What God Has Made Clean

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
Doug Hagler
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.

6 thoughts on “What God Has Made Clean

  1. Interesting angle. Well presented.Don’t you just hate how the RCL committed cuts up a pericope like Acts 10:1-11:18 into little stubs? We lose the punch of the pericope, which calls us to consider that conversion isn’t just for Cornelius. I think it’s Willimon who suggests that we compare ourselves to Peter. He reasons that Peter underwent multiple conversions: called by Jesus; proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ; repented of his three-fold denial of Jesus; witnessed the Risen Jesus; repented of his cultural prejudice toward Gentiles (Cornelius and his household). Willimon suggests that Peter represents the entire church, that we “churched” disciples also need to undergo lifelong conversion, that the work of <><>becoming<><> Christian doesn’t end with baptism.That reminds me of the Benedictines, who include conversion as part of their vows. It’s the same notion, that we must undergo conversion throughout our lives. (The novel <>In This House of Brede<>, by Rummer Goden, is an exquisite ode to slow and steady conversion, not only of individuals, but also of a faith community.)Perhaps the questions to ask a congregation in a sermon are:1. Who is the Cornelius to whom God is calling us to witness?2. What conversion (change) is God calling us to make right now in our thinking (attitudes) and acting?3. How has the Holy Spirit already “fallen upon” (baptized, filled, inspired, gifted) this Cornelius to whom we are called? (In other words, what is God calling <><>us<><> to witness taking place in this Cornelius’ life?)4. How are we getting in God’s way vis a vis the life of this Cornelius, and how can we get out of God’s way?5. How can we possibly withhold our fellowship from this Cornelius whom the Spirit has baptized?”Yours in Christ,Mark

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  2. Hi Doug,I read your article “unpacking” and I agree with what you say about the Bible. I think the Bible should be secondary to the experience of Christ or God (that’s how I understood it). But unfortunately it is the only “recorded revelation” that Christianity has, so, whatever and however we feel about the Bible we can’t deny its importance to our faith and the powers of the message (subjectively or objectively) in there.. The fact is the message in the Bible still changes people.Joseph Pong’s book “Living in Sin” pretty tackled some of the things you said about homosexuality there. But you’re right; sin is not defined by dogmatism. It is prudent to suspend (or not to make) judgment about homosexuality until it is understood biologically and psychologically.It’s good to hear people like you challenge the norms of our faith for I believe that the thin line dividing superstition between religion is reason.

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  3. Doug,Wish I’d gotten to hear you preach this one. I understand that you were declared to be a funny funny man. Which of course is the gospel truth. You are also a man with a point, which is more important.The sermon ended too soon though. You didn’t quite plunge us far enough. You got to the reversal (declaring us cornelius instead of peter), but you needed to keep on going down to show how our hope is suspended from such a thin thread – that we will be forgiven and recognized as belonging inside the community by the last and the least…anyway, good stuff!

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  4. I am having fun reading your blogs this evening.What I like best about the story of Cornelius is that no matter what you preach about it, the story just won’t go away. It violates everything that came before and everything that came after. It is about a God who just doesn’t seem to know where to draw the line.Jodie

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  5. I like the fuller version I preached for my internship congregation that combined the story of Peter and Cornelius with the story of Jonah. With Jonah, God does something similar – violates God’s own rules as they were previously understood – but Jonah doesn’t have the conversion experience. The Peter story was presented in a NT class as an intentional parallel to Jonah, and it is really interesting to me in the over-arching story of conflict in the early church.But, yeah, it won’t go away. It just…busts out of the container you try to put it in.

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