Banquet of the Unclean

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL

Sunday 15 May 2022
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18

We as the church have a problem. On the one hand, we know that as Christians we have certain standards to maintain. There are certain boundaries that we are supposed to uphold. There is a limit to what we can believe and teach. There is room for doubt, and there is room for questioning, of course. But at the same time, we recite an affirmation, a creed, in worship. If someone wants to join the church, they have to answer in the affirmative to several of the primary tenants of our faith. Our clergy have to swear to uphold the principles of Methodist Christianity, and to preach and teach according to those principles. There are certain things about our faith that we are obliged to preserve. There are limits.

But at the same time, God seems to be ever prodding us, poking us, pushing us to step beyond our limits. The Holy Spirit keeps on whispering in our ears, with that irritating voice that says things like, “What God has made clean, do not call profane. Are you sure that your boundaries are really God’s boundaries?”

Peter certainly has his boundaries tested. As a good and faithful Jew, and as a follower of Jesus, he is very careful to follow the rules, to uphold the principles of the faith, and to do what the Bible tells him to do. And the Bible tells him very clearly what he should do with his life. It tells him to obey the Sabbath, it tells him to honor his father and mother, and it tells him exactly what he is allowed to eat and what he is forbidden from eating and whom he is forbidden from eating with. And don’t underestimate the importance of these dietary laws. Even though we don’t usually pay much attention to them, for Peter they were an essential part of faith, one of the very defining features of a relationship with God, and it was something the people of Israel had been doing, even in the face of tremendous persecution, for countless generations.

So when Peter has a dream, and a sheet is lowered from heaven with all kinds of unclean animals, and a voice says, “Peter, get up, kill and eat,” his obvious reaction is, “God, you’ve got to be kidding. You know I would never defile myself like that.” It’s absolutely shocking, completely inconceivable that God would ask him to do such a thing.

And of course, it’s not just about the food, it’s about the people. God would never ask Peter to go and have fellowship with a Gentile, someone who is by definition unclean, someone outside the boundaries of God’s grace.

But God is persistent, and keeps telling Peter, “What I have made clean, do not call profane,” and eventually Peter is persuaded. Through God’s leading, he meets Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who listens to his message, and is baptized along with his household.

But when Peter gets back to Jerusalem, and the believers hear that he’s been defiling himself among the Gentiles, he is called to account. That’s where we pick up with today’s text, as Peter is recounting his experience and trying to explain what led him to go against the Bible. He describes how God spoke to him, and how God is doing a new thing, that God is now acting even among the Gentiles. Peter says, “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?”

And surprisingly, the rest of the believers understand. They accept that God is doing something new. They understand that God is changing the rules, letting in new players.

But do we understand when God changes the rules on us? We are often pretty certain about who is in and who is out. It is almost inevitable. Whether we intend to or not, we still set up boundaries around what we think God is about. Even subconsciously, we decide who is on God’s side and who is not.

So I want you to take a moment, right now. Try to think of that one person, or that group of people whom you feel are outside the realm of God. Those people that you just can’t put up with, or can’t understand. You can close your eyes if you like, as you try to conjure up an image of that person or persons.  

Is it someone from a different economic group: the poor, the rich? Is it someone of a different ethnic group: Black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, White?  Is it someone with different political views: liberal, conservative?  Is it someone from a different country: Mexican, Afghan, Iranian, Palestinian, Russian? Is it someone of different age: older, younger?  Is it someone of a different gender expression, or of a different sexual orientation? Is it someone with different religious beliefs: Catholic, Mormon, Jew, Hindu, Muslim?

Now, imagine how you would respond if God said, “What I have made clean, do not call profane. That which I have chosen, do not push aside.” What would you do?

Go ahead and open your eyes now, and listen to this story. It’s told by Fred Craddock, one of our great American preachers, about a church he knew. He remembered it as the status church, First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church, when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire seemed a membership requirement at First Church. People of Color need not apply. 

As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Members simply grew older. As an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the “right type,” I guess. 

Fred had occasion to go back to town and discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant. He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners. He looked down the nave of the old church and where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar. 

He walked out the front door, back down the steps, muttering to himself, “Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table.”

It’s not always easy for us to discern God’s will. And we don’t always know how to behave the way that God wants us to. We don’t always know how to discern what is the voice of the Holy Spirit and what is something else. We don’t always know what to do when we are faced with a choice between inclusion and exclusion.

But I tend to think that the Spirit of God leans toward grace. And if I had to make a mistake, I would much rather find out that I had been more lenient than God than find out that I had been more judgmental than God. The story of our faith tells us that over and over God seems to be pushing us expand our boundaries, to break down our prejudices, and to include more people.

So, when we hear that message from God, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean,” let us have the grace to listen, to open our hearts, minds, doors, and to respond with Peter, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”