Sermon Easter 5
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the God who makes all things new. Amen.
We all know the Ten Commandments. But, in our first lesson, Peter is challenged by some of the Jewish laws that are less familiar to us. Did you know that the Jews had 613 laws? Peter did. They had 248 positive laws – that is things we must do. There were 365 negative commandments – things we are forbidden to do.
Most of them were very specific to their culture. Peter was a good Jew. He was familiar with Leviticus and he understood that he was not to eat unclean animals. No bacon and no shellfish. Milk and meat must never be mixed, so no cheeseburgers. Locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers were all OK, but no bugs with wings. No snakes, lizards, or road kill.
No tattoos for Peter, either. And no pierced ears for his wife. He didn’t sow his field with two different kinds of seeds. His wife didn’t mix two kinds of fibers in the same cloth. He would never trim the edges of his beard.
We might think some of their laws are silly, but we have laws on the books in Nebraska that are just as weird. For example:
- It is illegal to go whale fishing – in Nebraska.
- It is illegal for bar owners to sell beer unless they are simultaneously brewing a kettle of soup.
- If a child burps during church, a parent may be arrested.
- There is a city law in Omaha that says sneezing or burping during church is illegal. I better be sure to take my allergy pill if I go to church in Omaha in the spring or fall. I am sure to sneeze just thinking about it being illegal.
Other states are just as strange:
- In Pennsylvania you can’t sing in the bathtub or sweep dirt under a rug.
- In Alaska, you can’t give a moose a beer to drink.
- In Nevada, you can’t drive a camel on the highway.
- In New Jersey, you can’t frown at a police officer.
We can laugh at these laws because we know they were written for a specific people in a specific time and place. It is part of our human tendency to make up rules about things that have happened that we don’t like. We even make up rules about exceptional events that will in all likelihood never be repeated.
The Jewish dietary laws were written in a specific time and place to keep the people healthy. We all know you have to be very careful about cooking pork and make certain it is well done. If you can’t do that, it is better not to eat it.
Many of the other laws were written to help the Jewish people keep themselves separate from the rest of the world, so they would not be tempted to worship other gods.
In today’s lesson from Acts, Peter has a vision or a dream. He sees a sheet being lowered from heaven and he is told to eat. He must have thought this was a test. He knows the answer, though. All those animals are on the forbidden list. He absolutely declines. Peter knows he isn’t supposed to eat any of those creatures. Never has, never will.
God tells Peter that all those animals are God’s creatures, therefore all are clean. This event with the sheet full of animals is repeated three times to make sure Peter gets the point. If God made a creature, that creature is, by definition, good. God does not make bad creatures.
We could stop here. We could say the point of this lesson is that we can forget about the dietary laws. God has said we can eat that shrimp cocktail and follow it with a bacon cheeseburger if we want – as long as we don’t have to worry about cholesterol.
We could take the story one step further and say that God is doing a new thing. Any law in the Bible that seems to apply only to that time and place does not apply to us. This is true. I am not too concerned about my pierced ears and Dave does trim the sides of his beard.
But, this still doesn’t take us deep enough into the story. We need to look deeper to see what it really means to us in the 21st century. The rest of the lesson is about accepting people who are different from us.
Peter was approached by three men, three gentiles. You see, Peter didn’t just know the laws about which animals he should and shouldn’t eat. He knew the laws about which people he should and shouldn’t sit down at the table with. He wasn’t supposed to eat with gentiles. He wasn’t supposed to go into their houses. He certainly wasn’t supposed to stay there over night. Peter knew that if he associated with Gentiles, he would be considered unclean, just as they were considered unclean.
Why then, did Peter go with these Gentiles and eat with them and stay in their house? He understood his vision. He knew it meant that God wanted him to invite the Gentiles to follow Jesus. He saw that the Gentiles had also received the Holy Spirit. He said, “Who am I to hinder God?”
Peter was there when Jesus gave the disciples a new commandment. “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” Jesus did not make distinctions between people. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He talked to the Samaritan woman.
Peter asked, “If God gave to the Gentiles the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter understood his vision to mean that living by the gospel is more important than following the laws. God has said that the good news that Jesus Christ is risen and still at work in the world is for everyone, no exceptions. That gospel, that good news, gives us the freedom to love one another, no matter who the other person is.
This is the question for us today. Who is God calling us to welcome? Who are the people who are different from us? The ones who don’t speak English like us? Perhaps they don’t know the Scriptures the way we do? Perhaps they don’t look like us or dress like us or eat the same kinds of foods.
The Gentiles came to Peter because they were looking for a sign that Christ is risen and still at work in the world. We also are looking for a sign that Christ is risen and still at work in the world. So are all the people we know.
Jesus told Peter and the other disciples that their love for one another would be that sign. It still is. Let us love one another as Christ has loved us.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!