When I was a young Christian attending an evangelical youth group, we were expected to read our Bible every day, and we were encouraged to read it as if it was a direct message from God to us.
I don’t know if that was the advice most others received who attended Christian youth groups, but the idea was that we shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to analyse the text too deeply but simply accept it as a personal message from the Creator, spoken directly to us as individuals.
Sometimes that’s a very natural way to read the Bible: “Come to me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden” … hey, that’s me!
Some passages do feel like a direct personal word from the Almighty but others do not, and today’s reading from Acts chapter eleven is surely one of the ‘not’ passages.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ (Acts 11:2-9)
Now I’m cutting off the reading there because Peter’s full story is a long story, and the story told in chapter eleven is actually a retelling of the story of chapter ten. Even so, at the heart of both stories is this dream, and in terms of the Bible being a personal message to me, it has to be said that this is not the sort of dream I can remotely identify with!
Peter dreams of all sorts of animals being lowered down on some sort of giant picnic rug and is told to “kill and eat”. While I like food, I can’t imagine having to personally kill things that I eat. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with pork, and that’s the real issue here!
“Kill and eat” the voice says, to which Peter replies “Surely not, Lord! Nothing unclean has every entered my mouth!” In other words “Lord, I don’t eat pork” (or crustaceans or birds of prey or other animals with uncloven hoof, etc., etc.)
If this is supposed to be God’s personal word to me for today I’ve got to say, “Lord, this is not my issue!” I already eat pork, I’ve always eaten it and most other people I know eat it without reservation too!
Now I’m not saying that I don’t find this passage interesting and I’m not even suggesting that there aren’t aspects of this story that I don’t find confronting, but what has the lifting of the prohibition regarding pork got to do with me?
Of course I appreciate that there are persons in our church community who refrain from eating pork but I don’t think that’s for especially religious reasons.
I know, for instance, that Ange (my wife) is concerned about inhumane treatment of farm animals that are used for meat, and I know she gets in a lot of arguments on Facebook over this. She tells me that there is a fair degree of hostility between on Facebook between some of her vegan friends and the Evangelical Christians that she’s ‘befriended’.
Ange showed me a picture of a dog and a pig, side by side, that one of her vegan friends had posted recently. The caption underneath it read “what’s the difference?” In other words, ‘why do we kill and eat one and not the other?’
Ange says she didn’t appreciate it when a certain well-known Evangelical clergyman said ‘but the dog isn’t full of tasty bacon!’ (or something like that) as she felt it trivialised the issue, as indeed it does.
I appreciate that there are genuine issues there involved with animal cruelty, but I also recognise that this is an entirely different issue from the one that bothered Peter and the other Apostles. Peter wasn’t concerned about killing pigs because it was cruel. He didn’t want to touch them because they were ‘unclean’ and hence forbidden creatures!
Of course the real issue on view in Acts chapter eleven isn’t about food but about people. The breaking down of the food barriers is just the leading edge of a far more comprehensive breaking-down of barriers between the people of different racial and religious backgrounds who eat these different foods, but even then, accepting gentiles into our midst is not my issue either!
For who are ‘the gentiles’ on view in Acts eleven – the people that the twelve Apostles feared were going to pollute their religious community? They are us!
This is one of the jarring things that I got stuck on when I read through this story again this year.
I always tend to think of the Apostles (particularly Peter, James and John perhaps) as being my kinda guys! I’d always imagined that if I could transport myself back into the first century that I’d get on really well with those boys. Reading this passage again made me realise that if I were coming towards Jesus’ disciples on the road, they’d most likely cross to the other side of the street to avoid being contaminated by me!
That’s hard to accept for an upright middle-class white boy like me, of course. We righteous middle-class white people are used to being the ones who show the prejudice – not the ones on the receiving end!
Of course we good church people don’t do that, do we – and certainly not us progressive Australian church-going people? We would never show prejudice towards people because of their skin colour or country of origin, would we … unless they’re refugees of course, or Arabs (Muslim Arabs, at any rate), or perhaps Chechens!
I don’t know if you’ve been following the propaganda closely of late but I get the feeling that Chechens are the new group of people that we’re now supposed to hate!
The ‘Boston Bombers’ were Chechens, we’ve been told, and all of a sudden I’m hearing about Chechens in Syria, and I’m getting the feeling that the way is being paved for some violent targeting of a lot of Chechen people.
