Acts 10: 1-6, 9-16, 23b-28, 44-48
May 27, 2012
There it sat on the plate in front of me, staring up at me like it was some kind of cruel joke. It always felt that way when Mom fixed liver for dinner. I mean, really – what genius first thought to themselves, “You know, that organ in the body that cleanses impurities and aids digestion – I bet that’s good enough to eat!” And don't get me wrong, now; my mom was a whale of a cook. Her masterpiece – macaroni and cheese (homemade, not out of a box, perish the thought…), black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn bread. Nothing better.
But that liver dinner – my brother and I were not fans! We’d come running in the door from school, and it was one of the first things out of our mouths, usually superceding the “hellos” and greetings that normal people engaged in. Instead we’d ask: “Hey Mom, what’s for dinner?” And our hearts would sink and a long drawn-out moan from the depths of our soul if we were told that liver was coming.
But you know something? We survived; we were okay! Because, truth be told, it wasn’t that bad. And at some point we realized how blessed we were that we had any dinner on our plate. Besides, at the very least we could be thankful that we never had Peter's spread laid before us. I mean, what was that all about?? Poor guy just went up on the roof to pray. And while he's up there praying away, probably working up an appetite, this huge sheet full of all kinds of stuff is lowered down from the heavens: “four footed creatures, reptiles, and birds of every kind,” we are told in scripture.
Suddenly liver looks scrumptious! I hear that crocodile is a delicacy in some parts of the world, but not in mine. And that whole nebulous thing about “four footed creatures” kind of reminds me of my time in China, where my travel group was always a little leery of the “mystery meat” served at every meal. So I can certainly understand a little of Peter's reaction here, and I think you can too.
But you know, those foods were pretty much par for the course back in his day. What freaked Peter out was that they weren’t kosher – meaning they went against the Jewish dietary restrictions laid out in the Torah. There were just some things that God’s people were not supposed to eat, or even touch, if they weren’t prepared properly. And this sheet full of stuff staring Peter in the face was a cornucopia of anti-kosherness. This would be like serving a vegetarian hamburgers and hot dogs, or dropping a lactose-intolerant person in a world of dairy. Can you imagine how surreal this must’ve been – all this stuff dropped in Peter’s lap from the very God who prohibited it? And then told, of all things, that he had to eat it?
Can you imagine how befuddled he must’ve been when, in protest, he was told, What God has made clean, you must not call profane. And how weird was it that this scene played out two more times – the sheet, Peter’s protest, God’s response: as The Message translation puts it, If God says it's ok, it's ok! Three times.
You know, if you read the Bible enough, you begin to recognize patterns. They teach patterns at Tharrington; I know this because my youngest son comes home and sees something in our house or out in the yard and tells me: Dad, look, a pattern! The Bible is full of patterns; they help us see that the crux of the message is not always on the surface. Here’s one pattern you find in the Bible: when things happen in threes, that means something is really important. Here’s another: when something happens in the Bible that makes no sense, that’s almost Twilight Zone-ish, take note of what comes next.
Because after the third cycle of the sheet and the protest and God’s response, after this very weird exchange between God and Peter, we are introduced to Cornelius. It’s the only time we meet him in the Bible – which is another pattern of sorts, because when people appear in the Bible only once, they are very important people. They are there for a reason. Cornelius was here for a reason. We are told he was a man of great faith who gave generously and prayed constantly. In the eyes of the faithful he was perfect in every way, except one. And it was a big one.
See, Cornelius was a Gentile – a not-so-flattering monicker referring to anyone not of Jewish origin. And that was a huge deal in the early church, where there was a definitive line drawn between Jews and non-Jews. In the church's initial days, all followers of Jesus were Jews, as Jesus himself was. But as the Good News began to spread outside Palestine, it naturally came into contact with Gentile folk – and this created the church's first (but certainly not last) conflict. The traditional stance was that only Jews could be Christ-followers; and that Gentiles had to become Jews first before being Christian. Which meant that Cornelius, as good a guy as he was, was still on the outside looking in.
Well, that sounds preposterous, doesn't it – excluding people from the church! Can you imagine?! Drawing lines and telling some people they are “nice and all” but they still cannot be welcomed in – unless they change who they are to be more like us. Preposterous!
