Finding Easter: Table Manners
Rev. Richard Game writes, “I learned a little bit about behavioral conditioning from our Golden Retriever, Bailey. And so I beg your indulgence of another sermon story about a family pet. Bailey is as lovely and true and kind as any best friend a family could ever have. An indoor/outdoor dog, Bailey spends most of her time on a porch we enclosed for her. Bailey's palace we call it. From this porch perch Bailey presides over all the goings-on in our wooded back yard. She also enjoys the freedom to slip through a doggie door whenever it suits her fancy, to chase a squirrel or answer nature's call. But there are bounds to Bailey's realm. Bailey is not allowed outside of the backyard. For beyond the backyard are the suburban perils of the street, getting lost, and the dreaded dogcatcher. Now Anne and I could have built a traditional fence, but that would have ruined the wooded feel of our grounds, both for us and the neighbors around us. So, instead, we decided on an invisible fence, one designed specifically to contain canines. The invisible fence kept Bailey on the grass and out of the wooded, unimproved portion of our backyard.
An invisible fence has two components: a wire buried along the desired boundary and a dog collar that sounds whenever the boundary is approached. Bailey learned the boundary in three ways, mostly. First, she had the visual cue of the edge of the grass. Second, she had the audible cue from the collar whenever she approached the buried boundary. And, finally, Bailey could count on a mildly unpleasant tingling sensation from the collar whenever she actually crossed over. So with practice and conditioning, Bailey learned to stay in the backyard. Crossing the invisible fence became repulsive to her.” (1)
In our scripture text for today, we find a story of Peter being called to cross the boundary of an invisible fence. Peter eats food that he believed had been named unclean, and it means he must wrestle with crossing over the fence, an act that’s repulsive to him, to do so. The whole passage is sort of a flashback, and you can read about the events Peter describes here in the previous chapter, chapter 10. Peter, apparently, has eaten with some Gentiles – and the food the Gentiles ate was forbidden to Peter by the law that governed Israelites, laws that had very detailed dietary restrictions, laws that centered on cleanliness and uncleanliness. So some of the believers who are following these dietary laws want to know why Peter has eaten with these people. And so Peter must explain himself, “step by step,” and that is where he flashes back to describe what has caused this strange behavior in him. He’s had a vision, he says. A large sheet, maybe like a giant tablecloth, was lowered from heaven by its corners. On the cloth were various kinds of animals, representing animals that Peter would not be allowed to eat according to Mosaic law. Surprising Peter, he hears God’s voice telling him to get up and eat these forbidden foods. Peter refuses, insisting he would not eat anything unclean. But God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This sequence Peter saw repeated in his vision a total of three times, which tells us that there was no mistake – he heard God in the vision correctly.
Right after this happens, Peter meets Cornelius and his companions, Gentiles, and Peter feels the Spirit telling him “not to make a distinction” between himself and these men. So he goes with them and eats with them. In his heart, Peter finally understands his vision. He tells the questioning apostles, “I remembered the word of God . . . ‘John baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in . . . Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” After hearing Peter’s story, they praise God and say, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
This is a significant moment for Peter and the apostles and for the shaping of the early church. See, Peter and the rest of the ‘original’ disciples and the apostle Paul and the apostles working with him approached their ministry very differently. Paul, certainly a devout Jew, spent most of his ministry reaching out to those who were not Jewish – reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul believed that in Christ we are new creations - and if we are new creations, we’re not bound to the former ways. For Paul, this meant that Gentiles who were becoming Jesus-followers didn’t need to also adopt all the commandments of Jewish life. But Peter and company didn’t see things Paul’s way: Unlike Paul, they’d spent years following Jesus, decidedly grounded in Jewish life and culture. Peter and the rest of the Twelve were focusing their preaching and teaching primarily on those who were already Jews, viewing God’s message in Jesus as part of their identity as Jews, not a new or separate thing. To Peter, it made perfect sense that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus should at least convert first to the Jewish faith. The two sides spent a lot of time disagreeing over the right approach, and ultimately they agreed each to focus on their own special area of ministry. Here though, Peter is compelled by his vision from God to cross his own invisible fence
In Bible Study, we’ve been reading the book of Acts, and I shared with the class that a major theme in Acts is tracing the story of the early church and showing how what began as a movement within Judaism eventually became more than a movement. It became the church. It is a remarkable sequence of events. Another thing we talked about in Bible Study was the care we must take when we read the scriptures to examine our own stereotypes. There’s a theological concept called supersessionism. That’s a fancy word that refers to the idea that Christianity came along and really “got” the message God sent in Jesus and therefore sort of replaced the Israelites as God’s people, or fulfilled everything God was saying to the Israelites. It is easy to slip into talking about the law that guided Jewish life as contrary to and lesser than the heart message of grace we find in the gospels. Some of these kinds of readings of the scriptures have led to anti-Semitic viewpoints over the centuries. We have to remember, though, whenever we read texts like this that the dietary laws that Peter feels compelled to break because of a vision from God - those very dietary laws were part of the law of Moses that Moses received from God.
