Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story. In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws. (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.) Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus. He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them. Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles? You ate non-kosher food? What is wrong with you?”
There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher. Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate. First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally. Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby. Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors. If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons. Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.
And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits. When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross. You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste. It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me. If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors. And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did. It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste. You ate what? That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations? Blech.
And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules. Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture. This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.” It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom. By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God! And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times. If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher. Period. End of story. If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people. You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant. You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful. Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.
So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home. This is not just a matter of personal preference. It’s not just a matter of hospitality. It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold. And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting. We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple. Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant! But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple. Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders! And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.
The problem is, sometimes God does something new. Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step. Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted. Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head. Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like. That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily. And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly. It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.
So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented. There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God. And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws. God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too. King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile. Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there. He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them. He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors. That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come. Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized. So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile. They could see how this connected to what they had known.
Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own. He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim. He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly. Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.
Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter. When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there. Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere. But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely. And Peter was looking for it. Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path. And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.
And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it. He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it. The community kept on debating it. This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy. Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together. They prayed about it together. They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.
This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed. This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple. And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come. If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.
Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong. Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done. God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do. But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions. When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either. Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree. May we learn to listen to God and to one another.