April 24, 2016

Down came the blanket with those creepy, crawling snakes and other weird animals on it.  In fact, the heavenly blanket came down three times. And each time the blanket descended, Peter said, "No, not me!" Peter's response to God's picnic invitation was not mere squeamishness. Peter found the menu repulsing. None of those animals was acceptable food for an observant jew.  Peter's "no" welled up from deep within him. He had spent a lifetime trying to remain ritually clean. His "no" to the heavenly invitation was the visceral, reactive, reflexive result of years of religious conditioning.
 
In our passage from Acts, the blanket from heaven carried with it the promise of God's unimaginable generosity for all humankind. God's blanket was blotting out the boundary between Jew and Gentile, a boundary that God found unnecessary. What God had made clean was clean indeed, but the thought of crossing that boundary and becoming unclean was repulsive to Peter.

Tradition and laws around ritual cleanliness made table fellowship with the Gentiles strictly taboo. For Peter, Gentiles were as unclean as the off-limits cuisine in the dream. Peter refused God's invitation to get up and eat three times. Earlier in Acts we learned that Peter awoke pondering the meaning of the dream. Later in Acts we learn that the Gentile cohort was from Cornelius the Centurion, who had sent to fetch him. Peter moved outside the boundaries of his faith only after his encounter with Cornelius, the gentile.  Only then did Peter understand that God shows no favoritism.

God calls us to cross the barriers that wall us off from each other, so that we may see and love others as God sees and loves them. Through the mystery of the incarnation, God crossed the barrier of creator with God’s creation in the person of Jesus Christ. And the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and still dwells among us as we serve Christ in other people. Christ calls us to a conversion of the heart so that we may cross the invisible fences that separate us from each other.

Cornelius tells Peter his story of how he has faithfully served God. He is a man of constant prayer, a generous man who gives alms to the poor in God's name. Cornelius follows the faith of his Jewish contemporaries as best he can as a gentile. And so, God appears to Cornelius in a dream.

In his vision, Cornelius is told to send for Simon Peter, who is staying in a town called Joppa. Just about the time the messengers, sent by Cornelius, are arriving in Joppa, Peter has this dream where a huge sheet comes down from heaven. "In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. " Every last one of them unclean and definitely not on the kosher list for devout Jews. He is told to kill and eat, and when he objects he is told, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."

Peter and Cornelius have something in common. Or perhaps I should say they have Someone in common. God is at work in both of their lives to bring about something new. Peter knows there will be those in Jerusalem who are not going to be pleased. They will ask some hard questions. When you start changing the faith that has been handed down for generations, it is bound to cause a stir.

So when Peter gets back to Jerusalem, they have already gotten word of what Peter has done. "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" They don't simply refer to them as Gentiles, they remind Peter why they're Gentiles. So Peter tells them his story, about his vision and then his subsequent visit to Cornelius and his household. We've heard it before, but they haven't. And besides, Luke wants us to hear it again.

It would have been easy - not to mention understandable - if Peter had lost his patience at this point. "Come on, you know we can't keep this story about Jesus to ourselves. We need to let everybody in on the good news, not just folks who are like us."

But he doesn't do that. He very patiently goes over his story, step-by-step, explaining carefully what happened and why. It was important for his colleagues to understand, and Peter knows that old ways die hard. 

They believe what Peter has to say because the Spirit of God is at work breaking down the barriers that have been built for so long.  They say, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." 

You can hear the buzz in the room, sense the excitement. God has now taken his salvation to the other people! They act like this is a brand new thing, but not so. When God first called Abraham from his homeland and told him he would make Abraham the father of many nations, God made it clear that it was his intention to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This is what God intended all along! 

God is always reaching out to share his love to those who are on the margins, just like Cornelius. And God is always looking for people who are willing to journey with him into new and uncharted waters of the faith.
I wonder what new thing God has in store for you and for us? It may take a vision such as Peter had. Be ready for it. Be open to the Spirit and you might just find God leading you to a place or a person you never thought you’d go.

Amen.