules to the letter, mostly Orthodox Jews. Most of us who are not Orthodox Jews probably find the whole system to be pretty primitive. Purity laws, we say, even if they made sense for ancient people, certainly don’t anymore.
And yet I remember one of my college professors making the case that we do still have purity laws of our own. Some of them might make sense from a public health perspective: you don’t shake someone’s hand if they’ve just sneezed in it, for example, or you have to take measures to be “clean” again. Some of those unspoken rules may be dubious, like if we are uncomfortable shaking the hand of someone who has HIV. Some of them may reflect our continuing fears about mixing things or people who don’t fit in our boxes: who can drink from a water fountain, for an older example, or who can use a certain bathroom, for a newer one. We have our own ideas as a society about what laws should govern our interactions and separate us from one another. Sometimes these boundaries are secular, and sometimes they are religious.
And what today’s Scripture tells us is that sometimes God needs us to knock those barriers down.
The story begins in chapter 10 with a man named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman, a Gentile, and that means there are certain purity boundaries that must be kept between him and Jewish people—for example, eating together. Cornelius, the story goes, is also a good man. He’s a God-fearer, which means he probably hangs out around the outside of his local synagogue and prays and supports its work. He reveres the Jewish God, but he is not, himself, Jewish.
One day an angel comes to visit Cornelius and the angel says, “God has seen the good works you do; send your people to Joppa to go find a man named Peter and bring him back here. He has some news for you.”
Meanwhile, Peter is in the city of Joppa, staying with someone named Simon the Tanner. Simon the Tanner, by the way, may have also been ritually unclean, because a person who tans leather works with dead animals. So Peter may already be playing fast and loose with some of these boundaries by staying at his house. But Simon the Tanner is, at least, Jewish.
At noon, Peter goes up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray. It’s lunchtime, so he’s hungry, and as may happen to all of us once in a while when we’re hungry, Peter starts seeing things.
What he sees is food. He sees a large sheet being lowered down from heaven, and on this sheet are all kinds of animals, both the clean ones and the unclean ones. And Peter hears a voice and it says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”
But Peter is a good Jew, just like Jesus was, and he knows the difference between clean and unclean animals, and he’s not about to eat the ones he isn’t supposed to eat. So he objects: “No way, God, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.”
And the voice says: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
This happens three times, and then Cornelius’s people show up at the door.
From a modern, Gentile perspective, nothing in this story seems terribly shocking. It seems silly to us that God would arbitrarily make distinctions between food we can eat and food we can’t eat, even though it’s apparently edible. We think, of course along the way someone had to realize that these arbitrary rules weren’t actually the point of what God wanted from us. But Peter wasn’t being silly. He was a good, religious man. He got his beliefs about these things straight from the Bible itself.
While Cornelius’s people are standing in the doorway asking for Peter, Peter hears the voice again. It says, “There are three men downstairs looking for you. I’ve sent them. Go with them without hesitation.” So Peter goes and greets these strangers at the door, and he invites them in, and in the morning, he goes with them to Cornelius’s house. And when Cornelius tells him about his own vision, and why he’s sent for Peter, Peter says, “Now I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And he tells everyone there about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descends on all of them, Jew and Gentile, and everyone gets baptized that day.
You see, it was never really just about food.
Again, from a modern, Gentile perspective, it’s a nice story but it’s also a story with a fairly obvious moral. Of course, we say, God is God of everyone, not just of one ethnic group. Of course, we say, it was God’s will all along that the good news be for us and not just for the Jews. And it’s certainly true that some of the Hebrew prophets describe visions of people from all nations coming to Mount Zion to worship the one God together. But on the other hand, Peter, the Peter who believed in making distinctions between clean and unclean and Jew and Gentile, wasn’t a bigot. He was a good, religious man. He got his beliefs about these things straight from the Bible itself.
And still he had to have ears to hear when God said to him, this isn’t what I want from you anymore.
After this experience Peter has to go back and explain himself to the rest of the church. The Christian church, at this point, is still a Jewish entity, and some people are pretty unhappy that he’s gone and eaten and stayed with some unclean Gentiles. So he tells them everything that’s happened, in the speech Mary read for us today. He tells them that the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone in that house, even the Gentiles, and he says, “If God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we first believed in Jesus, then who am I to stand in God’s way?”
Then everyone gets quiet, and then someone says, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” We all get the same shot at this. We all receive God’s grace, and God’s judgment, equally.
For the church, it is life-changing stuff.
Of course, as we might imagine, it wasn’t actually as easy as that. The rest of Acts and many of Paul’s letters attest to the fact that Jewish and Gentile Christians did not always just make up one big happy church. They thought they were better than each other. They fought about what the conversion requirements for Gentiles who wanted to be a part of the church should actually be. Our ideas about each other simply don’t usually change that fast, even if God wants them to.
