5 Easter Proper C5
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Acts 11:1-18 Sermon
April 28, 2013
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & LBW):
39 "Praise To The Lord"
201 "Jesus Lives! The Victory's Won!"
433 "Jesus My Truth, My Way"
131 LBW "Christ Is Risen! Alleluia!"
AN OPEN SMORGASBORD
TEXT (vs. 4-9): “4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’”
Most of you know that food is a topic that is rather near and dear to my heart. And most of you probably know that there is no shortage of barbecue places in Lincoln either. So it’s most likely no surprise to you that I have eaten my share of barbecue. My birthday dinner this past year was at Famous Dave’s, where I ate an entire rack of ribs; and I honestly enjoyed each and every bite. Again, you’re probably not surprised with this bit of news.
But my tastes go further than a rack of ribs. How about a nice, spiral-sliced Honeybaked Ham? Or, how about a nice meal of baked loin pork chops? And what would breakfast be without some sizzling sausage or crispy bacon with your eggs? Does a Sunday dinner of a pork loin roast with rich brown gravy and potatoes sound good to you? And nothing warms a person up on a cold day like a big pot of bean soup made from a nice picnic shoulder ham.
I’m guessing that you have picked up on the common theme here. It’s pork, and that comes from pigs. The old TV Commercial told us that pork is the “other” white meat. And pork ranks right up there as one of my favorite meats. I think that growing up in a rural community and having meat fresh off the farm has spoiled me a bit too.
I’ve joked with people that I would have made a horrible Old Testament Jew, because I enjoy eating pork in various forms. Other people in our society would have similar difficulty eating prawns, lobster, clams, oysters, and so forth. The dietary restrictions the Jews had in the Old Testament were both complicated and restrictive.
So what were these regulations? The Israelites were given a set of Dietary Laws at Mount Sinai. These were recorded by Moses and are found in Leviticus chapter 11 and Deuteronomy chapter 14. God told Moses certain animals were “clean” to eat; those with cloven hoofs which chewed the cud such as cattle, goats, sheep, deer, and so forth. All fish with fins and scales, and insects of the locust family were also “clean.” The pig and the camel, however, were “unclean” and were not to be eaten. All carnivorous birds, sea creatures without fins and scales, most insects, rodents, reptiles, and so forth were “unclean.” This is the essence of the Dietary Laws that came from God.
Okay, I don’t think too many of us would have trouble avoiding insects, mice, and rats. And I really haven’t had the desire to try eating camel. But having religious restrictions on a person’s diet is a pain in the neck, nevertheless.
So how did all of these laws originate? Most people think that these came about after Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the other laws. But that’s not the case with the dietary laws. They actually pre-date Israel and the Jewish people.
If we go back to Genesis, let’s take a look at the animals Noah took with him on the ark. If you ask almost any Sunday School child, they will very quickly tell you that Noah took the animals on the ark, two by two. This is basically what it says in Genesis chapter 6, verse 19, which says: “And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.”
But if we read on a bit further, in Genesis chapter 7, verses 2-3, this is what it says: “You shall take with you seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female; also seven each of birds of the air, male and female, to keep the species alive on the face of all the earth.”
Before we go further, we need to realize that these are not contradictory accounts. God just goes into a bit more detail in the later verses. All species of the animals fit the “two-by-two” criteria; it’s just that the clean animals and the birds were required to have a higher number.
So why the higher number? One reason is recorded in Genesis chapter 8, verse 20: “[Noah] built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” If there wouldn’t have been the extra number of animals, Noah’s sacrifice would have driven several species right into immediate extinction. That would have defeated the purpose of putting the animals on the ark in the first place.
I would guess that there’s also another practical reason. The 8 people on the ark had to eat something during that time. We know that the clean animals were permissible for human consumption. So the extra clean animals God told Noah to take would be able to feed his family as well as make the appropriate burnt offering sacrifice when everything was over.
The point of all this is that the “clean” and “unclean” designation for the animals pre-dated Noah by a long, long time. This was well in place before Moses received the various laws from God on Mt. Sinai. So when we bring this into our current story from Acts, Simon Peter was dealing with some well-established and well-known rules.
Simon Peter was a very devout Jewish man. He was also the chief spokesman for the Apostles. He knew and followed the dietary laws to the best of his ability.
At the beginning of our text for today, Peter is having a run-in with those people known as “the circumcision party.” They are being particularly harsh with him, because he associated with the Gentiles. So who are these people?
From what we can tell, this was an early movement to ban relationships between Jews and Gentiles. Since all Jewish men were circumcised, they were very prejudiced against the Gentiles who, generally speaking, were not circumcised. The Gentiles didn’t keep other areas of the Old Testament ceremonial laws either, including the various dietary laws.
So for Simon Peter to actually have a meal with the Gentiles and prepared by them was a gross abomination. Very little, if any of the food would have been fit to eat for an Old Testament Jew. The utensils and cooking vessels would not have been properly ceremonially washed and cleaned. And apart from eating, just being associated with them was a huge issue.