Or maybe we’re just supposed to hate them because they’re Muslims? I’m not sure but I must say that it’s hard sometimes to keep up with where you are supposed to be focusing your prejudices!
I know that we in Australia often like to think of ourselves as a model of tolerance and harmonious multiculturalism but in many ways we have one of the worst records in the world!
Let’s take a quick quiz here:
- When was the slavery of African people banned in Britain?William Wilberforce and his friends saw slave-trading made illegal in 1807 and they went on to pass the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ in 1833.
- When was slavery abolished in the United States?December 1865 with the passing of the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’.
- When did Australia officially recognise its Indigenous people as being genuine human beings?May 27, 1967! Before that Australian Aboriginal people were dealt with under the ‘Flora and Fauna act’!
1967 wasn’t that long ago! I was certainly alive then! I was five years old. I don’t remember that day any more but I’d bet that some of the Indigenous kids who were my playmates in Kindergarten at the time will still remember!
I recall Irish comedian Dave Allen speaking of his experience of our country. He said that the Australian people he’d met were amongst the most generous and open-hearted people he’d met anywhere in the world and that it was only the white bastards that he couldn’t stand!
It is confronting, this passage, as it’s all about shifting prejudices but, in truth, what I find most confronting in this passage is not the shift the disciples had to make in their thinking but the way they got there!
What unnerves me in this story is the fact that these people changed their minds about what God required of them with regards to what they should eat and who they should mix with on the basis of what? …
- A piece of Scripture that they had never read before?
- An ex-cathedra statement of an early Pope (or his equivalent)?
- A direct word from Jesus Himself?
They shifted their entire understanding of their faith based on a dream that Peter had, and on their intuitions about what the Holy Spirit was telling them! This is really quite bizarre, as these people were over-turning stuff that was written in the Scriptures that was completely unambiguous.
In the book of Leviticus, chapter eleven, it is written: don’t eat pork!
“The pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” (Leviticus 11:7-8)
There it is, in black and white! You can’t argue with that, can you?
On the one hand you have the Word of God in all its unambiguity. On the other hand you have Peter’s latest dream. Which one would you consider authoritative? The disciples go with the dream!
This doesn’t sit comfortably with me! As a good Evangelical with a high regard for the Scriptures I know how you argue for something new and innovative. You do what Keith does in his latest article about Gay marriage (found on www.arestlessfaith.com.au).
- You do a deep exegetical analysis of the wording of the law in question
- You compare this Biblical law with other Biblical laws.
- You look at the way in which the Biblical writers themselves might have adapted laws similar to this one?
Peter and the other Apostles of Jesus do absolutely none of these things. They just accept Peter’s dream and apparently disregard everything else!
That’s painful, as it’s actually this method of Biblical scholarship that allows us Evangelical Christians to draw our line around who are the legitimate interpreters of God’s word and who are not!
This is how we judge who can be taken seriously as a spiritual teacher. We look for this sort of scholarship and we listen to those who practice it and we engage in intelligent conversation according to the rules of that game, and those who do not play that game (such as those who wake up and want to tell us all the things that God has taught them in their sleep) get written off!
But we can’t write off the Apostles, and we can’t write off this dream, as we know that this dream did come from God. And I don’t know why God could not have revealed all this to the Apostles in a Bible Study, but He did not!
And where do we go with that? What principles for Biblical interpretation can we draw from that? What template of divine communication can we put in place on the basis of this account? How can we use this experience to be able to better predict the will and the activities of God in the future? So far as I can see, there are absolutely no satisfactory answers to any of these questions!
What we Evangelicals tend to forget is that God is God, and that God will do whatever God chooses to do. God will communicate with us in whatever way He deems to be appropriate, and in the end there is absolutely no way of predicting what God is going to do next.
And that’s all very difficult to take on board! I’m having enough trouble trying to find room in my heart for the homeless and refugees without having to make room at the top for a God whose movements I cannot anticipate and whose mind and being I will never truly understand!
And so maybe there is a personal message in this passage for me after all? The personal word for me today seems to be this: expect the unexpected, let God be God, and dream the dreams He gives you!
May God add his blessing (and his own personal message to you) to the reading of His word.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on April 28, 2013.
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