The Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2013
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Preacher: Christopher Ashley, St. Michael’s Parishioner and PhD student at Union Theological Seminary.
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Acts 11:9b
On the morning of Pentecost, Peter had quoted the prophet Joel: “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men dream dreams.” He was a young man, probably, when he said that. A new world was opening before him—the strange new world of the Gospel, where any good thing was possible. He’d seen people freed from mental illness and debilitating pain, at a word from his rabbi. Under his own hands, the wholesome kosher food of one peasant child had fed many thousands who hungered for righteousness. He’d seen his rabbi’s shining face display the power and the glory and the good faith of God Almighty. He’d stared down the road to the death’s head hill—and he’d turned and run—and wept bitterly—and found, on the third day, that it was not death, but life that was pursuing him.
The freedom that had possessed Peter on Pentecost was profound. He had been given power, power to loose all people from their bonds of oppression. He had been given power to bind the Gospel truth on himself, as if his own belt, and power to go wherever the Spirit of God might take him.
Peter shared that power and freedom with John, his fellow apostle. Their destinies had come together on a lakeshore in Galilee, when Jesus called them; on a mountain in Judea, where they saw his glory; in the deed of love and freedom they had done together in the temple, when they gave a broken man his legs back; and, in this morning’s texts, they’re joined by their dual visions. Peter was a young man when he had his vision, a young man full of freedom. John was an old man, imprisoned and alone. But what both of them shared was the Gospel’s vision: the vision of a new world. In their visions, and in our dreams, that newness is always coming to be revealed.
Let’s go up on the rooftop, with Peter. It’s the sixth hour, twelve noon, on a rooftop in Jaffa. It can get cold in Israel, up in the mountains; but on the Mediterranean shore, in the middle of the day, it’s usually pretty hot. Luke doesn’t tell us the season, but if it was summer, it was probably scorching. This is siesta time, a smart time for tanners and old fishermen to hang their hammocks in the courtyard (if they’ve got one) and sleep. But Peter doesn’t sleep today. He doesn’t step over to the water to look for an ocean breeze and swap fish stories. No, he goes up on the roof, to pray.
Why might he do this? Some commenters think it was his custom, like the desert fathers, to fast and pray at noonday. I wonder whether he was thinking of the cross, of Jesus’ noonday suffering. Perhaps, at that hour, he was remembering his own story, his failure and cowardice—and how God had brought his noonday failure to a Sunday morning victory.
As he prays; as he pushes against his body’s natural limits; as he remembers all that Jesus did for him on earth; as he does all this, his vision changes. He sees a great sheet, like a bed sheet, coming down from heaven. As he tells the story later, he remembers the sheet had four corners, like the world. And on this sheet, as on the teeming face of the earth, is a little of everything—a banquet, actually, of all the world’s thinkable foods. A blogger I love, Fred Clark at Slacktivist, exegetes this as “a tablecloth covered with honey-baked hams, cheesesteaks, crab cakes, calamari, and lobster.”
A vision of a heavenly banquet, coming down to earth—this Peter can appreciate. It’s a standard Biblical image for God’s future for the world. But when the voice invites Peter to the banquet, he has to turn it down. Why? Why does a man who has staked his life on saying Yes to God say No this time?
What he says is that he’s never eaten anything unclean, that he’s always kept kosher. While this claim may be true, his life has actually been a bit more complicated than that. Peter is a very devout Jew, no question—after all, he’s the kind of guy who’ll spend his lunch break praying. But, like many working-class Palestinian Jews of his day, he had grown up taking a pragmatic approach to the Torah. Think of his host in Jaffa, Shimon the Tanner, a Jew with an unclean job. When Jesus broke bread with outcasts and sinners, and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, they were, among other things, affirming this form of ordinary Jewishness.
Why, then, Peter’s hesitation at the banquet? Perhaps, for Peter, his relationship with food was especially important to his Jewishness. It is possible that, in fact, he had never broken kashrut. The staple foods of an ordinary Galilean would be bread and fish, like fed the five thousand. And those are gold-star kosher, almost no matter what. That’s where we get bagels with Nova and cream cheese.
But remember: The voice from heaven speaks twice. The first time, God invites Peter to eat. The second time, God tells him: Do not call anything unclean that has been made clean. Do not call anything unclean that has been made clean. Anything. Or anyone, as Peter will later testify. This is bigger than food, and Peter knows it.
Working-class Palestinian pragmatism had its limits. Shimon the Tanner, even with his dirty job, was basically safe in the community: He could always close his shop for a week, take a bath, and be ready as any rabbi to join the throngs going up to Jerusalem for worship. But a soldier in the family, or a woman with an unpredictable period, might never be clean. And their uncontrollable impurity was a danger to everyone around them.
Let me step outside the first-century frame here for a moment, because purity talk may sound foreign to us. Manhattan Episcopalians don’t normally think of ourselves as an honor-shame culture, or as being fenced in by purity laws around food and sex and drinking and dancing. We leave that to our less enlightened relatives. But, in fact, I think, we have the same sorts of purity-and-danger calculations in our own lives. We call it real estate … and our children’s educations. We don’t have shotgun weddings and lemonade parties; we have co-op boards and school choice. Let me be really concrete: Studies have shown that White people begin to think we’re outnumbered unless there are twice as many of us as everyone else put together. I think this is why New York City is more segregated than Birmingham, and our public schools are so troubled. These are the results of a visceral, multi-generational purity logic, applied to race and class.
Three times God brings Peter to the banqueting table. Three times God announces God’s intention of love. And three times, in his vision, Peter says no. This is the night before the noonday. But this time, Peter doesn’t have to wait three days for new life to show up unexpected in his house. Cornelius’ people are already at the door. The larger world, the strange new world of the Gospel, has shown up for him, in person. And somewhere between the rooftop and the door, he’s found a way to say Yes. By the time he gets back to Jerusalem, where we heard him testify this morning, this vision has become the heart of Peter’s story, the foundation stone of his ministry in building up the church. When I hear his name, I think of the verse from the Psalm: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone: This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
We have known this marvelous welcome here at St Michael’s. This very passage from Acts, Peter’s vision, has been critical to Christian reflection on LGBT people: “God has said,” he testifies, “that I should not call anyone unclean.” For us, this is the abrogation of the curses in Leviticus. That matters to me, and it has mattered here. I wouldn’t preach on this text without remembering this critical witness to so many of our people.
And, I also think this is a vision bigger than the past we’re proud of. Peter’s vision is a young man’s, a table set before him, a great work to begin. But I want to conclude with John, with his old man’s dream, and his last of the gospels.
We hear so little of the Book of Revelation in our lectionary, and there are reasons for that. But indulge me, please, as I repeat the witness of this vision.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made beautiful as though for a wedding. And Jesus said: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will tabernacle with them, and they will all be God’s people. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because the first things have passed away, and I am making all things new.’
Like Peter, John the Revelator sees the new world, approaching the old, from heaven, the course of God’s forthcoming. It is a world where God is with everyone, and we are all with each other. This is the world God offers us at the table. So come to the table, be loved by Jesus; and as he has loved you, love one another.