Scripture: Acts 10:1–7
Jonah had all the categories figured out.
There were some people in the world who were good and holy and pleasing to the Lord, namely people like him: The Israelites. And then there were people who were depraved and worthless and innately unclean, namely his mortal enemy, the Ninevites. They were violent. They were oppressive. And they had victimized his people for as long as he could remember.
But in the midst of having it all figured out, the unthinkable happened. The voice of the Lord came to Jonah and told him that he was to go to Nineveh. To his mortal enemies. To preach to them and bring salvation on behalf of the Lord.
What was Jonah’s response? “Wait, God, let me explain this to you. The Ninevites are not people who are supposed to be shown grace. You got it all wrong.”
And before he knew it, he found himself at a crossroads, at a place called Joppa. It was there at Joppa, a beautiful sea-side port city, where he would have to decide whether or not he would follow the clarity of his categories, or the unpredictable and unexpected Voice of the Lord.
He chose…poorly. He indeed followed the clarity of his categories and thus he boarded a ship away from Ninevah. And from there the rest, well, is a fish story you’d probably never believe.
Peter had all the categories figured out. His full name was Simon, son of Jonah, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. But, of course, Peter had a long history of knowing the categories better than anyone else:
- One day, Jesus asked him and the disciples who they believed he was, and it was Peter who stood up and proclaimed that he was the Messiah. So Jesus told them: “Good job, Peter! Gold star! You got it right. Now, let’s go to Jerusalem, where I can suffer and be killed.” What was Peter’s response? “Wait, Jesus, let me explain it to you. That’s not what a Messiah is. You got it all wrong.” He had all the categories figured out.
- Or another day, at the end of Jesus ministry, where he sat around the table with his disciples, eating a meal. Peter and the others continued to call him “Teacher” and “Lord.” So Jesus told them: “Good job! Gold star! You all got it right. What that means is that I need to wash your feet, and you need to follow my example.” What was Peter’s response? “Wait, Jesus, let me explain it to you. That’s not what a Teacher and Lord are. You got it all wrong.”
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Simon Peter, son of Jonah, had all the categories figured out in today’s Scripture passage. For Peter, you see, there were some people in the world who were good and holy and pleasing to the Lord, namely people like him: Jews who had learned to follow Jesus. And then there were people who were depraved and worthless and innately unclean, namely his mortal enemy, the Romans. They were violent. They were oppressive. And they had victimized his people for as long as he could remember. So, we shouldn’t be surprised at Peter’s response in today’s story…
9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.
Peter was praying up on the roof when he became hungry. All of a sudden, he saw a sheet being lowered from heaven, filled with foods that he would have considered unclean, along with a voice saying “kill and eat.” His vision, and the voice of God that accompanied it, was like a metaphor, a parable that God used to get a point across to Peter. It wasn’t a point about food, and literally what kinds of food we should eat. It was a point about people, and the categories we place them into. And, as is often the case, Peter misses the point: “Wait, Lord, let me explain it to you. That’s not what clean is. I have never eaten anything unclean or impure. You’ve got it all wrong.”
And at that very moment, there was a knock on the door. It was a handful of men, and they were all…Romans. One was a Roman soldier. Others were servants of yet another Roman soldier. These men were unclean. Depraved. Worthless. His brain said so. His gut said so. The Bible said so. These were not the kind of people who he should, or even Biblically could, spend any significant amount of time with. History repeats itself, and just like Jonah, in the city of Joppa at a crossroads, now Peter is back in exactly the same city, at a crossroads: would he follow the clarity of his categories, or the unpredictable and unexpected voice of the Lord?
You and I have all the categories figured out. Don’t we?
There are some people in the world who are good and holy and pleasing to the Lord, namely people like us. But then there are people who are depraved and worthless and innately unclean.
Of course, we wouldn’t call them that. Not to their faces, at least. But there are some people in our lives that we have judged with our brains and our guts and our Bibles to be utterly depraved and unholy. When we see them, our first visceral reaction is revulsion. Like Jonah did. Like Peter did. We have our categories of those who we would consider, at their core, unclean. “No, Lord, I would never associate with the likes of those people.”
I can make some guesses who that might be for you. I can name some examples. But that would be letting you off the hook. Perhaps it is wiser for me to let you name the people whom you categorize as unclean. This morning, I want you to imagine yourself at a crossroads. I want you to sit on that roof for a minute and pray. Feeling today the sea breezes of Joppa, I wonder, “whom do you think you have all figured out?”
This is an incredibly important chapter in the book of Acts. Up until this point in Acts, there are basically three categories of people: Jewish people who chose to follow Jesus, Jewish people who didn’t choose to follow Jesus, and Gentiles. There was simply no category for Gentiles who might choose to follow Jesus. That category didn’t make sense to Peter, or anyone really. I mean, Jesus was a Jew, who preached primarily to Jews, out of the Jewish scriptures, and whose followers were all Jews. He was inviting Jewish folks to an iteration of a Jewish practice. Until Acts 10, where God takes the clarity of all of their categories and messes with them:
- Those who were unclean were not supposed to be able to practice the faith of God-worship without becoming converts, but Acts 10 tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearing, practicing believer in the God of the Israelites, who prayed regularly and cared for the poor regularly through his actions and his giving. A non-converted Gentile, who chose to worship and follow God.
- Those who were unclean were not supposed to be able to have a relationship with God, but Acts 10 tells us that just like Peter, Cornelius gets a vision in which an angel shows up and has a real-time conversation. And this angel tells him to go look for a guy praying on a roof.
- Those who were unclean were not supposed to be able to convert to the faith, unless they jumped through a bunch of theological hoops. But when Peter received his vision and these Roman Gentiles showed up at his front gate, he came on down and preached an evangelistic sermon. He preached to them about Jesus and who Jesus was. It was a version of the same sermon he had preached on Pentecost, and probably a dozen times since. And I imagine Peter was a little like Jonah here…and his heart wasn’t really in it, but he was being faithful and preached the sermon he was supposed to preach.
- But that’s when God blows up their categories completely. Gentiles were definitely not able to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit, but in response to Peter’s sermon, these Roman, Gentile, uncircumcised, unclean heathens blew up with the gifts of the Holy Spirit! They started praising God. They started praying in tongues. It was an old fashioned tent revival right there in the front yard!
- And lastly, under no circumstances were non-circumcised, Gentile Romans to be baptized, but sure enough, Peter saw what God was up to and made it clear: “who would withhold the water needed to baptize these believers in Jesus? Bring out the bucket brigade!”
In Acts 10, there is this theological and cultural shift that completely changes the momentum of the church. Instead of staying in synagogues and the Temple, and categorically safe places religiously, there is this move toward the very people who were culturally and politically oppressing the Christ-followers.
Peter chose…wisely. Sitting up there on that roof, he was at a crossroads. His Biblical categories were airtight. His response was easy. Send those dirty Roman oppressors away. His head and his gut and his Bible told him these people were not clean, not trustworthy, and not capable of even being followers of God. But he chose not to follow the clarity of his categories, to instead trust the voice of God.
And it began a movement that forever changed the Church. In fact, sometimes we read that this passage is the conversion of Cornelius. Ha! This is about the conversion of Peter…and the early church along with him! Listen to his words…
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every people anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
Today, we are sitting up on that roof. We are sitting here in a place of relative safety and privilege. We can hang out and pray, with the sea breezes blowing our hair, and our categories clearly demarcated and safe. How is God converting you today?
But God has something more in store for you and me today! Scholar Robert Williamson says it this way:
“Christians really like drawing lines about who is and who is not acceptable within the community…those who have certain theological perspectives [that] are different than ours. Those who are homeless, LGBT persons, trans persons, those who the Church says ‘you cannot be a part of us.’ But this text says there is no person who does not belong. It asks ‘can you see evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in this person?’ If so, that person belongs in the community of God, regardless of my perspective of who should be included. Can I see in this person evidence of kindness and compassion? If so, they are my people. This text breaks a lot of categories that need to be broken.”
So this morning, I want you to go back to your list. You have you judged as unclean? Unholy? Who are your Gentiles? Your Romans? Your Ninevites? Are they knocking at your front gate, asking why you aren’t letting them in?
I have been reading a book titled How to Heal Our Divides, written by a lot of authors offering practical advice. K Scarry writes about her experience in Erie, Pennsylvania. A few years ago, a national publication pronounced that Erie was the worst place in the U.S. for African-Americans to live. City leadership reached out to Scarry’s organization, The Dinner Party Labs. The goal of the organization is to marry public policy with building of relationships.
So, together with city leaders in Erie, she sat down with a diverse group of community members to learn from and listen to each other. They held what they called a “bridging supper,” building relationships and trust. Then an “affinity supper,” helping people groups compare notes on their experiences. In seven dinners over six months, they began to discern ways for Erie to become a more welcoming and caring place. They have built business incubators, created scholarships, helped to develop training opportunities, all while building trust in places where no trust existed. People who were used to calling others “unclean” began to see them as children of God.
Scarry, who is an associate pastor, a chaplain, and a seminary student, writes words that might be helpful for us today:
“This is slow work. Trust-building is necessary to sustain you in whatever else you try to do together. Though we might be apt to start with solutions, instead begin by examining whose voices are not welcome at the table. Whose perspectives have we not considered? Who are we speaking for instead of welcoming in? Who has always been making the decisions for our community, and who is missing? Set a place for them.”
Important words for us today.
Peter set aside his categories and picked up his suitcase. He went with these unclean Gentile Romans and stayed with them, breaking all kinds of expectations and cultural rules. It was just the beginning of what God was up to in this church of Jesus-followers. And it gives us hope that God is still at work in our church. Amen.