The story we are reading today from the New Testament book of Acts is a pivotal story in the Bible. It will involve some individuals and an entire church community having an epiphany about God’s will. This story will cause many people to reexamine what they have been taught about God.
Acts contains the stories of the early church. Jesus was Jewish and the expansion of the early church begins within the Jewish community. But then two people who have no possible connection to one another each have a dream. Their dreams bring them together across incredible barriers. These two men eating with one another flips religious order upside down.
The 10th chapter of Acts contains this story. A story of a Gentile named Cornelius having a dream in which he is called by God to seek out a man named Simon Peter. At the same time that Cornelius has his dream, Peter also has a dream. A dream in which Peter sees all of the foods that he is forbidden to eat as an observant Jew. But Peter is told to dine on this ritually unclean food. And as my friend who loves to cook barbeque pork proclaims, this dream given to Peter is God’s blessing for roasting a pig over an open pit.
But this story is more than blessing of southern barbeque. This is a story which redefines the church’s understanding of purity.
We will be reading this story from the 11th chapter of Acts. Peter returns to Jerusalem after his dream and subsequent encounter with Cornelius and has to report to the church leaders. And as we will see in the beginning of this reading, the church leaders are not happy with what Peter has done.
Read Acts 11:1-18
It was called the Irish Potato Famine or the Great Famine. It lasted from 1845 through 1849. The Great Famine resulted in over 1 million deaths and the immigration out of Ireland of about 2 million people.
Land in Ireland at the time was mostly owned by rich absentee landlords who lived in England. The Irish were forced into becoming peasant farmers who had smaller and smaller plots of land to sustain themselves as most of their agricultural products were exported.
The potato had been introduced to Ireland and could grow in the poor soil. So the Irish grew lots and lots of potatoes both for export and for local consumption. But almost all of the potatoes grown in Ireland were one variety, the Irish lumper. So when a pathogen was introduced into Ireland most likely carried in by ships from North America, this disease spread quickly.
About 3/4ths of the potato crop was destroyed and most of what survived was exported to England. Because there was basically only one variety of potato, there was little defense against the pathogen. Homogeneity makes crops and organizations susceptible to blight.
The Christian church began as a homogeneous body. The original disciples came from the Jewish faith and the people that they were most comfortable being around were other Jewish people. The early church developed rules that protected them from impure or non-Jewish people.
It was forbidden, for instance, for a Jewish person to eat with non-Jewish or Gentile people. It was a culture based on purity. Us and them. Circumcised and non-circumcised. Jew and Gentile. God’s people and not God’s people. And the church leaders were quite comfortable with just being around their own kind. It seemed to be working pretty well.
The church was growing and they could easily differentiate between who were the ones to be welcomed and who was to be excluded. But then Acts 10 and 11 happens. And their entire worldview is completely flipped upside down. Cornelius, the non-Jew, and Peter the Jew each have a dream. Dreams which are clear visions to both of them that God does not show partiality to use Peter’s words.
Dreams that give witness that God welcomes everyone into relationship with God. Dreams that give witness that relationship with God and with one another is more important than the purity rules of separation that humans have created. What I find interesting in this story is that the first one recorded with the dream is Cornelius. Cornelius the outsider. Cornelius is the one that is told to seek out the insider church person.
Can you imagine how much courage that took for Cornelius to listen to God’s voice in this dream? Because I am sure that Cornelius believed that he would be rejected by the insider church people.
And guess what? The insider church people did exactly what Cornelius would have feared. The insider church people reject him. As soon as the church leaders hear about what has happened their first question to Peter is, “why did you go to the uncircumcised and eat with them?”
There is no celebration on the part of the church leaders. Instead they are concerned that Peter has broken the rules of purity culture and eaten with someone that they believe is impure, unclean, disgusting.
So the question for all of us here today is this. Who has God already reached out to and said I want you to connect in some way to the people at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church? Who is hoping that we will respond with a welcome? Who is scared that we will respond instead with rejection?
Is it the child or teenager who has recently moved into this area and feels alone? Is it the immigrant whose first language is not English? Is it the person who is gay or transgendered and been told that they are disgusting?
Is it the family with the special needs child who feels afraid of what their child will do out in public? Is it the person battling depression or is going through a divorce and wondering if they will be welcomed? Who is it that God has already reached out to and invited to engage with us here?
And could it be that God is giving us a dream that says that our rules and understanding of purity is not from God? Could it be that we are being given a dream like Peter that says it is time to re-evaluate what we have always been told to believe?
When Peter tells the church leaders about what has happened, they become silent. And then after they are silent, they praise God that God is using them to reach out to new people.
If this passage of scripture makes you uncomfortable, and it should make every one of us uncomfortable, then maybe we need to become silent as well. Maybe we need to be silent so that we can listen to who it is that God is bringing to us. Maybe before we defend our purity culture and the rules that we have always abided by, maybe we need to listen to what God might be showing us.
God may already be speaking to the people that are being directed our way.
Are we going to be ones that welcome them or are we going to be the ones who reject them? Amen.
-Given: May 15, 2022 in Allison Creek Presbyterian (York, SC