Picture this, if you can:
Peter, a good Jew, a keeper of the Law of God, a family man and a business man – a fish monger in the crossroads town of Capernaum – has his life turned upside-down when an itinerant preacher from Galilee comes to town. 3 years he follows this Jesus of Nazareth, and he sees amazing things – miraculous healings, feeding miracles, even the dead being raised to life again. And the things this Jesus teaches, well, what can you say? He’s clever, and faithful, and unlike any rabbi Peter’s ever heard before.
But he’s also controversial. Some of the things he does and says get the religious establishment upset, and the crowds excited. And having grown up under Roman occupation, and having to pay his taxes to the Caesars, and watching how various Caesars have either accommodated or challenged the Jews’ religious practices, especially those centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, Peter knows enough that there are lines that one just shouldn’t cross. And he knows the power structures, and the authority that a powerful military leader, like a Centurion, wields…
So then, picture this, if you can:
Jesus is captured and killed, because he crossed one too many boundaries, and both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities, wanting to keep the status quo and to maintain the relative peace of the region, have had enough of this Jesus guy.
Peter doesn’t see him die, because he runs away, afraid. Imagine the shame mixed with grief, and doubt, and confusion. 3 years he followed this Jesus, and where did it get him? Until, on the third day after his death, Jesus is back! Alive! And though Peter and his friends still don’t really get it, because, honestly, corpses don’t just come back to life, here he is! And he appears, repeatedly, for 40 days, until he finally gathers them all on a mountaintop where he’s taken up on the clouds into the sky and out of their sight.
And now what? What comes next for those who followed a Messiah who’s no longer around? 10 days later, gathered in Jerusalem with other followers of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, just as Jesus had promised when he was still with them. And on that day, and in the days, weeks, months and years that follow, more and more people are hearing the Jesus story, and experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit, and even though there are persecutions that arise from time to time at the hands of the Jewish authorities, and sometimes at the hands of the Romans, thousands of people are now following the teachings of Jesus, in Jerusalem and in some of the outlying regions.
But the Church is still a Jewish Church – Jewish followers of this Jewish Messiah, centered in Jerusalem, with Peter and James, Jesus’ brother, as the leaders. And they’re still centered in the keeping of God’s Law, but with Jesus’ particular spin on what that means. And if you want to be a part of this new way, then it only makes sense that you’re either a Jew already, or that you’ll become a Jew in order to follow this Jewish Messiah…
So picture this:
Peter, who has lived his entire life centered in the keeping of God’s Law, is resting in the afternoon, up on a rooftop courtyard in the town of Joppa, nearby Caesarea Philippi, a center of Roman power with a large military outpost, and a Roman court and prison, and God comes to him in a vision, showing him a large sheet full of unclean animals, and tells him to kill and eat! Well, but there’s no way, Peter thinks, that this makes any sense. How can the God who has told his people, for thousands of years, not to eat these animals, now be telling him to do the very thing God has previously forbidden? It just doesn’t make sense!
But it happens three times, and Peter finally hears the message that comes with the vision as God says: Don’t you dare call unclean, what I’ve called clean!
And then God tells Peter that he’s about to have visitors, and that he’s to go with them to the Centurion Cornelius’ house, and when he does so, and finds that Cornelius is a God-fearer, meaning someone who has heard of and believes in the God of the Jews, but hasn’t converted to Judaism, hasn’t been circumcised, in other words, Peter preaches the Gospel of Jesus, and says: Now I realize that God shows no partiality. And while he’s preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on the whole bunch of them, and these Gentiles, these non-Jewish outsiders, they all receive the Spirit. And in verse 47, Peter asks a powerful question: Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?
Sometimes I think we miss the immensity of this whole situation. But I think it can also serve as a framework for understanding some of the difficulties that we’ve faced, and continue to face in many places, in the modern Church, as Lutherans, and other denominations, try to follow faithfully where we believe God is leading us in this day and age…
And here’s the struggle, right? Peter, even after all of this, almost 2 decades later, finds himself in the Church in Antioch where he’s eating with the Gentiles, and not worrying about keeping kosher, until some hardliners from Jerusalem come, and Peter will only eat with them, refusing to eat with the Gentiles any longer. And Paul calls him on this hypocrisy, and challenges him publically.
Because, you see, when we’re absolutely convinced that God has said a certain thing – that God has taught a certain thing in Holy Scripture – as Peter was convinced that God had taught that certain things shouldn’t be eaten, and that sharing table fellowship with certain kinds of people could actually make you unclean and disqualify you from full participation in and with the people of God, it’s really hard to imagine God doing an about-face. But that’s exactly what’s happening here. Peter, the kosher-keeping, faithful Jewish man, because of his encounter with Jesus, has to understand that God is doing a new thing in Christ Jesus. The old boundaries are being removed. The doors are being flung wide open. And as Peter says in verse 34 of Acts Chapter 10, just before the part of the chapter we read: I’m beginning to see how true it is that God shows no partiality, but that anyone who believes in Jesus, no matter where they’re from, can receive the forgiveness of sins and be a faithful follower.
So it should be no surprise to us at all that at a congregational level, or at a Synodical level, or even at the Churchwide level, when we start to experience God doing a new thing, people kind of freak out a bit! This isn’t how we’ve always done it! This isn’t what they taught me when I was 10 years old in Sunday school! This isn’t what my previous pastors preached about! This isn’t what I have been taught about what God says in the Bible about whatever topic or practice I’m upset over! This isn’t what I was told Martin Luther thought about … fill in the blank! And, you know what? You’re right!
But here’s the thing, God’s a living God! God’s a God on the move! And God’s a God of love whose primary motivation is relational, not theological, or rational, or legal (especially not legal!). God is relational! God is love! To love is to fulfill God’s commandments! This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s what Jesus says! Commandment keeping, in the end, comes down to loving another enough to lay down your life for them!
This is not about living a life marked by perfect obedience to some list of dos and don’ts, as if discipleship is marked by checking off enough ticks on some holiness checklist.
This is about taking up your cross, and following the One who loves us, and calls us friends, and lays down his life for us!
This is about going out to bear the fruit of God’s love, as partners in Christ’s life-saving venture!
This is about going out, being willing to lay down our lives, so that others may live!
This is about going out in joyful service, loving God, by loving our neighbor who, after all, is created in God’s image and likeness, in the name of the One who alone has the power to change and to save lives and exercising that power in his own dying and rising!
I mean, talk about God doing a new thing!
- God became human
- Died a real human death
- And then conquered death once and for all by rising from the dead on the 3rd day!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen.