Here’s the MS for the sermon I just got done preaching. It isn’t what I actually preached – that is currently recorded on what is a doubtlessly embarrassing ten minutes of VHS tape. Rather, this is my manuscript from which I composed two notecards with a few prompts on them. But what I said was probably pretty similar. I think I threw in some funny moments here and there that came to me, and I know I cut some things as well. I was also limited to 8 minutes, so a lot of it came out abrupt. Anyway, no more hemming and hawing:
What God Has Made Clean
Sermon 2 for Intro to Preaching
Acts 10: 9-16
God, give us the courage and the humility to listen, not to our own voices, but to the voices of those who are not present. Amen.
This brief passage is part of the longer story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius is described as a devout man who feared God along with all of his household, who gave alms generously to the poor and prayed constantly to God. He has a vision from an angel of God that he needs to talk to this guy named Peter; he needs to send people to invite Peter to his house. So he does just that.
The problem was that Cornelius was not just a gentile, he was a Roman Centurion. This is not good news if you want Peter to eat at your table. Cornelius was part of the occupying force that the people of Judaea were living under.
A cohort of Centurions marching in formation in Jerusalem was like a line of American troop-transports and tanks roaring down a Baghdad road, bristling with automatic weapons. No one waved or put flowers in their hair. It isn’t like these are the national guard who are called in to help when there’s a flood – these are oppressors who ruled with cold steel and military precision. Peter has no good reason to associate with Cornelius at all.
Meanwhile, Peter is up on a rooftop praying, and his tummy is growling, so God takes the opportunity to send a humorous vision. On a huge tablecloth descending from the sky are a bunch of animals, many of which are considered unclean by Jewish Christians at the time. God says “get up and eat something, Pete. (Mmm, tasty reptiles.)” But Peter knows the right answer here – of course I won’t eat. Those animals are unclean. You said so, God, through Moses no less. Some things we eat and some things we don’t eat.
We need to realize that food is not what is at stake here. Identity is what is at stake here. Survival is at stake here. The Jews have almost always lived under some outside oppressive rule. Under these conditions, the identity of Judaism is always under attack.
One of the ways this identity is maintained, to this very day, is through discipline around food. It isn’t just that Peter was silly and thought some animals were icky. The identity of Jews and Jewish Christians in the early church depended on things like dietary laws. So when God says “eat something from this collection of delicious animals”, this is a threat to Peter’s core, to the heart of his faith and his community. It must’ve been unnerving to hear God say “what I’ve made clean you shall not call profane.”
But later in the story, the test comes. The men from Cornelius meet Peter and invite him to come to Cornelius house, eat with them, and speak to them. Prompted by the Spirit, Peter goes with them. As far as Scripture is concerned, he is disobeying God and betraying his faith in doing this. But outside of Scripture is the living God who is speaking to him and calling him. And so he goes. He eats with gentiles – possibly even eats unclean food. He preaches to the household, and there is a conversion – not of Cornelius, but of Peter. He says “I understand, now, that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
This is huge. He’s risking everything, here. Not just his place in the community but his place in salvation history, his place in the Kingdom of God that he’s been preaching about. God has moved him beyond himself, beyond the law, beyond Scripture, to a living community which reaches out to the whole world, to every nation, to every household, to every person, with the same divine love.
There are always those who we consider to be on the outside. Those we consider unclean. We think we have such good reasons for believing these things. We can use the Bible to justify all kinds of biases and exclusivity. We do this because we feel threatened by a widening community. We are frightened of the implications of the gospel. The gospel means God decides who is with us. God opens the door when we want to close it. We don’t get to have a say. There will be centurions at the table.
But this isn’t bad news – this is very good news, because in our world, in our time, we are much more Cornelius than we are Peter. We are the oppressors, not the oppressed. We are the full and not the hungry. We are the masters and not the slaves. The slaves make our clothing. They pick our produce. They cross the burning desert to earn what you wouldn’t pay a neighbor’s kid to mow your lawn. We’re the empire. And if there is any hope that we are invited to the Kingdom, if there is any hope that we are heirs of the gospel, it is because of God’s wide-open grace and no other reason. It isn’t just the hope of those people, over there, who we don’t like. It’s our only hope as well.