Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
May 6 2007—Easter 5C
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. and they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Close your eyes and I’m going to ask you a question. No peeking, now! Raise your hand if that was the first time you’ve ever heard this story of Peter and the petting zoo.
It’s not exactly the most common story—in fact, it’s a little bizarre. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In our final semester of seminary—that would be the 8th semester including summers—my friend Amy and I were finally taking the first-year New Testament Survey class. Each week we were assigned a book of the New Testament to read through in one sitting. That sounded boring, so instead we got together and read the assignments aloud—taking turns reading while the other person provided sound effects. When I got to this story, instead of saying “moo” or “caw caw!” or “gasp!” Amy said “what? You just made that up.” When I said I had not, she grabbed the Bible out of my hands, saying “there is NO WAY that is in the Bible,” and then seeing it for herself. Her response was, “seriously?” It was a funny moment, for sure—one of many in those last weeks before graduation.
As Amy learned, and as you all just heard, the story is indeed in the Bible. It’s weird, true, but it’s still in there. We all know the Bible has no qualms talking about food, personal hygiene, how we live our private lives, how we live our public lives, and politics. But even so, this story is still bizarre. Peter falls into a trance and the Holy Spirit tells him to eat things that are completely abhorrent! But first he has to choose which disgusting thing to eat, then catch it from the petting zoo sheet and kill it, presumably prepare it, and then eat it—breaking every possible purity code on the books. He must have thought this was a temptation story like the one of Jesus in the wilderness, so naturally, he resists.
Then comes the surprise. “What God has called clean you must not call profane.” Three times—the holy number—and then it’s over. And just as Peter is congratulating himself on a temptation well survived, the unclean people start to show up. Not just any unclean people, either—Gentiles. This time, though, when the Spirit says “go,” Peter goes, and supposedly makes no distinction between “them” and “us.”
Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem hear it, they’re outraged. How could he go eat with unclean, uncircumcised gentiles? He knows the rules. They know the rules. So when he gets home, they summon him for public criticism and questioning. Everyone clearly knows what’s right and what’s wrong—and who’s right and who’s wrong—in this situation.
The trouble is, as Buffy will remind you anytime you ask her, is that “it’s not about right, not about wrong—it’s about power.” Who has it, who wants it, and how you use it. Peter had an experience that showed him who had the power, and it wasn’t him. When he told the story, the church leaders in Jerusalem heard who had the power, and it wasn’t them. This is a huge change, a turning of the world. It turns out that the institutions—the Jewish Temple, the Roman Empire, even the Church, don’t have the power. They don’t have the power to determine what’s right and wrong, who’s in and who’s out, or to control the Spirit. Only God has the power. The Spirit blows where she will. Peter and the church leaders were moved to silence by this realization—because what can you say? Only the words of Peter seem to work: “who was I that I could hinder God?”
To step back, to let go of our notions of right and wrong, to let go of our power, and to let God break down our walls and barriers is not easy. It’s comforting to have those walls in place. They give structure to our world and our lives. And where the walls are physical and real, made of concrete and 25 feet high, it seems impossible to bring them down anyway. So why not just leave them there? They make our worlds a manageable size, they keep us safe.
Except, of course, they don’t. What they do sometimes instead is restrict our view and keep us in the dark. I told my story about Amy, and now I have a similar story about some of the people I met when I was just beginning to be a Young Adult Volunteer. Before I left for Egypt, when I told people what I was going to do and where, the most common question I got—even from extremely informed, intelligent people—was “what are you going to do there? Everyone there is Muslim.” The close second was “How will you handle being the only Christians?”
Just as Amy, and some of us, didn’t realize this story was in the Bible, there are a lot of people in this country who don’t realize there are Christians in the Middle East. Christianity is a “western religion,” they say, foreign to that culture. But it isn’t. Jesus was born in Palestine, he and his family traveled to Egypt when he was young, and he visited what are now Lebanon and Syria. The disciples are known to have traveled after the resurrection to Iran, Iraq, India, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to found churches. Mark, the gospel writer, was the first bishop of Alexandria—the first pope of the Coptic church. In fact, Christianity came to the West only through the efforts of very courageous missionaries. It’s strange to think of ourselves as the products of missionaries, but so we are! And there are indeed Christians still living in the cradle of our faith—12% of the population of Egypt is Christian.
But Christians are a serious minority—between 1 and 40% of the population, depending on the country. They do not hold the positions of power that we enjoy in the US. Instead, their position in politics and in society ranges from openly persecuted, as in today’s Iraq, to officially tolerated but culturally and politically disliked and disadvantaged, as in Egypt and Syria, to integrated in the country’s political and cultural life, as in Lebanon, to ignored and forgotten as in Palestine. No power there.
Being a Christian in the Middle East is hard work. You often can’t gather publicly for worship. You can’t practice your faith openly in many places. Some shopkeepers won’t sell to you. It’s hard to get a permit for a church or a school or an addition to your house. The government can take your property without compensation. You are harassed on the streets—because everyone can tell who you are by the way you dress. You have to be careful what you preach. You can’t share the good news because evangelism is illegal. If you happen to be a convert from Islam, you will be shunned by your family and community, or sometimes killed. Like everyone else in the Middle East, you’re probably poor and you probably live in fear of the next outbreak of violence. Worst of all, the people who have worldly power often don’t acknowledge that you exist—they lump you together with the same people who persecute you.
The Middle East is a complex place, with rich history and tangled politics. It’s hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not hard to say who has the power in the situation, though—we do. If we put ourselves in Peter’s story, we are the church in Jerusalem, passing judgment before hearing the story. When we do hear the story, the question is whether we’ll be moved to silence and to praise by the realization that God has broken down the dividing walls of hostility, whether we’ll jump in and be part of the demolition crew, or whether we’ll decide that our walls are best left intact.
Now I know, we’re far away, and as individuals we don’t feel like we have much power, and it’s complicated. But there are still things we can do. We have more influence than we like to realize. One thing we can do is choose not to make judgments, not to assess what’s right and what’s wrong, not to assume we understand people’s lives or people’s feelings when we hear or read news. Instead we can simply love people as God’s children. Another is to pray without ceasing that all of God’s children might have peace founded on justice, that there might be recognition and respect of Christians who live in the cradle of the faith, that God’s power might ultimately triumph over the earthly powers, that God’s wisdom will ultimately have the last word over our worldly wisdom. We are entering a week of prayer and witness with and for Christians in the Middle East. Take your bulletin home and use the prayers printed in the insert to pray for people and churches in each country. Use the Cradle of our Faith booklet to learn more, to see people and places, to offer your witness that God’s power is stronger than our walls.
Another thing we can do sounds bizarre, but I’m going to suggest it anyway. Peter had a vision that changed the world. Perhaps it’s time for us to practice having a vision. There is a popular green bumper sticker with swirly designs that says “visualize whirled peas.” It’s silly, but perhaps just the thing we need today. Peter’s vision that began with food led to a much larger change in the world and the church—without it, we of gentile descent wouldn’t be here in church today! Maybe if we start small, with whirled peas, which sound almost as gross as killing my own unclean dinner, our vision can be expanded to world peace. After all, God is turning the world around, maybe even one pea, and one prayer, at a time. And so we pray—may it be so.