Now I have no idea what kind of meals Peter was eating with the Gentiles. I have visualized someone offering him a ham and cheese sandwich, or a pork chop, or serving him up a huge plate of bacon and eggs. We might chuckle at the thought of this, but for Peter and the Jewish Circumcision Party, this was a huge deal.
It wasn’t until Peter had the vision sent by God that his whole mindset changed. Our text for today Peter recounts this vision for us in verses 5-7: “…I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’”
Of course this confuses Peter, because he sees animals that are both clean and unclean. And God is telling him to kill them and eat them? So he has a dialogue with God in verses 8-9: “8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’”
Those Old Testament dietary laws had been abolished forever. The New Testament Church would not have to worry about this, or any of the other ceremonial laws in the Old Testament. All of these laws were fulfilled in Christ.
If we look back to the events of Good Friday, one of the more dramatic events was when the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. This is the curtain that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple. Only the high priest could enter it, and then it was only once a year to make a sacrifice for the sins of the people.
When that curtain tore and Jesus cried, “It is finished,” that heralded the end of the Old Testament ceremonial sacrifices and all of the other Old Testament ceremonial laws. All these laws pointed ahead to Christ, who gave himself as the one atoning sacrifice, once for all. There would be no more sacrifices for sin required. Christ paid it all.
When I look at the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, it’s hard for me to imagine trying to abide by them all. The book of Leviticus is just chocked full of these ceremonial laws that covered virtually every situation and circumstance. I don’t know how people were able to keep track of them all.
What Peter didn’t realize at first, is that when Jesus abolished the ceremonial laws and sacrifices, the dietary restrictions were all lifted as well. And I can’t imagine the freedom Peter would have felt when he got stuck into his first rack of baby back ribs.
Besides the freedom at the dinner table, this whole account points out how dramatically Jesus has bridged the gap between the Jews and the Gentiles. Throughout his ministry, Jesus dealt with many non-Jews. He showed his love and compassion to them in many different ways. He accepted them for who they were. He didn’t scold them for eating the wrong things or for eating things that weren’t strictly prepared according to Jewish law. He didn’t pronounce an anathema upon them for eating meat with dishes only intended for dairy, and vice-versa. That was not his ministry, not at all.
If we go to Luke chapter 5, we read the story of Jesus calling Levi the son of Alphaeus, or Matthew as he is more commonly called, as one of his disciples. He was both a Jew and a tax collector for the Roman government. The Jews especially hated people like him, because they regarded him as a traitor. As such, Matthew basically was guilty of robbing his own people, and making a huge personal profit at their expense. The Jews were prohibited from eating, trading, and praying with such people.
So when Jesus goes to Matthew’s house for a meal, this upsets the Jews no end. Verses 29-32 describe this: “29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
The parallel to these stories is rather clear. Jesus did not care about a person’s ethnic background, or heritage, or any of the other rather meaningless things that concerned his adversaries. He came to call sinners to repentance. He came as the Saviour of the world, regardless of whom or what the person may be. His forgiving love was for all people who would come to him in faith.
We’re guilty of making some pretty harsh judgments against others ourselves. We criticize and condemn instead of love and forgive. We look at others through our own flawed eyes instead of the eyes of Jesus. And we can be pretty self-righteous at times too.
That’s why we look to our resurrected and living Saviour through the eyes of faith. We know our sins have been paid for, and we are forgiven. We know that we have a glorious future awaiting us. And we know that the same future awaits many people, regardless of who they are. Jesus paid for the sins of the world, and it’s a done deal.
One of the reasons I think it is so neat to be a Christian, is the absolute freedom we have. Have you given much thought to that? Just think of the heavy yoke of the law that the Muslims have to bear. They have so much to think about and obey, that they don’t know what true freedom is.
At the beginning, I talked about pork, and how much I enjoy it. And I would guess that the Gentiles in the Bible enjoyed it too. We know that people raised pigs for human consumption back then. The prodigal son went to work tending pigs and eating the pods that were being fed to the pigs. The Jews would have found this utterly detestable. Jesus also cast demons into a herd of pigs that ultimately ran to the water and drowned themselves. Pigs and eating pork was not uncommon in that day and age.
I can understand how Peter was confused by his vision. All of his life he was told that only the ceremonially clean animals were fit to eat. But when God let down that sheet with all the animals, and Peter saw what was on that sheet, God was telling him that the dietary laws were over. God gave Peter and all Christians an open smorgasbord of food. Because of Peter’s vision, we can enjoy ham, and pork chops, and bacon, and sausage, and lobster, and prawns, and oysters, and clams, and on, and on. That is just one small area of the freedom we have as Christians who are united in fellowship under Christ’s love.
When it comes to people, we have no distinction, because all of humanity is loved by God. Jesus came to call sinners to him in faith, and to reconcile the world to God. The meaningless standards are gone, and all that remains is salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus.