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Easter Five - What God has made is clean

Peter’s dream was then, and is still, explosive! It was world changing because of what is says about God and us humans and because of who Peter was and the nature of the dream. (RCL Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; and John 12:31-35)

Peter who had been declared the rock on which the church was to be founded, the leader of the followers of the risen Christ, the archetypal Christian; Peter, who according to the synoptic gospels was the first to be called; Peter who was the first to realize that earthly Jesus was the Messiah; Peter who had denied Jesus and who then had been given three opportunities to declare himself faithful and who had been charged to feed the sheep; Peter who was Jewish through and through and certainly would have known the Law including Leviticus chapter 11 about what was clean and what was forbidden to eat. This is the Peter who has the dream.

The dream itself is scandalous in that it has all the creatures documented in Hebrew Scripture, which means in our Old Testament, as unclean and tells Peter to get up, kill them and eat! Scripture, Leviticus chapter 11 in particular, writes that it was forbidden to eat any four footed animal that did not chew the cud and have a divided hoof, predators, reptiles, and many birds of the air. The dream has something like a large sheet descending from heaven with every creature on it among those who are listed as unclean and therefore not to be touched, much less killed and eaten. When Peter refuses to do as he is told because it is unbiblical, because it is against the rules, the voice from heaven booms “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!” or Don’t you tell me that anything I have made is unclean!

Peter, the appointed leader of the early Christians, is told that in order to be ready to share the love of Christ with the Gentiles who at this very moment are about to arrive and seek his help, that he needs to go beyond the rules, that God is asking him to go beyond even the rules laid down in the Bible. And that is the importance of the timing of the dream. In the first years after Christ’s resurrection Christians were still a sect within Judaism and Gentile converts were almost by accident and were being expected to become Jewish in order to become followers of Christ. Peter and Paul both had to be dramatically “converted” in order to get past their religious convictions to be available for their ministry to the Gentiles. Hence the historical importance of the timing of this dream.

As always the real question for us is how does this relate to us? We no longer argue very much about food as clean or unclean or whether or not we need to be circumcised. But we do argue tooth and nail about many things. And we often quote passages of Scripture in support of our argument. Some people quote verses from Leviticus quite frequently.

Firstly I want to claim that this dream, and a few other special moments such as Paul’s conversion, is the reason you and I are here today. It is because of the radical disturbing insight that Christ’s love was for all, for the Gentiles too, that we have heard the good news. We are all benefactors of this dream.

Secondly, I believe that this story tells us that the good news of God in Jesus goes beyond the rules and social divisions. That if we are followers of the Christ then we are led beyond rules to a place of terrifying inclusive love that will rock our socks off it we comprehend what is being asked of us and offered to us.

It is not easy for us to understand how disturbing and inconvenient and incomprehensible this dream must have been to Peter and to those he needed to justify his actions to. For each of us there may be something different that descends out of the heavens on the picnic rug. For some of us we would need to imagine a same sex couple standing at the church door seeking the blessing of the sacrament of marriage in order to get the sense of outrage and confusion. For others of us it might be about being good neighbours with someone who refuses to get vaccinated or be careful about social distancing but we are now being told we need to sit down with those who are different and seek communion. For each of us there may be a different “unclean” issue for us to deal with. For most of us there is challenge and disturbance involved as we grapple with the breadth of God’s invitation to those we think of as unclean or outside the fold.

But it is not disturbance for the sake of disturbance – God is not cruelly stirring us up just for the sake of it. The disturbance is that God’s love is always more inclusive than we can easily deal with. Which is the hard disturbing part. But it also means that God’s love is always more inclusive of us, the all of us, than we can easily accept. While we know that we are saved, or included, by grace not merit our ego’s always sneakily try to convince us that we are on the inside of God’s elect circle by our merit and personal qualifications but this dream reminds us that it is by God’s radical inclusivity. And for those of us who acknowledge aspects of our lives or our character that dismay us we can be assured that God’s love is not deterred by what we regard as unclean about ourselves.

Which suggests the third way in which this dream speaks to us still. Everything and everyone belongs. It is a favourite saying of one of my favourite teachers Richard Rohr, but as it occurred to me this week I have found my hackles raising as I think well no – I don’t actually want everything to be included. What about all manner of terrible things, people and events? The conclusion I have reached is that while everything belongs that is not to say that everything is OK or nice or good but rather as Jesus says this week in John’s gospel that we have a new commandment: that we are to love one another. Love is the measure of what is ok not rules. Love is the standard of relationship we are to aspire to. Love is the sign that we are truly following Jesus the Christ.

If God is only the creator of nice creatures then much of creation is not God’s work. If only people like us are on the inside then Christ is not the Saviour of the whole world. If only happy events are within the embrace of God then so much of what is most important and urgently in need of God’s love would be outside.

Peter’s dream changed the world of his day and continues to challenge and expand our world as we are compelled to consider that God’s love is for us who once were Gentile and for those we now regard as outsiders; God’s love is always more inclusive than we can imagine; and that everything is under the cover of that love. May this good news stir you up and bring you peace, set you free and free up your love for others, redeem us and reconcile us one to another.

Even so, come risen Lord Jesus Christ, come.


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