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From Our Doorsteps to…

Date: May 5, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Delicious looking food spread out on a table.

Scripture: Acts 10

Scripture Reading: Judy D.

Every culture has its rules about food—about what can be eaten and what can’t, how things are to be prepared, even how the animals used for meat are treated, slaughtered, and processed.  In this country, most of us don’t eat horses, dogs, or bugs—although I do have a friend who claims mealworms are quite tasty—but other cultures have no objection to any of those.  There are different vegetables and fruits that are more common in certain places than in others, like lychee, durian, and bitter melon in Asian cuisines; some of what we think of as “southern” foods actually come from Africa, like okra and red rice.

I read something awhile back about how quite a few dishes common in Indian and Mexican cuisine probably originated in the Mediterranean world, the middle east and north Africa, and blended with cuisine and flavors already present in those places. You may have seen, for instance, huevos rancheros, a Mexican dish featuring eggs poached in a spicy tomato-based sauce.  In north Africa, folks enjoy a dish known as shakshuka, featuring eggs poached in a spicy tomato-based sauce, with a slightly different flavor profile.

Food is a big part of who we are as families, as nations, and as ethnic groups, and there are some folks out there who are trying to rediscover and re-introduce their own people’s traditional foodways, folks like African-American chef Michael Twitty and Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, who is often referred to as “The Sioux Chef.”[1] 

This is especially true for observant Jewish folks, like Peter, who follow pretty strict rules about what can be eaten, what foods can be eaten together, and how they are to be prepared.  These rules originate in the Torah, the first five books of both the Jewish and Christian Bibles, most particularly the 11th chapter of Leviticus; but a lot of kosher practice is based on interpretation—such as how the prohibition of “boil[ing] a kid in its mother’s milk”[2] became the kosher practice of not eating meat and dairy foods together.  In some very observant households, there are two separate sets of pans and utensils—if not two entirely separate kitchens—to make sure meat and dairy never mix.

So, as our story begins today, Peter, an observant Jew who had kept kosher his whole life, is up on the roof saying grace while someone is preparing his dinner.  And as he’s waiting, praying, hungry, a vision comes to him.  Down comes a tablecloth, from heaven, and it’s loaded down with lots of food—not a crumb of which is kosher.  There were cheeseburgers, and shrimp, biscuits smothered in sausage gravy, and pepperoni pizza; bacon, lobsters and crabs, and some falling-off-the-bone baby back ribs slathered with barbecue sauce.  And a voice comes from heaven:  “Dinner is served, Peter; come sit down and tuck in.”

Peter is, of course, appalled at the suggestion:  “No, I will not do that; I follow the Bible, and the Bible is clear that we are not to touch any of that.  It is a sin to eat things that are unclean, and all of that is unclean.  I will never allow any of it to touch my lips, because it is forbidden by God’s Law.”

But the voice said, “If God has declared something to be clean, who are you to say it’s unclean?”

Two more times that tablecloth is dangled in front of Peter; two more times his mouth waters and his stomach growls, and two more times he clamps his mouth shut and declares his faithfulness to God’s Word.  And two more times the voice says, “God says it’s okay.”

Peter must have wondered how it could be that God could say something is okay, when it is so clearly not okay according to the Bible, according to God’s Law, God’s holy Word given to him and his ancestors on Mount Sinai.  If something clearly contradicts what’s written in the Scriptures, can it be from God?  This is the question before Peter in this vision—and from what happens next, we know it’s not just about food.

The very next thing that happens, as Peter wakes from this vision and scratches his head, wondering if it came from God or somewhere else, and if it came from God, what God could possibly be trying to say, is that Cornelius’ servants show up looking for Peter.  We have already met Cornelius, in the first verses of the chapter; but this is the first Peter has heard of him.  He comes to meet Cornelius’ men with the vision he’d just had fresh in his mind.  And after he hears their invitation to go to Caesarea to meet Cornelius, he has the opportunity to sleep on it.

Cramming” used to be a fairly common practice among students; they would sit down the night before a big exam and study for hours, perhaps all night—in some cases the only time they had cracked the textbook open all term—trying to shove all the information they were supposed to have learned into their brains just long enough to regurgitate them onto the exam papers.  People who study such things say this is a really poor way to learn subject matter.  Aside from it being stressful, it seems that our brains need something in order for new concepts to be assimilated in any kind of lasting way.  That something is sleep.

