We Are Witnesses | What God Called Clean

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I enjoy eating so it stands to reason I should probably enjoy cooking, too. Being able to cook means I don’t have to wait on someone else if I decide I want to eat. And I do like to eat. Over the years, I have developed a fair repertoire of dishes and meals which are cooked on a weekly basis. Most of them were meat with various vegetables or pasta dishes or the occasional casserole. But during the early days of the Covid pandemic, I found I was rather bored with my current stable of staples and not only that, but I was also having to alter my diet after many years of abusing my digestive system with lots of greasy, fatty foods. What I needed was a new repertoire. And a new diet.

So, I did what anyone these days does when the need to find something, I googled it. I would type in fun things like, “low fodmap potato soup recipe” or “gluten-free chicken parmesan.” Of course, there were hundreds, thousands of recipes for these and many other dishes. The searches also brought up diets to follow and other recipes for those diets. Some of the diets came from reputable sources, dietitians and physicians who were well studied in their fields of expertise. Some of the diets came from well-meaning but less than knowledgeable people who stumbled onto something that worked for them. All of them had one thing in common: they disagreed with one another about something. Eat sugar/don’t eat sugar. Eat nothing but fat/never eat fat. Eating some carbs will stabilize your weight/any carbs will make you fat. Whether it was diets or recipes, anything I looked up disagreed with someone else’s assessment. And many of these were from reputable, academic sources. It wasn’t that the people writing them hadn’t studied or done their research, they simple came to conclusions that disagreed with the conclusions of others. In the end, I just listened to my wife, who is a dietitian in her own right. I thought it best for my physical and marital health. 

The truth is, no matter the subject, people will disagree. I’ve heard it said, if you have three people in a conversation, you’ll have five opinions. I don’t think that is far from the truth. And it has always been the truth. Take for example the passage we read today. Peter is recounting the story of how God spoke to him regarding the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Why is he doing this? Well, simple. The first part of the passage says, The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!” In other words, Peter had sinned, violated their interpretation of the law. He entered the house of the uncircumcised and to make matters worse, he ate with them. To those disciples who continued to follow the Jewish Law—and most of the church for the first century was Jewish—this was the same kind of thing Pharisees went after Jesus for at Levi’s party in Matthew saying, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? Jesus told them,Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners

Peter explained it a different way. he went back through the story, telling them each thing God said and each thing as it happened. When he was finished, he told them, If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way? In Peter’s understanding, God had changed his mind. For some of you that may you a little nervous, may make you a little squeamish. But it isn’t unprecedented in the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Not only do we see it here in the Cornelius story (Acts 10-11), but it also shows up throughout the Old Testament:

  • According to Genesis 18:16-33, Abraham convinced God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous people could be found
  • In Exodus 32:9-10, Moses has to talk God out of destroying the Israelites who have turned back to worshipping idols after just leaving Egypt
  • Jeremiah 18 talks of God destroying Israel but he will change his mind if they repent. 
  • And Jonah 4 shows Jonah throwing a tantrum because Nineveh repented, and God decided not to destroy the city after all.

What all this says to me is God is ultimately the one who decides who is in and who is out where relationships are concerned. In the same way God chose the Israelites in the Old Testament story, God can choose anyone as followers. The story of Peter and Cornelius is a story about the Holy Spirit being the ultimate arbiter of who is in and who is out based on whether they accept the Holy Spirit. If someone accepts the Holy Spirit and chooses to follow Jesus, we would be wise to echo the words of Peter, If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?

So, who/what is clean or unclean? 

The truth is, you won’t always know, you’re not God. Depending on who I am speaking with, I have been called a heretic, an apostate, a liberal, and a conservative and that’s just by members of this church and community. I have been told there is no way I could miss heaven and I have been told there is no way I could miss hell. But the truth is, no one in this room knows my relationship with God but me. No one in this room knows how close or how far I am from God but me. When it comes to my faith journey, I’m the one on it and no one else. When it comes to making judgements, I’d advise against it for the most part. As human beings, our processes for making judgements are flawed by our fears and negative life experiences. That doesn’t mean we never make judgments where people are concerned, just sparingly, I think. When we must make decisions, I would say use the Methodist standards of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, taken together rather than separated, to make your decisions. And always bathed in prayer and guided by the Holy Spirit.

What do we do with all of this?

Love everyone, let God sort them out. What I mean is show a feeling that is “purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.” Make love and acceptance a part of your personal and communal expression of faith under all circumstances and in all situations. And where people respond to that poorly or act uncharitably in response to that, let God sort them out. You can’t It’s above our pay grade as followers. Our standing order from God is love first, love again, and when all else fails love even more. If God is truly operating in your life, those around you will know, especially those you would likely judge. When they see a lack of love from you, they know you are not what you say you are. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:43-48)

So, love others—friends, enemies, comfortable, uncomfortable—just love others. When they don’t live up your ideas or standards, let God sort them out. Better yet, let God sort you out. Your standards most likely judge others harshly for disagreeing with you and let you off the hook. Just love others. We need to let people belong first, then believe, then be like Jesus. Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. Be completed in God’s love.

(Note: in this sermon I occasionally use the masculine pronoun in reference to God. Biblically speaking, God is neither male nor female but is Spirit (John 4:24). The use of the pronoun is for ease of language and fluidity.)