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Dreaming and Killing! (A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18)
Sometimes this is a very natural way to read the Bible: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden”… hey, it’s me!
Some passages feel like a direct personal word from the Almighty, but others do not, and today’s reading from the eleventh chapter of Acts is definitely one of the ‘no’ passages.
Thus, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said: “You entered the house of the uncircumcised 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 great sheet coming down from heaven at its four corners, and it came down where I was, I looked into it and saw four-footed beasts of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds. Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” I answered, “Certainly not, Lord! Nothing impure or impure has ever entered my mouth.’ “The voice spoke from heaven a second time: ‘Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.’ (Acts 11:2-9)
Now I’m stopping reading there because the full story of Peter is a long story and the story told in chapter eleven is actually a retelling of the story of chapter ten. However, at the heart of both stories is this dream, and in terms of the Bible being a personal message to me, it must be said that this is not a dream I can remotely identify with!
Peter dreams of all sorts of animals sitting on some sort of giant picnic rug and being told to “kill and eat”. While I love food, I can’t imagine personally killing the things I eat. Besides, I don’t have a problem with pork, and that’s the real issue here!
“Kill and eat,” says the voice, to which Peter replies, “Certainly not, Lord! Nothing unclean has entered my mouth!” In other words “God, I don’t eat pork” (or crustaceans, birds of prey or other animals with unbroken hooves, etc., etc.)
If this is supposed to be God’s personal word to me for today, I must say, “Lord, this is none of my business!” I already eat pork, I always have and most other people I know eat it wholeheartedly too!
Now I’m not saying that I don’t find this passage interesting, nor am I suggesting that there aren’t aspects of this story that I don’t find confronting, but what has lifting the pork ban accomplished. to do with me?
I certainly appreciate that there are people in our church community who abstain from eating pork, but I don’t think it’s for particularly religious reasons.
I know, for example, that Ange (my wife) is concerned about the inhumane treatment of farm animals that are used for meat, and I know that she has many arguments on Facebook about it. She tells me that there is a fair degree of hostility between some of her vegan friends and the evangelical Christians on Facebook that she has ‘friended’ with.
Ange showed me a photo of a dog and a pig, side by side, that one of her vegan friends had recently posted. The caption underneath 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 well-known evangelical clergyman said ‘but the dog isn’t full of delicious bacon!’ (or something like that) as she thought she trivialized the issue, as indeed she does.
I appreciate that there are real issues related to animal cruelty, but I also understand that this is a completely different issue than the one that concerned Peter and the other Apostles. Peter was not concerned about killing the pigs because it was cruel. He did not want to touch them because they were ‘unclean’ creatures and therefore forbidden!
Of course, the real issue seen in the eleventh chapter of Acts is not about food, but about people. The breaking down of food barriers is only the main step of a much more comprehensive breaking down of barriers between people of different racial and religious backgrounds who eat these different foods, but even then, accepting non-Jews into our midst is not my issue. or!
For who are the ‘Gentiles’ in Acts eleven – the people the twelve Apostles feared would pollute their religious community? They are us!
This is one of the nagging things I ran into when I read this story again this year.
I always tend to think of the Apostles (especially Peter, James and John perhaps) as my sons! I’ve always imagined that if I could transport myself back to the first century, I’d get on really well with those guys. Reading this passage again made me realize that if I were to come up to Jesus’ disciples on the street, they would most likely cross over to the other side of the street to avoid being defiled by me!
This is hard for a straight middle class white guy like me to accept, of course. We straight middle-class whites have been taught to be the ones who show prejudice – not the ones who wait!
Surely we good church people don’t, do we – and certainly not us progressive church going Australians? We would never show prejudice against people because of the color of their skin or their country of origin, eh… unless they are refugees of course, or Arabs (Muslim Arabs, anyway), or maybe Chechens!
I don’t know if you have been following the propaganda closely lately, but I have a feeling that Chechens are the new group of people we are now supposed to hate!
The “Boston bombers” were Chechens, we’ve been told, and suddenly I’m hearing about Chechens in Syria and feeling that the way is being opened for a violent targeting of many Chechens. people.
Or maybe we should just hate them because they are Muslims? I’m not sure, but I have to say that sometimes it’s hard to keep up with where you’re supposed to focus your biases!
I know we in Australia often like to think of ourselves as a paragon 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 the slave trade 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 passage of the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’.
* When did Australia officially recognize its indigenous people as true human beings? May 27, 1967! Previously 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 anymore, but I bet some of the indigenous children who were my playmates in Kindergarten at the time will still remember!
I remember the Irish comedian Dave Allen talking about his experience in our country. He said that the Australian people he had met were among the most generous and open-hearted people he had met anywhere in the world, and that it was only the white bastards he could not stand!
It’s a confrontational passage, since it’s all about changing preconceptions, but really, what strikes me most about this passage is not the change the disciples had to make in their thinking, but how they did it. there!
What bothers me about this story is that these people changed their minds about what God required of them about what they should eat and who they should mix with based on what?…
* A part of Scripture they had never read before?
* An ex-cathedral declaration of an early Pope (or its equivalent)?
* A direct word from Jesus himself?
They shifted their entire understanding of their faith based on a dream Peter had and their intuition of what the Holy Spirit was telling them! This is really quite strange, as these people were overturning things that were written in the Scriptures that were completely unclear.
In the book of Leviticus, chapter eleven, it is written: do not eat pork!
“The boar, though it has a cloven hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean to you. Do not eat their flesh or touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.” (Leviticus 11:7-8)
Here it is, black and white! You can’t argue with that, can you?
On the one hand you have the Word of God in all its ambiguity. On the other hand you have Peter’s last dream. Which would you consider authoritative? Disciples go with the dream!
This doesn’t sit well 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 recent article about gay marriage (found at http://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.
* Do you see the way in which the biblical writers themselves might have adapted laws similar to this?
Peter and the other apostles of Jesus do absolutely none of these things. They just accept Peter’s dream and apparently ignore everything else!
This is painful, as it is in fact this method of Bible study that allows us evangelical Christians to determine 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 seek this kind of scholarship and listen to those who practice it and engage in intelligent conversation by the rules of that game, and those who do not play that game (like those who wake up and want to tell us all the things God has taught them asleep) hide!
But we cannot erase the apostles and we cannot erase this dream, because we know that this dream came from God. And I don’t know why God couldn’t have revealed all this to the apostles in a Bible study, but He didn’t!
And where do we go with this? What principles for biblical interpretation can we draw from this? What pattern of divine communication can we establish based on this story? How can we use this experience to be able to better predict God’s will and activities in the future? As 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 sees fit, and in the end there is absolutely no way to predict what God will do next.
And this is very difficult to get on board! I have 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 predict and whose mind and being I will not never really understand!
And so, maybe there is a personal message in this passage for me? 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 personal message to you) to the reading of His word.
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