I was reminded not long ago that this year marks the 60th anniversary of women being granted full clergy rights by the Methodist Church—it wasn’t the United Methodist Church, yet. Before then, there were certain rules and boundaries, spoken or unspoken, which governed the role of men and women in the church. Women, for sure, were active in the church, as women always have been. They could sometimes even preach. But they couldn’t be appointed by the Bishop as the pastor of a church.
To many of us, not least myself, this seems at best like an old-fashioned idea, which it was, of course, and, at worst, pretty discriminatory, which I’d argue it was too. Of course, many people at the time, and still, would say that their beliefs on the matter came straight from the Bible itself. “Women should remain silent in church,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
One of my colleagues recently edited and published a transcript of the 1956 General Conference meeting where everything changed for women in the Methodist Church. It’s fascinating to read, and maybe what was most fascinating to me is that the debate didn’t actually focus on what the Bible said or didn’t say, but on more practical matters. I want to give you a little idea of how that debate went.
As the debate opens, two representatives from the Standing Committee on Ministry give the majority report. The committee has spent the last four years studying the issue of women in ministry, so they get to make a recommendation. They recommend that women be included in all provisions of the Discipline related to ministry “except that only unmarried women and widows may apply as candidates to the traveling ministry or continue therein.”
As a matter of principle, one representative says, we can’t object to women in ministry. On the other hand, churches might not want to accept women being appointed as their pastors. So this is a good compromise.
Another man stands up to give the minority report, the dissenting opinion. He says that because realistically churches aren’t going to be open to receiving female pastors, we shouldn’t change our policy at the moment. “Let’s be practical,” he says.
A delegate stands up to make a substitute motion. He suggests that women should be able to be ordained and appointed to churches, but they shouldn’t be guaranteed an appointment at a church the way male pastors in the Methodist Church are. The Bishop should make “all reasonable efforts” to appoint a female pastor, but if he can’t, oh well.
There’s some debate on how much of a burden should be put on the Bishop and the District Superintendents who have to appoint ministers to churches, whether they can handle it, and whether it’s actually preferable for female pastors to be married or single. There is some debate about whether clergy rights for women would hurt the order of Deaconesses, which is a way women can already be in ministry.
Then a delegate named Henry Lyle Lambdin from Newark stands up and he asks, “Is this Conference prepared to say in the Year of Our Lord 1956 that no woman, however well qualified educationally, whatever demonstration she has given of gifts and grace and loveliness, that no woman shall be called of God to spiritual leadership within the Annual Conference?”
In other words, if God gave them the same gift that God gave us…
Who are we to stand in God’s way?
Later another delegate echoes him: “Members of the Conference, let us not be confused on this issue. The principle is this: does Jesus Christ treat women as children of God, entitled to the same privileges and rights as a man?”
Who are we to stand in God’s way?
Apparently nobody thought, in 1956, that things were actually going to change. But God showed up on that debate floor at General Conference, and by the end of the voting on various motions and amendments and amendments to the amendments, the Bishop announced that the motion had been adopted: “Women will have full clergy rights, rights equal in every way to the men.”
The Methodist Church, by the way, was the first major denomination in the US to grant full clergy rights to women.
I’ve mentioned off and on, and in fact mentioned two weeks ago during our Conference-wide day of prayer for our 2016 General Conference, which is coming up next month, that we are facing another big debate which has the potential to be life-changing for the church. This debate revolves around the related questions of whether the United Methodist Church will allow same-sex marriage and whether we will allow the ordination of LGBT people.
Now. Is every aspect of this upcoming debate directly comparable to other times the church has faced such questions? No.
Is the only faithful reading of Acts 10-11, the story of Peter’s vision, one in which you come out on the same side of a particular issue that I do? No.
But is the story relevant to the conversation today? Yes.
Sometimes God needs us to knock down the barriers and boundaries that we’ve set up to separate one from another. Even when we’ve set them up as good religious people for good religious reasons.
And lest anyone think that this is only a political thing, only a big-church thing, there probably isn’t one of us here, myself included, who couldn’t stand to reflect on the ways we make distinctions between ourselves and other people, separating “us” from “them.” Whether these distinctions are racial, or economic, or moral, or religious—Christians and Muslims; Trump supporters and Bernie bros; the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor; the kind of people we’d think to invite over for dinner, and the kind of people we wouldn’t—we, not unlike our ancient brothers and sisters, like our boxes, and we like to construct our world with certain rules and boundaries that ensure that people stay in them.
But sometimes God needs us to knock those down. The church would not be here otherwise.
Is God calling us to knock down some barriers now?
And if so—who are we to stand in God’s way?