When Peter returns from his junket to Joppa in the book of Acts, the elders at First Church in Jerusalem aren’t happy. Peter’s been mixing with the wrong kind of people. “Why did you go … and eat with them?” (11:3).
Peter’s mission journey was rather unsettling for those expecting him to behave a certain way—by the book. What Peter saw and did was not in the book. Things that were supposed to be kept separate were now milling about together in a large sheet descending from heaven.
“I understand why you’re so upset,” Peter must have said. “But I saw this vision three times and each time the Lord’s voice told me what to do” (Acts 11:10).
This clearly wasn’t in the book. Time to talk.
Suppose your pastor sashays into worship one Sunday morning and, instead of using the Bible for the sermon text, describes a dream from the night before. Suppose that dream directly contradicts what you’ve been taught and brazenly challenges what our Good Book says. You might have a couple questions about your pastor’s dream and even his or her sanity.
To understand the ire of these faithful church people, familiarity with the book of Leviticus is helpful—specific dietary “dos and don’ts” reveal the biblical peculiarity of this bedsheet full of mixed beasts. Leviticus outlines the menu for a God-fearing chef.
Certain things were kosher in the kitchen, but the rock badger, buzzard, little owl, great owl, desert owl, chameleon and gecko, among others, were off limits (Leviticus 11). I’m truly grateful for some of this. The “Thanksgiving Rock Badger” just doesn’t have the right ring to it. And ponder the Geico gecko, our diminutive green commercial friend. Who could think about eating that little guy?
According to Scripture, one didn’t dare eat (or even touch) certain things. But Peter’s vision featured a squawking menagerie that heretofore hadn’t hung out together. This large sheet brought together an unmentionable variety. (It dawns on me that this story is completely lost on those who wear white sheets and burn crosses as an act of racial purity and intimidation.)
Tribal suspicions concerning the surprising breadth of God’s love appear throughout the Bible. Jonah famously pouts in the book bearing his name because he’s sent to the Ninevites, people he deems unworthy of God’s care. I’m reminded of a rather stodgy church council member in James Robertson’s powerful novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, who questions any new mission idea: “By day he is an accountant and by night he adds the saved and subtracts the damned, and always comes out with a minus figure.”
Peter and the church in Jerusalem learn in Acts what I sometimes forget: God doesn’t make distinctions based on ethnicity or culture. All people are loved by God. Racial superiority has no place in God’s kingdom. This gospel truth has much to say about many issues facing our country today—immigration, war and peace, racial pride. How shall we live together under the “large sheet” of God’s love?
Who is this man we’re invited to follow? And where is he leading us? If Jesus is Lord, his teachings trump our politics, usurp long-cherished convictions about how the world works, and erase regular distinctions based on race and class.
Please don’t miss this. The Christians back in Jerusalem were mad. Faithfully following Jesus is going to upset people. In any age, Jesus’ gospel will raise the ire of folk who’ve been used to doing things a certain traditional way. Sometimes it’s not the world that needs converting—it’s the church.
“The Spirit told me to go with them,” Peter said, “and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).
Them and us.
How do we live out the gospel in a world that thrives on distinction? Our daily struggle with an answer often reveals what it means to be the church.