We actually need to get our studying done, and then sleep on it, for anything to soak in.  And when we have a big decision to make, or a challenging new way of thinking that has been presented to us, sleeping on it is actually quite helpful.  So that’s what Peter does—mainly because it’s too far from Joppa to Caesarea for them to make the trip that day—but whatever the reason, the delay gives him the chance to mull over his vision, the invitation from Cornelius, and how they might relate to one another.  The next day he travels with the men, and meets Cornelius—who has brought together all his friends and kinfolk to meet Peter as well.

Like Peter, as we know from the first part of our reading for today, Cornelius has also had a vision and heard a heavenly being speaking to him.  He shares his story with Peter, who recognizes that God is apparently doing a new thing here; so Peter teaches them the basics of the Christian story, and they receive the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit of God has come to them, then how, Peter asks, can he refuse to baptize them?  And so he does.

We hear this story from a different position from that of the early church leadership in Jerusalem.  It’s likely safe to say that most, if not all, of us are Gentiles, as Cornelius was.  He was a God-fearer, which meant he was seeking to obey God’s Law as far as he was able, but he had not been circumcised or officially converted to the Jewish faith.  Paul’s vision, as well as Paul’s conversion,[3] which happened one chapter earlier in Acts, opened the door to our inclusion in the family of God, previously populated only by Jews.  It’s been that way ever since, and so we may miss just how radical the suggestion that Gentiles were welcome in the church was to Peter and James and the other early apostles and believers, all of whom were Jews.

Over the last five hundred years or so, many Protestant Christians have held to a concept that, in Latin, is called sola scriptura, which means that we take our direction in all matters of faith, as well as our moral standards, from Scripture alone.  Everything must be tested against what the Bible says, and if it doesn’t line up with the Bible, then those who hold to the idea of sola scriptura must reject it.  I daresay that even in the sola scriptura camp there are differences of opinion.  For instance, is Scripture alone to be trusted in everything—including our understanding of scientific theories like evolution—or does it speak authoritatively only in matters relating to the practice of our faith itself?

The early Christians came from a tradition that held similar understandings of the place of Scripture in the life of faith.  If you want to know God’s will, you go to the Bible—and if something goes against what the Bible says, it is not God’s will.

Peter knew his Scriptures; he knew what the Law said, what the Prophets taught, what his people considered to be true wisdom.  And those Scriptures were pretty clear about what was right and what was wrong, who was in (Jews, the covenant people) and who was out.  So when Peter had this vision, he had to wonder if it came from God at all.

The Bible is clear!  We are not to eat unclean foods, and we are not to associate with unclean people.  Period.  The Bible says so, and thus we know that God says so.

But the voice in Peter’s vision seems to be saying that God’s will is something other than what Peter knows from his study of God’s Word.  Is that possible?  Wouldn’t that be like God contradicting himself?  Does God do that?

It isn’t any wonder that, in the next chapter of Acts, Peter will be called before his church leadership to explain what it is he thinks he’s doing.  The early church had not yet nailed this kind of stuff down in a creed or an official statement of doctrine, but if they had, they might be inclined to say that what Peter is teaching is heresy.  The Bible is clear that Gentiles are out—who are you, Peter, to say that God wants us to let them in?  It’s not a simple, quick little change (assuming there is ever such a thing in the church).  This is a Very Big Deal.  It shakes the foundations of everything we’ve been taught, calls into question the authority of our Scriptures.

Nowadays sola scriptura is crumbling—has been crumbling for about 150 years now, but at this moment it’s pretty much on its last legs, for better or worse.  And for those whose faith is based on sola scriptura, that is terrifying.  But there are portions of Protestant Christianity today whose way of understanding God’s will goes beyond sola scriptura.

Admittedly, what the Bible says is going to get a little more weight, but these Christians—including our brothers and sisters in the Wesleyan, or Methodist, tradition—believe there are other things that can be brought to bear as we seek to understand God’s will.  (The current discord within the United Methodist Church could be seen as a dispute over just how much weight Scripture has over those other ways of gaining understanding of God’s will.)

One of these other ways of getting to God’s will is tradition, what the church has generally taught over the years.  For instance, we have a number of historic creeds, statements of belief and of the essentials of our faith, going back to the second or third century of the church’s existence.  In the Christian Church, we look to the writings and thought of the Campbells and Barton Stone to help us understand who we are as a church and how we are called to be church today.

Another is reason, our ability to study and think through what the Bible and the church’s traditional teachings mean and how we can apply them to our lives.  In this we admit that we may sometimes need to dig deeper and not simply accept the “plain meaning of Scripture,” which for many people seems to mean “what I understand from my very first reading of a text.”  That “plain meaning” may be what God needs us to hear right now, but reason tells us that it may not be, so we shouldn’t stop there.  We can seek understanding of the original context of a text—where it appears in Scripture, to whom it was originally addressed and why—to help us figure out how God might be speaking to us through it.

But the one Peter appeals to here and in chapter 11 is perhaps the one of which people who stick with sola scriptura might be the most suspicious:  experience.

Peter has studied the Scriptures.  He knows what the rabbis have taught.  He has worked through his own understanding of the Scriptures based on his own study and those rabbis’ teachings—including those of his own rabbi, Jesus.  Then the experience of following Jesus, of seeing Jesus arrested and put to death and then being raised, of being forgiven by Jesus for denying him, helps inform how he lives and the decisions he makes after Pentecost, when he emerges as a leader in the newly formed Christian movement.

And then he has this vision.  And he meets Cornelius and hears his story.  He sees the Holy Spirit descend upon Cornelius and the others gathered with him—even though they are Gentiles, and his Scripture and tradition have said this does not happen.  These experiences call into question God’s will as he once understood it through Scripture, tradition, and reason.

When Peter is called before the church leaders in Jerusalem to answer for his welcome of Cornelius and his household into the Christian community, he doesn’t stand before those church leaders and say, flippantly, “Well, I changed my mind.”  He says, “I know what the Bible says, and I know what we’ve all been taught.  And I promise to you, if it had been up to me, I would never have stepped one foot into Cornelius’ Gentile house, because the Scriptures are clear about such things…or so I thought.  But based on my vision and the presence of the Holy Spirit with Cornelius and the others, I can only conclude—with much fear and trembling—that it is not God’s will for me, for us, to continue believing and acting as we’ve always done.”

It is not an easy thing to have new information, new experiences, before us that call into question everything we have believed, everything we have known to be true.  That is what Peter had to deal with, and it’s why I—along with plenty of others—would argue that it’s Peter’s conversion, not Cornelius’, that is the big story in Acts 10.  His vision, and meeting Cornelius shake the very foundations of his faith and his understanding of God’s will.

He could have said, “This can’t be God’s will, because it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture.”  He could have refused to meet with Cornelius, and sent him away as a sinner and an outsider.  But instead, he let the Spirit show him that God had something else in mind.

So, are we just talking about how it happened that we came to be Christians—because if Peter hadn’t met with Cornelius, it’s entirely possible none of us would be here? 

I don’t think so.  What might this story have to say to us in the here-and-now?

Have you ever changed your mind about a core conviction—something you considered to be absolutely essential?  Why did you do it?  What were the factors that led up to your change of mind?  What factors kept you resistant to this new way of thinking?  And how did you set those aside, if doing so called into question everything you have ever known, everything you have ever believed, your understanding of your faith and how you live it.

Peter’s dilemma is ours, too.  What, then, is God’s will?


[1] Michael Twitty has written a book called The Cooking Gene about how food has intersected with his life and his family’s heritage, and more books are likely in the works after his recent trip to West Africa to explore the food traditions his ancestors brought with them on slave ships centuries ago.  Sean Sherman co-wrote The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen with Beth Dooley.  Both books are widely available, including at Amazon.com.

[2] This prohibition is repeated twice in Exodus (23:19b and 34:26b) and once in Deuteronomy (14:21).  Clearly it was considered important; it was quite possibly a rejection of a pagan religious practice.

[3] Technically speaking, Paul was not converted as much as he was redirected.  He was a highly educated Pharisaic Jew who knew his Scriptures and followed the Law, but until his vision on the Damascus Road he was very much opposed to the movement that declared Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah for which his people were waiting.

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