Would you invite to your house an observant Jew whose diet is according to strict kosher laws and then offer him or her a meal including items such as shrimp cocktail, lobster bisque, and honey-baked ham? Of course you wouldn’t, unless you intentionally want to offend. The dietary laws recorded primarily in Leviticus strictly prohibit eating pork and seafood with a shell.
With that in mind, let’s turn to this week’s lectionary passage from the book of Acts:
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” –Acts 11:1-18 NRSV
Peter was an observant Jew, and he was criticized for eating with Gentiles who had believed the gospel message of Jesus. Those men were uncircumcised and considered ritually unclean by circumcised Jews. And it was assumed Peter had shared a “gentile” (non-kosher) meal with them, although that’s actually an assumption on our part. Merely sharing a meal was, in itself, bad enough and if Peter had consumed non-kosher food would have added insult to injury.
The details of associating with Gentiles merely provide the pretext for what’s most important here: With this passage in Acts, the gospel-writer Luke offers a key moment in the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ. This message is not just for the Jews but for Gentiles, as well. Shocking, to say the least.
Of course, it’s not simply a case of Peter giving this issue some thought and proceeding according to what he felt would be a good idea. No, the key part of this passage is a vision in which a heavenly voice (the Holy Spirit?) tells Peter what God wants him to do and why. In the end Peter’s critics are silenced once they accept that God’s love extends beyond the Jews to the Gentiles, indeed to all the world.
This past weekend I served as a delegate to my denomination’s USA National Conference, the first time such a gathering has taken place. Its purpose was to consider recommendations to the top leadership groups of the worldwide church regarding three questions related to individuals in same-sex/gender relationships (admittedly an awkward term, but it’s the one that was used). Should the church (a) extend the sacrament of marriage to such couples in U.S. states where it is legal; (b) create a covenant ceremony similar to marriage for such couples in U.S. states where it is not legal; and (c) open ordination to priesthood to individuals who have same-sex/gender orientation and are either living in a long-term, committed relationship or celibate? [Just a side note: the celibacy clause currently also applies to unmarried heterosexuals, too.]
It was a remarkable experience, perhaps one of the finest and most memorable spiritual experiences of my life. Instead of following normal legislative practices (such as Robert’s Rules of Order, etc.) the 1,500 delegates engaged in a structured discernment process that included a lot of listening, with repeated attempts to understand why people hold the positions they do. We used little, hand-held electronic voting devices. We engaged in guided spiritual direction. We had frequent “Moments of Blessing,” which involved instrumental and vocal music, meditation, prayer, videos, and a “play” in which five delegates who had expressed differing perspectives on an issue sat around a table and broke bread and shared grapes. The conference used the metaphor of an aspen grove, whose root system is actually one large “organism” even though it looks above ground like a forest of individual trees, to express the idea of community.
The purpose was to listen, to try to understand, to be sensitive, to envision what might happen next in the church, and, finally, to take a vote. For the conference to make a recommendation required at least a 67 percent vote. Each of the three proposals easily surpassed that level.
There was no outward celebrating or angry denunciations after the voting was completed. A few delegates did quietly leave the conference chamber at that point, however. We were all quite aware that there is a sizable minority in the church that, for various reasons, will not or cannot go along with the recommendations. Some, maybe quite a few of them will end up leaving the church; most likely, a few congregations will eventually be closed.
“How could God allow such things in the church,” it was expressed, “when passages of scripture are clear regarding the divine origins of marriage?” “Is this not the doctrine of man and not of God?”
Certainly my denomination, Community of Christ, is far from the first Christian group to deal with this hot-button issue. The conference we just held was not only the direct result of three years of planning but many, many years of passionate individuals pressing church leadership to engage the issues. I’m told there were official observers from other Christian organizations. If nothing else, it appears that guided spiritual discernment offers a better path for dealing with these issues than legislative bodies engaged in back-and-forth debate.
About 30 years ago my denomination extended priesthood ordination to women, by using the then-accepted and common method of legislation. That moment served as a flash point for a wide range of conservative dissent and unrest in the church. Thousands of members ended up leaving the denomination. Families were divided, some congregations were closed permanently.
Having served previously as bi-vocational pastor of my congregation I still maintain a pastoral sensitivity and know how deeply these issues run within my own congregation as well as others. And so I was conflicted, knowing the sadness and pain of some folks I hold dear to my heart as well as having a testimony this is the right thing for the church to do. The conference was a remarkable example of living out the idea of being a prophetic people. And it was very hard work!
Peter’s vision as recorded in Acts 11 is helpful to us some 2,000 years later. First of all, God can and will do a “new thing” from time to time. Second, it reinforces how I read and understand scripture: to view the individual parts within the lens of what I believe is the overall theme and purpose–That God is and will always be faithful to God’s promises to bless the earth and everything and everyone in it.
There are some challenging days ahead for my denomination and my congregation. There are also some incredible opportunities and expansion of ministry as an open and affirming community. But no matter what lies ahead, may we respond as did those early disciples to whom Peter shared his vision: Praise God!
- Acts, Chapter fifteen part two, Go up to Jerusalem. (whatshotn.wordpress.com)
- Acts, Chapter thirteen Part four, Gentile who worship God, Acts 13:16 (whatshotn.wordpress.com)
- Mediation and the God of Cornelius (corthodoxy.wordpress.com)