I wonder if any of you have been to a local farmer’s market? I love going see what’s on offer, although to be honest it would probably be better if I left my wallet at home. There are so many wonderful culinary delights. Once you’ve tasted they’re so great you feel you must buy!
But think of our New Testament reading from Acts 11:1-18. If St Peter had seen such food in his vision he would have been horrified. Delicious black pudding, spare ribs, bacon sandwiches, moules mariniere, or even any sort of meat cooked together with cheese – all these would be out of bounds to an observant Jew like St. Peter. Religious law would not allow him to eat them.
And there were good reasons for that. When God gave the Jewish food laws to his people it was partly for their protection. In the days before good farm hygiene, pigs lived off rubbish and so pork products were notoriously unhealthy; before clean water and refrigeration, anyone eating shellfish risked poisoning. Scientifically speaking, many of the Jewish food laws made excellent sense in the conditions of the time.
Not just that, but God gave the food laws to bind the Jewish people together. Sharing food is a communal event. Like halal or kosher today, having particular rituals around food helps a community to stick together and keep their identity. Not eating pork, say, marks you out as different and factors like this enabled the Jews to keep their religious and ethnic identity despite being scattered worldwide. In the Book of Maccabees obedience to the food laws is a test of faith, people were persecuted, burnt alive rather than taste ham. By the time of Acts, God’s people have been keeping these laws for hundreds of years. They were really important: one of the things that defined who you were. The attitude to food wasn’t restrictive either: family celebrations around Sabbath were joyful events.
Some of the best times of fellowship we have as a church are when we share meals together. I think it would be lovely to do it more. Imagine how difficult it would be though if some people wouldn’t join in! And that was the problem. God’s people, the Jews, wanted to obey his laws. To be sure of doing so, they stayed clear of any risk of compromise.
So, at the time, strict Jews would not eat with Gentiles, even items that should have been ok, because they couldn’t be sure what the Gentiles had done to the food. And if you won’t eat with people, it’s rather hard to get on with them. In fact, if you feel that someone else’s food is unclean, it’s a very short step to imagining that the person is unclean.
And this is exactly what some strict groups thought at the time of Christ. There’s a very revealing text in John 18:28 where the Jewish leaders go to see Pilate but ‘they themselves did not enter the headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement and be able to eat the Passover.’ They wouldn’t even be in the same room because they felt they would become unclean.
Now if Peter had been like that, how on earth was he going to be able to take the good news out to the world? Jesus said in Luke 24:47 ‘forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ That’s what Jesus intended. But unless something changed, Peter wouldn’t get very far at all. How could he possibly preach the good news if he wouldn’t associate with foreigners?
In our story, God had to send an angel to a Roman called Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter who will give Cornelius a message by which he can be saved. Cornelius does just that, and as the messengers are approaching the house where Peter is staying, the apostle is deep in prayer. Like many of us when we pray, he obviously struggled with distractions. Perhaps dinner is late, and his tummy is rumbling!
Whatever the cause, God works with his distraction. He can use ours too. If you are distracted in prayer then make a subject out of the distraction. Pray about it. Pray for the thing or person that has popped into mind. I use a pen and paper to jot down ideas that come to me so I don’t forget because sometimes God actually uses those distractions to speak to us, lay things on our hearts.
That’s what happens here. Peter sees the vision of all these unclean animals being offered for him to eat. Peter knows it’s from God, but he can’t overcome his background. Horrified, he says in v.8 ‘By no means Lord, for nothing unclean or profane has ever entered my mouth’.
But the Lord replies in v.9. ‘What God has made clean you must not call profane’ – as if these animals are no longer forbidden. It happens three times, and just as Peter’s got the point, the messengers arrive.
Obediently, Peter goes. He enters the house, speaks to Cornelius, and in v.15 ‘The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on us in the beginning.’ The moral is clear, in v.17 ‘If 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?’ God made his will clear: he wanted the Gentiles to hear the good news. No longer should the disciples regard non-Jews as unclean, because Jesus is for everyone. In forgiving Gentiles and Jews alike, God has made us all clean.
We can’t overstate the importance of this. If this had never happened, Christianity would have remained a minority Jewish sect. We wouldn’t be here. The openness of Jews like Peter and Paul means that we too can come to God and be free from any ritual requirement. The self-appointed guardians of tradition were ready to criticise, but Peter explains it step by step with patience and conviction.
Of course that was a unique, one off situation. Yet there is a sense in which the church today encounters decisions with similar principles. We find ourselves assessing new developments. The culture around us changes, what is seen as normal and acceptable alters over time, contemporary morality evolves and the church has to work out how to respond. Sometimes the right answer is to stand fast.
On the other hand this reading shows us that change can be possible. While Christian core beliefs remain the same, traditions and forms of expression may change, but it needs to be God’s will. How do we know? The reading gives us a fourfold pattern. These are the questions we must ask when something new is suggested:
Does it agree with Scripture? God’s will is made clear through his word in the Bible – in v.16 Peter recalls Jesus’ teaching. He might also have remembered how Jesus declared all foods clean, how Jesus healed Gentiles, and how he spoke of a mission to the world. Although it seemed a radical departure, it naturally flowed out of Scripture.
Other signs are that God’s will is shown in the fruits of the Spirit – does a proposed course of action result in love, joy, peace and so on? And God’s will can be discerned in people’s experience of his guidance – like Peter’s vision of the animals. Those different aspects work together and they need to be saying the same thing. Finally, can the church reach a common mind? God’s will is recognised by the church agreeing together, as happens in v.18 when they all say Peter has done the right thing. Easier said than done and sometimes the church’s attention switches to how we can live together even while disagreeing.
Those are the questions the church needs to ask and it’s not a quick process. Although the answer is reached quickly at first, the controversy about the Gentiles never really goes away throughout the New Testament. Reaching a common mind takes time.
It’s bewildering for onlookers. To a modern Westerner an issue like women bishops seems obvious. Non-Christians genuinely cannot understand why some issues are a problem – sometimes they see the church as bigoted. Christians need to hear that, and perhaps also get better at explaining how we do make decisions.
It was a huge change for Peter and the other disciples. But there’s something deeper going on here. More than the church making decisions. More than mixing with people from different backgrounds. I’ll illustrate it using an analogy:
I love Scotland. Imagine if I wanted to be a Scotsman, and went off to live in the wildest part of the Highlands, would that make me Scottish? No. If I ate haggis and neeps and drank whisky every day, I’d be happy, but would I be Scottish? No. If I wore a kilt I would not be a Scotsman, nor would I have the legs for it. The only way to be a Scotsman is to be born one, maybe one day there might be a citizenship process. What’s certain is that just doing Scottish type things doesn’t make you Scottish.
Similarly, doing Jewish things wouldn’t make the Gentiles into Jews. Peter’s church had to learn that if the non-Jews wanted to become God’s children, it wasn’t a matter of bashing square pegs into round holes. You had to be much more radical. Everyone would have to be born as a child of God. It had to go deeper than the surface things, it had to be in their very nature. All would have to start afresh. In other words, everyone, Gentile or Jew, would have to be born again.
As he thought about this, Peter realised this would have to be the case. After all, he knew that God accepted him, not on the basis of the outward religious actions Peter did, but because God loved him. Jesus had forgiven Peter when he denied him, not because Peter was such a good chap (he’d let Jesus down after all), but because Jesus loved Peter so much he had died so Peter’s sins could be forgiven.
And if that applied to Peter, surely it would apply to everyone? We are not God’s children because of our outward religious traditions, but because God the Father loves us and Christ gave himself to save us. Whoever we are, we are in the same position, depending on God’s grace. And that means things like the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the kind of music we use in worship, whether we like informality or solemnity, all the little things that divide Christians don’t really matter.
And all the things that might stop someone from outside venturing through those doors, are they really so important to us? Is there any human tradition in this church which acts as a stumbling block to visitors? Are there any customs that would be Christians must take on to belong? If there are, why? Even in-jokes and banter can cause offence if you’re not part of the group.
Should we not rather do everything in our power to demonstrate the central truth in our reading: that all people can have faith in Christ? That knowing God is not a matter of food or drink or special days, but receiving forgiveness in Jesus? That no matter what our race or background, the truths of the gospel apply to us all and each must make their own response? As we seek to reach out for Christ, let us be clear about what really matters.