I trust you pick up on my sarcasm. You don’t need me to tell you that, in the 2000 year history of the kingdom Jesus came to build upon Peter himself, the church has had to face up to its history – distant and recent – of drawing lines on who is “in” and who is “out.” We've done it over race, over gender, over lifestyle. We've drawn lines of social status and nationality. Of all of the black eyes the church has inflicted upon itself, this one is perhaps most bruising – that, in some form or fashion, Cornelius has always been at our doorstep, knocking and knocking and asking to be let in.
So do you really think it was coincidence that Peter, after his three-cycle exchange with the Almighty and the sheet of yucky stuff, do you really think it was coincidence that he was told to go to Cornelius and baptize a Gentile into the church? Do you really think it was crazy luck; God’s final words to Peter, spoken three times: If God says it's ok, it's ok. If God says it's ok, it's ok. If God says it's ok, it's ok!
You know, I think it’s interesting how most Bibles title this chapter, “The Conversion of Cornelius.” Because honestly, as wonderful as that was, I'm not sure it's the most important conversion in the tenth chapter of Acts. Could it be the conversion that really mattered was Peter’s? I mean, how else do you explain Peter going against every preconceived notion he had about God and faith, purity and impurity, right and wrong? It wasn't easy – in fact, in the very next chapter, Peter had to defend himself against those who raked him over the coals for baptizing a Gentile. Doing the right, radical thing is rarely easy.
So what do we make of this? Just when we think we've got our faith figured out, just when we think we know what’s wrong and impure, God comes along and drops that very thing in our laps and says, “Here – take a bite of this.” Just when we feel comfortable with the lines that have been drawn, and perhaps even had a part in drawing them ourselves, God comes to us through the voice of Peter when he says: Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?
And right there, my friends, right there is the bridge. Right there is the Great Line-Eraser! The Holy Spirit – the gift those disciples received on this day we call Pentecost. It’s not easy getting a grasp on what the Holy Spirit is, is it? We get God – Creator of the cosmos. We get Jesus – God's son, our redeemer. But this Holy Spirit is a mystery, one we kind of shove to the back burner a lot of the time.
And yet, this story about Peter gives us perhaps the best depiction of who and what the Holy Spirit is. Do you see it? When Peter realized that even a Gentile like Cornelius was worthy of being a brother in Christ, and when Peter acted on that and baptized him into the fold, it was in that moment that the Holy Spirit came crashing in like a rushing wind – much the same way it did a few chapters back at that first Pentecost. Crashing in and reminding the faithful with its pure strength and power that, through God, all things are possible. Even the impure being made pure; even lines being erased.
Throughout the history of the church, in fact, the presence of the Holy Spirit is intricately tied to those moments when the inclusive nature of God's love for all people is revealed. It was there in Jerusalem a few short years later when the church, following the lead of Peter and Paul, decided “not to trouble the Gentiles” and welcomed them all as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there when a German monk and seminary professor posted 95 new ideas on the door of a Wittenburg church; ideas that called for an end to exclusive church hierarchy and a beginning to the priesthood of all believers. The Holy Spirit was there when the first African-American was welcomed into a predominately white congregation, and vice versa. It was there when women were given the opportunity to be preachers and teachers. For all the times in the past 2000 years where the church has shut its doors to certain people, the Holy Spirit has been there in full force when those doors were eventually opened again.
The thing is, the Holy Spirit continues to work on us; because there are still lines being drawn. There are still things God dangles before us that we continue to call “unclean.” And that is why, like Peter, we all need to experience conversion. Because the real conversion does not take place when we first welcome Christ into our hearts, when we make that profession of faith. The real conversion is when the presence of God in our lives causes us to live as Jesus would have us live: loving all, welcoming the stranger, serving others, helping the poor. The real conversion takes place when we learn not to call "unclean" what God says is okay; when the only lines we draw are arrows pointing everyone to a grace-filled God.
So on this Pentecost Sunday: come, Holy Spirit, come. Help us embrace the unclean – even liver. Help us erase lines. Convert us. Because if this conversion was good enough for Peter, it's certainly good enough for you and for me. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God! AMEN.