April 28, 2013
When we read Acts 10-15, we enter one of the crucial sections of the New Testament, crucial for the early church and equally crucial for our own time. What we are experiencing in these chapters is nothing less than a redefinition of an ancient religion. Or perhaps one can more accurately say a rediscovery of the central core of that ancient religion.
All religions, to a greater or lesser extent, struggle with a very basic question: how does our specific truth relate to the specific truths of other religious experiences? Is Christianity the only true religion? Or Judaism? Or Islam? How are we to adjudicate the truth claims of any religion? Exactly how can we say that any religious expression is true at all? These are enormous and wrenching questions for adherents of all religions, and they are precisely the questions that Luke in the Book of the Acts is wrestling with. We modern believers would do well to take with the greatest seriousness what the writer Luke is offering to us here, because if I read him correctly he presents to us a key with which we might begin to unlock many of the conundrums we continue to face in our religiously plural world.
The story of the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius is at the heart of Luke's sermon. In chapter 10, Peter witnesses the gift of the Holy Spirit falling on Gentile believers, especially Cornelius. And he, in considerable astonishment, announces,
In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances (usual translation "persons"). Rather, in every nation, the one who fears (worships, obeys) God and acts righteously is acceptable to God (Acts 10:34-35).
Peter, the Jew, has just realized and proclaimed that one of the hallmarks of his Jewish existence has now crumbled before his very eyes. "God is no respecter of appearances," but we Jews and Christians have surely been such, and so has every other religious believer who has been taught that God is precisely a "respecter of appearances" and loves our appearance a lot more than the looks of others not like us.
One can hardly overemphasize the radical, earth-shaking claim that Peter's announcement represents. If God's spirit is as available to Gentiles as it has been to Jews, the world is a vastly different place. And if any reader might have missed this astonishing announcement, Luke gives them another shot at it in chapter 11. Rather than a clumsy repetition of the previous chapter, chapter 11 reemphasizes, reenergizes, and refocuses the claim still again. Peter here retells "the circumcision party" in Jerusalem what had happened to him in Joppa and Caesarea, in short, the story of chapter 10. The circumcision party, those Jews who continued to insist that full entrance into the new messianic community of Jesus Messiah was confined to those who follow the ancient practices of Judaism, are horrified that Peter has "gone in with people who were uncircumcised and ate with them" (11:3).
Table fellowship is crucial in Judaism, a religious tradition that grew up in a broader Middle Eastern culture where the choice of table sharing was a vital indicator of who was in the clan and who was not. Indeed, it could be said that one of the major reasons that Jesus was murdered by the religious authorities of his own religious tradition is his unsavory choice of table companions; he ate with too many sinners for their tastes, thereby making himself unclean in the eyes of those who determine such things.
So, to put an end to that sort of thinking, the Jew Peter is given a dream by God wherein all sorts of creepy, crawly critters are observed wriggling around on a giant sheet, falling out of the sky. There were in this menagerie "four-footed creatures of the earth, wild beasts, serpents, and birds of the sky" (11:6). The clear implication is that many of these beasts were certainly unclean in Judaism. Thus, when a voice loudly demands, "Get up, Peter! Kill and eat," the Jew Peter is plainly shocked and piously proclaims, "Not at all, Lord (the implication of the phrase is "Heaven forbid" or more colloquially "You have got to be kidding!"). The common or the unclean has never entered my mouth" (11:8). Peter the Jew has given the answer that his tradition has called him to give; I know what is common and unclean, and I avoid such things like the plague they are.
But the voice will have none of it. "Things God has cleansed, stop making common! This happened three times, then everything was taken up again into heaven" (11:9-10). Did you hear what that voice said, a voice Peter identifies with his "Lord" speaking? "Things God has cleansed, you stop making common." How dare you take a thing straight from the hand of God and turn it into something that you refuse to touch or eat or love! Note, too, how the voice says this to Peter three times, nicely and wonderfully echoing that infamous three-time denial of his Lord back in the gospel story. Peter, it appears, may need an extra reminder, or two, of the power of what God is telling him.