Leviticus 11:1-8. 13-18, 45-47
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: 2Speak to the people of Israel, saying: From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. 3Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat.
4But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 5The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 6The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 7The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you… 13These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 14the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 15every raven of any kind; 16the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the water hen, the desert owl, the carrion vulture, 19the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat…
45For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46This is the law pertaining to land animal and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms upon the earth, 47to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.
Jesus set the agenda for the disciples at the beginning of Acts: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The story of Acts is a story of ever expanding circles. First the gospel spread to Jews in Jerusalem. Then, under persecution that scattered the church, the message spread throughout Judea. Before long, Philip and others started preaching to Samaritans and Jewish foreigners like the Ethiopian eunuch.
In today’s passage the gospel takes another step and crosses the biggest barrier yet. We have a hard time getting how big a divide there was between Jews and gentiles in the first century. That’s because we are Christians living in a Christian culture. For Jews in the first century it was a totally different story.
Beginning in 63 BC the land of Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, which stretched from Spain to Jordan to Egypt. Within that empire, people had a fair amount of independence, but they were all required to bow to the Emperor. Subjects of the Roman Empire not only had to obey the Emperor, they also had to worship him along with their other gods.
Jews had a special and challenging standing in the Roman Empire. Because they were only allowed to worship God, Jews did not have to worship the emperor. Instead, they were required to pray to God for the emperor. That’s a pretty reasonable compromise, but it came with a cost, as faithfulness always does. Most of the social and economic life of the Empire took place around pagan temples, so it was off limits to Jews. They didn’t worship or socialize in the same ways their neighbors did so they did not fit in.
They kept themselves apart to protect their faithfulness to God. God called the Jewish people as God’s special people; that meant being different from their neighbors. With pagan neighbors in control of so many parts of life there were many temptations to blend in. But Jews knew that their faith called them to stand apart. Basically one’s entire life would have been defined by their Jewish identity. Everything, from food to friendships was seen through the lens of clean and unclean, as our passage from Leviticus points to.
Jesus was Jewish. All the apostles were Jewish; so were the first several thousand Christians and all the leaders of the church. Until our story today, Christianity was an entirely Jewish movement. Given that, our story today represents a shocking change in direction.
Acts 10:1-20, 24-29a, 44-48
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”
24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection…
44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
I’m interested in people who get out of their normal setting. People grow up in a place and culture. Culture is the air we breathe, the lens we see the world through. We believe things we don’t even know we believe because they are part of our culture. It takes active effort to go against the grain of the culture we grew up with.
Cornelius’s culture believed that Roman civilization was superior. Through its military strength and cultural refinement it had blessed most of the known world with peace, stability and learning beyond what they could have imagined otherwise. Pagan religion was important in that it provided celebrations and basic moral guidelines for society, but it generally wasn’t the most important part of people’s lives.
Peter’s culture believed Jews were superior to pagans, and assumed that one of the most important parts of staying faithful to God was keeping away from pagans. Even Jesus used gentiles as examples of what was wrong with the world. Peter and Cornelius both had culture pushing them away from each other. But God was clearly leading them together and leading both of them to step outside the boundaries of their cultures.
In our own world Christianity is like pagan religion was in Cornelius’s world. It is an important part of the culture we grew up with. Most people accept and identify with Christianity, but it is more a set of assumptions about the world than the ultimate commitment to Jesus that true faith is. Christianity shapes our view of the world like our nationality or political outlook or economic status.
Because we grew up in late twentieth century US Christianity we think it’s normal to vote in elections and think it’s normal that many people don’t vote. We think it’s normal to be able to express ourselves freely. We think it’s normal to believe in God and celebrate Christmas and be nice to other people. We think it’s normal to buy things and raise families and go to work.
Cornelius started to wonder about things; he found truth that echoed in his soul through teachings about the God of Israel. Maybe the truth he found there answered questions his pagan religion never had. Spending time in the synagogue, in a faith community his culture looked down on already started prying him loose from his culture. He let the truth of God shape his life and kept reaching out to God. Then God invited him to go deeper, to send for Peter so he could hear a word of salvation, a word that would change his life.
We don’t know anything else about how Cornelius and his friends and family responded to the message. We don’t know how their lives changed because of faith in Christ. But we do know that God doesn’t force faith on anyone, so the fact that the Holy Spirit fell on them must mean that they put their trust in Christ.
I’m inviting you to make the same choice today. Christ calls us to a faith that changes our lives. Going to church, even making church a high priority in our lives is not enough. Believing in Jesus means allowing him to set the course for our lives. It means making him the center of everything we do.
Conversion in our culture is a little different, both easier and harder, than it was in Cornelius’s time. He was converting from pagan religion and culture and I am inviting you to convert from a culture that says it is Christian to a true devotion to Jesus that will change your life. It’s easier because Jesus is already part of our landscape, because we already have a faith community. It’s harder because the lines are blurry so it’s easy to fall back to cultural Christianity that is nothing but a label.
I struggle with that everyday. Every part of faith is constantly in motion in my life. There are moments of faith and moments of doubt. There are times when I feel sure that greater openness is what the church needs and other times that I am sure we need more commitment (really, we need both). There are times I worry that I will be judged and come up short and other times I’m sure that God’s love will prevail in everyone’s life when the judgment comes. I am uncertain about many things in faith, but I am certain of one thing. I am certain of Jesus Christ. I’m certain that Jesus loves us and offers us salvation from fear and selfishness.
The more I think about what it means to be a minister of the gospel in this time and place, the more convinced I am of a few things. Only God gives faith, and it is no one’s job to judge faith but God’s. My job is to remind you that God loves you absolutely and that Christ died for you. My job is to invite you, to invite everyone, actually, but especially you, to repent, to turn to God and to put your trust in Jesus Christ.
I’m not going to put a limit on God’s salvation. I can’t tell you who is saved or not saved. I’m not going to tell you you have to believe x, y or z. But I am going to invite you to put your trust in God and to decide to make Jesus the Lord of your life. Making that decision is not a one time thing; it’s a decision we reaffirm with all our other decisions. It’s a commitment we will do better at some days than others. Christ calls us to more than the cultural Christianity we grew up with. Christ calls us to trust, to let go of our fear and to follow.
We all decide and trust in different ways. If physical action helps you own a commitment, I invite you right now, while I am still speaking, to come up to the front as a sign of your commitment. If you want to make that commitment silently in your heart, that’s fine. And if you don’t know where God is leading you, if you’re not sure you can commit to trusting in Jesus all the way, that’s fine too. However you feel led to respond to Christ’s calling in this moment is OK.
What I will say, not to pressure but to invite, is that religion is not entertainment. It’s not something we do to fit in or because we always have. Christianity means following Jesus in our lives. We are not talking about light things; we’re not talking about an interesting teaching to learn more about; we’re talking about the very shape of our lives. Jesus didn’t die to give us something to do on Sunday morning; he died to free us from sin and death. And he calls us to a life shaped in every way by love and grace.
Thanks be to God. Let us pray.