So, Peter wanting to keep the dietary laws he’d always kept isn’t bad. The laws that God set out for the people weren’t bad. The laws given to Moses shaped the young emerging nation of Israel, gave them an identity, gave them order, shaped them and set them apart as God’s people, distinct from other nations around them who didn’t follow God. They were important markers of identity - the laws and customs and practices of the Israelites. But, sometimes, a situation, a circumstance emerges that requires breaking the laws. Sometimes, the rules that governed a people well for a long time no longer serve the purpose they intended, but instead restrict. Is the law drawing people closer to God? Or is it hindering people from drawing near to God? Into Peter’s path come this group of Gentiles. If Peter will visit with them, break bread with them, share in a meal with them, he can also share Jesus with them. What should he do?
The scriptures and the pages of stories of faith over the millennia recount the stories of people who had to cross the invisible fences, challenge their own long-held beliefs, challenge laws and customs and practices, rather than hinder the boundless and ever-unfolding and expanding grace of God. We have examples of this in our Methodist heritage. John Wesley, for example, leader of the Methodist movement, was constantly breaking some of the rules he actually held dear if it meant reaching more people with the good news about Jesus. Proper John Wesley found it distasteful at best to consider preaching outdoors, in the fields, to crowds of people, like some of his contemporaries were doing. But when he saw that this way of preaching was reaching people, he adopted the practice himself. A few weeks ago at Confirmation Class, we learned that John Wesley’s Methodist movement was taking shape at the same time in the Revolutionary War era. Wesley was a priest in the Church of England, and he was not a supporter of American independence. However, more than that, he was a supporter of reaching people in America with good news in the Methodist way. And so he made sure to commission leaders to serve in America, ordaining them himself when the Church of England refused to do so. He went against his own wishes and preferences, because he felt it was more important for God’s mission to succeed than for him to get his own way.
What fences are up in your life? Some of them are easy to see, but sometimes invisible fences separate us from others, fences that we are unwilling to acknowledge, fences that have been ingrained in us since childhood. What walls do you have up that are hindering not only you but others from coming closer to God? Who is it that you’d hesitate to sit down to supper with? What rules seem unbreakable, even though God is calling us to a new thing? Whenever our fences have become less about protecting ourselves, and more about keeping others out, God will act to break them down. God is all about breaking barriers, even tearing down the dividing wall between life and death in the resurrection that we’re still celebrating in this Easter season. Are we hindering the work of God?
Rev. Game finishes his story about his dog Bailey: “The invisible fence kept Bailey bounded for many years until the blizzard of January 2011. Snowmageddon, as the media called it, shut down Atlanta for a week. I received a telephone call from a neighbor at about 9:30 in the morning, the first day of the blizzard. Bailey had escaped. Why this time and not on other snow days? Well, this time school had closed. And that morning children … were whizzing down the best sledding run in the neighborhood, which happens to be located in our side yard, just beyond the invisible fence. The blanket of snow from the heavens obscured the boundary of the yard, as it had on other snow days. But what caused Bailey to cross that day was children at play.
As was true for Peter, and for me, and is true for you as well, real live human beings - children in this case - caused Bailey to cross over. I had to laugh that morning as I found Bailey unbounded and happy and carefree, romping and running and chasing the sledders as they sped along. That seems to me a lot like God's own joy available for us, too, on the other side of our invisible fences.” (1) Amen.
- Rev. Richard Game, http://day1.org/4751-peters_invisible_fence