Ships, seas, trade winds and travel stir human imagination. In the verses before our passage Bishop Peter has been traveling around the Jerusalem Annual Conference and finds himself at the home of Simon the Tanner in the busy port of Joppa. I like to imagine Simon made the finest quality leather for the scrolls Luke and others used to record our story. Tired from traveling, Peter goes up to the rooftop patio, maybe overlooking the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The ocean breeze blowing over the moored ships lured Peter into a perplexing dream. In the dream, three times God tells Peter to break the kosher dietary laws. Dreaming of grilled shrimp while napping under a beach umbrella might not trouble you, but these dietary prohibitions had guided Peter all his life. Leviticus 11 shaped every meal Peter had ever eaten. Repulsed by the dream, the observant bishop cried out, “No, Lord, absolutely not, I have never done something like that.” But God answered back, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”
The message, “never consider unclean what God has made pure”, shook Peter up and perhaps should still shake the church today. Peter broods over the vision. Do you know that uneasy tug of an awakening idea where maybe God’s Spirit nudges you to change your mind, stand up for something, forgive seven more times, or love a tricky neighbor? How do we process new insights like: “never call someone unclean or impure”? Does our faith allow our theology to expand or is our theology stagnant? Luke alerts us that the Holy Spirit interrupted Peter’s thinking. I am not sure what that means, but some ideas just seem holy, right, peace-giving, and just. The Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s brooding, “Hey look! Three people are looking for you. Go downstairs. Don’t ask questions; just go with them because I have sent them.”
It takes faith to just go with new people and explore new insights, not allowing our theological questions or cultural objections to steal an encounter with the Holy. A pastor friend shared how they could not worship on Easter because the children’s pastor affixed “Christ is risen” to the cancel rail. I am not sure how I feel about the balloons, but caught by the absurdity of Jesus overcoming death while my stuck friend could not “worship” due to balloons I burst out laughing. Come on man! Friends, don’t faith, hope and love begin with a welcoming “yes” instead of a hard “no”?
Peter lingers between trusted old traditions and new untested understandings; what does it mean “to never consider unclean what God has made pure”? How far do we take this idea? Trusting the Spirit, Peter sets aside his objections and welcomes three strangers to dinner. As they break bread, the guests share about Cornelius, their Roman patron, a full bird colonel leading the battle-tested, politically powerful, and militarily elite Italian company. Col. Cornelius, like many officers, was a diplomat, a prayerful and pious civic leader. Cornelius is not a Jew, but was deeply respected by the Caesarea Jewish community, coming to synagogue, taking care of people, and giving generously to Jewish causes. Let us notice that God does not just speak to the Bishop, God speaks to the pagan Centurion as well. Maybe the church needs to realize that God sometimes speaks theological truth from voices on the margins or even outside of the church!
The actual meeting of Peter’s and Cornelius’ teams is awkward. Likely guided by pantheistic notions of greeting holy people, Cornelius’ crew fell down in worship before Peter. As an observant Jew, Peter completely rejected this as idolatrous and blurted out a command to the commander, “Get up! I’m just a human being like you” while reaching out and lifting them up! Perhaps feeling awkward, Peter feels compelled to announce his newfound inclusivity, “You all realize that it is forbidden (by Jewish law) for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean, so I came here without objections to meet you.” Peter’s greeting is unnecessary and unwelcoming, “You know that I am breaking religious vows by being here with you pagan people”, but the bishop and the general do not blow up ancient Twitter airing the other’s cultural missteps. Instead of amplifying differences and mistakes, these leaders focus on honor, humility, and a shared humanity. It is hard work to overcome deep cultural divides- it is easy to fall into fault-finding and name-calling. We build the blessed community with humility, mercy and grace.
I am sympathetic to Peter’s cultural missteps. More than once growing up, I heard preachers apply Numbers 16 to going to bars, “The Lord will make known who is his, who is holy…Move away from the tents of the wicked! Don’t touch anything of theirs, (not even the bar’s excellent fries) lest you too be wiped out for all their sins.” I remember the first time I went to a bar. My favorite history professor invited me to grab lunch with some TA’s. I sat in the bar nervously jingling the ice cubes in my coke, only half listening to chatter about the ancient Peloponnesian War, because I worried at any moment the ground might open up and swallow me whole as it did in Numbers 16. Peter had spent his whole life thinking people like Cornelius were less than beloved, less than clean, and less than righteous. Maybe we should give the bishop some credit for crossing a forbidden threshold? Peter is trying to understand the new things God is teaching the church. It is not easy to unlearn a judgy, strict, closed religious upbringing. Who has ever moved off their theological beliefs because someone called hatefully ripped apart their ideas or called them a name? Love woos people- allowing them to become open to God’s Spirit.
After fumbling his opening remarks, Peter does something remarkable. Peter asks, “I want to know, why did you send for me?” Peter wants to hear Cornelius’s story. Love asks neighbors and rival camps to share their story. Loving neighbors grows curiosity about how they have already experienced God. Authentic mission, preaching, welcome, and loving-kindness require honest conversations. I grew up in a church where we had to convert people to our way of thinking, our listening was judgy and strategic, designed to find an opening to tell, not listen or learn. If I come to you with a fixed script about faith, politics, or Taylor Swift, I am not loving you enough to listen. Peter is open to God showing him something new. Peter does not doubt the presence of the risen Christ in his life, indeed, it is Christ’s presence that empowers Peter to be open to learning something new.
The Apostle Paul was always meeting people, always asking questions, and continually learning new things. In Acts 17, Paul visits Athens and walks around Mars Hill carefully observing all the pagan temples and reading every idol’s inscription. Then Paul gleans ideas from the Athenian poets and priests preaching, “We are God’s offspring. Indeed, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist.’’ Love listens. Love learns. Love craves people’s stories. Love is not afraid of new ideas, or busy judging others. Deep faith can explore new ideas because it is rooted in ‘the love of God that surpasses knowledge.’ (Ephesians 3, 1 Corinthians 13) Don’t faith, hope, and love all require a kind of learning? What about wonder, awe, prayer, and worship, don’t these only occur with an open heart?
After Cornelius shares his story, Cornelius thanks Paul for being kind enough to come and then consecrates their gathering as a holy convocation declaring, “Now, here we are, gathered in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has directed you to say.” God is speaking through everyone, not just the bishop!
Peter’s words can still shake us out of our comfortable theological echo chambers, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace God sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: Christ is Lord of all!” That is a powerful inclusive word, but Peter’s opening line most deeply resonates with humility, hope, and beauty, “I really am learning.” Maybe every sermon, every song, every prayer, every lesson, every conversation should begin with us praying “I am really learning, Lord, soften my heart and strengthen my mind. I am open!” (Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love)
In Matthew 11, Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” What ways of being present with one another and the world are we learning from Jesus? What rhythms of grace, mercy, and goodness are unfolding in your life? Where are you humbly learning something new? Let us keep humbly saying to God and one another, “I am really learning.” Amen.