Listen to the sermon here.
Yes, the Peter we read about today in our passage from Acts, is the same impetuous disciple who denied Jesus three times after his death. In The Acts of the Apostles, we get to see Peter—and the other Apostles—grow up. Peter begins functioning as the head of the church.
At this time, the church consisted primarily of disciples who found Jesus through the Jewish tradition. In fact, later in the 11th chapter of Acts, the author states the group was not referred to as Christians until a year after the events we read about today.
So, part of being an early follower of Jesus, was living a holy Jewish life. That meant living faithfully to the Jewish law, including its dietary restrictions and becoming circumcised in order to become part of the community.
Peter has a vision that flies in the face of Peter’s understanding of holiness. The vision is so shocking that we hear it twice in Acts—the first time when Peter is actually experiencing the vision and then this time when he is recounting his vision to the crowd in Judea.
To us, the vision is not that shocking. Four footed animals, beast of prey, reptiles, birds—what’s so horrible about a day at the zoo? But the animals Peter saw were all animals Jewish people were forbidden to eat. We don’t have those kind of cultural restrictions on food or much else, really, so it can be hard to relate to Peter’s deep feelings of disgust. But God is telling him in this vision to take up all these horrible, forbidden foods and eat them. When Peter protests and says “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter is receiving a life changing, world changing message, but he does not understand its full meaning quite yet.
When Peter wakes up from his vision, he gets a visitor, a Gentile named Cornelius. Cornelius was an Italian Centurion who was a very godly person. He gave money to charity regularly, he prayed every day, but he was still a Gentile. Cornelius was instructed in a dream to go meet Peter. When Cornelius showed up at his door, Peter suddenly fully understood his dream.
While God might be changing some dietary rules, what God really intends to communicate to Peter is that he is changing the rules about who is welcomed into God’s family. No longer does someone have to be Jewish or become Jewish. God’s chosen people are no longer members of one particular family, but the whole of humanity.
This is wonderful news, of course, but not to everyone. The text helpfully points out that the circumcised believers in Judea criticized Jesus and questioned him about why he was spending time with uncircumcised people. Their complaints echo the Pharisees complaints about Jesus, don’t they? (If I were a man and had to get circumcised to join a religious tradition, I might be a little irritated with God’s new policy, too!) When Peter explains God’s new vision for humanity, the circumcised Judeans are stunned into silence. Even they cannot deny the weight of this good news.
God has been true to his vision—and God’s people now span over every continent, every race, and thousands of different languages.
And in the United States, which has embraced this same kind of pluralism, opening the doors to the stranger has been part of our religious tradition. We have not always done this well. Many a church still has the balcony where slaves sat when they were not allowed to sit next to their white masters. Some churches still resist outsiders, especially if they are of other ethnicities. But over all, Christians in this country, whether liberal or conservative, tend to believe that Jesus came for all people and that anyone who loves Jesus can become part of the family.
And this core belief is now putting religious leaders in Arizona in a moral bind. In the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, there are two clauses that have the potential to affect churches. The first is making it illegal to knowingly transport an illegal immigrant in a car. The second is making it illegal to knowingly harbor an illegal immigrant. Neither of these laws is directed at churches, specifically, but religious leaders are wondering if Christians could be prosecuted for driving a youth group that contained an illegal immigrant or whether feeding an illegal immigrant in a soup kitchen violates the law.
In the Unites States we are not often asked to choose between our faith and our country, because we are blessed to live in a country where laws generally support the principles of our faith.
However, when it comes to illegal immigration, Christians are forced to make a choice. The United States has the right to make and enforce laws about who can and cannot come into this country. Christians, however, come from a long tradition in which we are obligated to welcome and love the stranger, even if this comes in conflict with the law.
Catholic and Episcopal bishops in Arizona have made it clear that they will continue with soup kitchens and homeless shelters and youth group trips, without checking anyone’s papers. They are making a choice to follow the Gospel, even if their government is not or cannot.
And we may think we are safely removed from the situation in Arizona, but did you know there are holding pens for detained immigrants right here in New Jersey? My sister lives in New York and she is part of a ministry based out of Riverside Church that travels to Elizabeth, New Jersey on Saturday mornings to visit with non-criminal immigrants who have come to the United States seeking asylum from various countries. Individuals are held in warehouses converted into detention centers with no access to the outdoors for months and occasionally years at a time until their cases are heard and decided. And the warehouse in Elizabeth is only one of many throughout the United States.
Occasionally, my sister receives a jubilant phone call from someone who has been given permission to live in the United States, but more often people disappear and she does not know whether they have been deported or transferred to another facility.
These immigrants are not the ones that make the news. These are immigrants from Somalia, Tibet, Columbia, Guinea, Senegal, India, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, Sri Lanka. They are fleeing danger and oppression and seeking freedom in our country. Instead they are caged. The people of the Riverside Church have made a commitment to live out the full meaning of Peter’s vision—of seeking out the other, of offering love and humanity to people who have been denied both.
We may think of illegal immigrants as the lowest of the low in this country, but in God’s eyes they are his beloved children. And if they are his children, that makes them our brothers and sisters. And I know that to the good people of Trinity Church, I am preaching to the choir. One of your greatest strengths as a church is the way you welcome the other. But any of us, especially me, can be lulled into thinking that these kinds of laws and practices don’t have anything to do with our lives.
But God offers us the same challenge he offered Peter and asks us whether we can call profane a people he has made clean. He asks us if we can accept a reality in which the church includes even those our culture sees as unclean. He asks us to love our neighbor.