This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on May 2nd, 2010. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Justin 5/2/10.
Acts 11:1-18 What God Has Cleansed, Do Not Call Unclean
In the episode from Acts we read today, God shattered some of Peter’s most deeply held beliefs and changed his behavior. The story is sometimes labeled “the conversion of Cornelius,” but it’s just as accurate to call it “the conversion of Peter,” for Peter too must change his ways when the Holy Spirit moves in a surprising direction.
To prepare Peter for the shock of going to a Gentile soldier’s house and watching him believe in a Jewish messiah, God started him off with a vision commanding him to eat some pork, lobster, and rattlesnake: unclean foods. He argues that God can’t want that, because it would force him to break the divine purity laws. The Kosher laws can be found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, if you’re interested. Pork’s out, as is shellfish and bat and bear and owl. The main point of these laws isn’t so much “health benefits” or anything like that, but rather, like many other purity laws in the OT, to be a constant reminder that Israel was a nation set apart. They were part of the external boundary between “God’s people” and “not God’s people.” Even eating with people who were eating the wrong foods was bad; hence the indignation of the Jewish Christians when they heard that Peter was eating with Gentiles.
So this was a big deal for Peter. It wasn’t just some unfair prejudice that he needed to get past. It was a command in his Scriptures, a huge aspect of how he understood his faith and his behavior in the world. But now God was doing something new, and some of the old rules were coming to an end. God tells Peter: “what God has cleansed, no longer call unclean.” Forgiveness of sins is now marked, not by “those who have adhered to the sacrificial system and the ritual purity rules” but rather, “those who have repented and believed on Jesus and received the Holy Spirit.” (see Acts 10:43) When Peter sees Cornelius and his family praising God through the Spirit, as the Jewish believers had done at the day of Pentecost, he says “who am I to stand against what God is doing?” The believers who had initially resisted Gentile inclusion admit that God can grant repentance and salvation to anyone (v. 18).
We live far beyond this epochal moment. We are Gentiles who have been blessed with the invitation to come to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Few of us are in danger of returning to the Kosher laws. But we erect our own boundary walls. We hold back from certain people and look at them as unclean, even though they have come to Christ. (LIST OF EXAMPLES. “Become a Christian, PLUS ________”). God’s plan will bring you to eat with, and live with, and talk to, all kinds of unexpected people so that he can reach them with the same grace that reached you.
The Lord’s Supper we take today, is a wonderful demonstration of God’s boundary-busting grace. We all take it as equals. No one works to receive it; no person earns it more than another; in fact, no one earns it at all. (Or as Peter says in acts 15:11, “Through the grace of Jesus Christ we are both saved, both us and them”). At the Lord’s Supper, everyone who believes receives the life of Christ given for us. We do NOT get to pick the guest list for this party. You, and that person you can barely believe is a Christian, both need grace to be reconciled to God and to live the life God wants for you. The Supper is practice for that, and food to nourish this strange new family as it learns how to live together.