The Conversion of Peter
This vision that Peter has – Peter, not Paul – is one of the most important passages in the New Testament. Why do I say that? Because it opens the door to the outside world. It is a very long story, starting before what we read today, and it goes into great detail. The detail lets us know that this is very important. The entire story has to be told in great detail to answer the question: How can this be? Invite outsiders in? How can this be? We have existed for hundreds of years in hostile environments because we have kept ourselves separate, and because of one vision, you want us to change that?
And that was true. The Jews had managed to keep themselves as “a people” in a situation where their land had been occupied over and over by their neighbors for hundreds of years, by maintaining “separateness” as part of their religion. They were different. They dressed differently, but everyone did that. You could tell which village someone was from, and certainly which nationality, simply by looking at someone’s clothing. When I was in Guatemala, up until very recently, people could tell which village a person was from just around one lake, simply by looking at their clothing. But the Jews took it further, and it was tied into their religious practice. They ate differently. The food they ate, and didn’t eat, was different. The way they fixed it was different. Not just the spicing, which one would expect, but the entire arena of food was dictated in Leviticus, starting with washing hands before eating – a novelty back then. A Jewish kitchen, unless it is vegetarian, has a minimum of two sets of dishes, and cookware, so that meat and milk are not mixed.
When we were in Israel, the meat section was on one side of the restaurant and the milk section was on the other. The people in our party who had chosen to eat pasta with cheese got their food, and then tried to come join the folks on the other side of the restaurant. They were firmly told no. There was to be no mixing. Period. It is different. And, if you are an orthodox Jew, like everyone was in Jesus’ time, you do not eat at non-Jewish houses, because they do not “keep kosher.” What that means is that you might eat something that was impure, according to the law. It is safer to just not eat together. Back then, one simply didn’t even think about eating with non-Jews. It was a horrible thing to do.
A comparison for us might be the eating of insects. What is your reaction when someone says that we will be having insects for dinner! In some parts of the world, they are eaten as a delicacy, french fried, I believe, and who knows what else! What I want you to think about is your reaction. Most people here shudder at the idea, and yet, if we can look at the concept objectively, they are a good source of protein that reproduces quickly, are very low on the food chain, and so it is much more ecological to eat them for a non-plant protein source. But we are not objective about this at all, are we? We shudder, and then we look for some sort of authority to explain why we should not do this terrible new thing that has been suggested. If our food “rules” came from the Bible in the first place, we would, of course, go there first for our justification – which is exactly what the people around Peter did.
People do not open themselves up to change easily. It takes some serious persuasion. Commodore Perry sailed into Edo (Tokyo) Bay with a lot of firepower. It’s amazing how people suddenly decide they will talk to you when you have cannons pointed at them. He only had a few with him the first time, and then a year later when he came back to get the answer about whether Japan would open up two ports, he had a lot more cannons on board. A treaty was signed, and America gained a foothold in a land that had kept itself separate for a long time. There were other Westerners who had special charters to trade with Japan before that, but it was highly regulated. This was not. The door was cracked open, and both parties were changed. This is also important to notice. America, in its usual imperial fashion, had the idea that it had lots to offer Japan, and that Japan needed to make some improvements. It did not consider the concept that Japan would have anything to offer American, or that America could use some improvements, or that America would also change by having this open door with Japan. Looking back, of course, that seems laughable, but it was not considered at the time.
So back to Peter and his critics. Peter has violated the religious laws on eating. Not only does he not apologize for doing the wrong thing, he declares it to be the new right thing. He might as well have put down a plate of insects for dinner and said “this is our new steak.” They were appalled, and they told him so. What we read this morning was his response, and it was so compelling to them that they changed. It was a major turning point for the Jewish followers of the Way, and it had been a major sticking point between Peter and Paul.
So let’s back up a bit here, and look at what has happened. During this time between Easter and Pentecost, we have a lot of important issues lifted up for us to consider. We start, obviously, with Jesus being seen after the crucifixion. Not everyone saw him, but enough people did, and the ones who did were electrified. Then we have Paul, ultra-Jew, being converted by the spirit of Jesus directly, and his response was to not only try to convert Jews to the Way of Jesus, but also non-Jews, called Gentiles. Two camps formed, the ones who said that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to follow the Way of Jesus, and the ones who said they did not. When Paul started out, he went to the synagogues – to his own people. When they threw him out, he went to the streets. Paul was not working in Israel, he went on a huge trek around the Mediterranean. But word got back to Jerusalem, where James and Peter were. James was the brother of Jesus, and he and Peter were at the head of the Jerusalem church. Then Peter had his vision. Slowly but surely, the followers of the Way pulled away from being part of Judaism and became their own entity.
They were also being pushed out. After the Romans decided enough was enough and destroyed the Temple, less than 40 years after Jesus was killed – this would have been during the time when the followers of the Way were first really getting started, and close to the time that Paul was writing his letters, the Jewish religious authorities were also in the process of figuring out what to do with their religion. That is, they had been focused on the Temple in Jerusalem as the center of their religion. Now it was destroyed. There was a very basic question to be answered: Did they still have a religion? They had dealt with this question once before, when they were taken away into exile in Babylon. At that point, it was not about the Temple, it was about the land, and the tie between a god and a land. The decision was that God was indeed God of all the earth, which includes Gentiles – so this theme is already present in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere. Now they had to decide again how to have a religion without a Temple at the center, and the result is the Judaism we have today, focused on the home and the synagogue.
At the same time, there was a huge fight between the traditionalist Jews and the followers of the Way, within Judaism, and it came down to whether to open to outsiders or not. The final decision there was that they would open, and there was a decisive split with considerable antagonism on both sides. The reason I bring this up is that within the Gospel of John particularly, there is a lot of anti-Jewish rhetoric. It has been used by anti-Semitic groups since the fall of the Roman Empire. If you know about the fight that was going on between the traditionalist Jews and the early Christian Jews, and about their penchant for hyperbole, then you understand that it comes from what we would call “yellow” press, that is, sensationalist emotionally charged attempts to persuade people. The opposite side was always totally awful with no socially redeeming value. Unfortunately, some of that is still present in the Gospel of John. If you know about that fight, then you understand that it is appropriate to change some of the language. You also understand why people can think that the New Testament condemns Jews. It’s there, but if you don’t know the context, you really don’t know what you’re talking about.
OK, but so what? What is important to me in figuring this out is getting clear that “the Jews” were not the bad guys. The Pharisees that we have been trained to sneer at were the ones who were trying really hard to do it right, trying really hard to make God happy by following the rules. We need to look at this more closely. They may – may – have gotten it wrong, but that does not make them bad. They are often our models. I think about some of the new churches where people are doing things differently, and have heard people sniff, asking if is a “valid” Eucharist if the celebrant has not been ordained according to our rules. Well, that answers it right there, doesn’t it? Our rules?
When we look at this story yet again, we see that this is the Pentecost story, part 2. Part 1 happens with the disciples and the Jews around them. Part 2 brings in the rest of the world. The Holy Spirit simply refuses to be contained within human boundaries. Peter starts preaching – he doesn’t even get to finish, and the Spirit falls on those Gentiles. It clearly is nothing that Peter has done, other than being present, which was huge. He cannot deny the action of the Spirit, but in fact, his conversion has come with the vision, and he is now following the guidance of the Spirit, and does not stop at the gateway of the Gentile house as he should as a good Jew. He accepts their hospitality.
What does this story have to tell us today? How does it challenge us now? Who are the outsiders in our lives? Are we willing to invite them in? Are we willing to go to them? How different can people be before we decide they are “not our type?” And finally, how do we maintain our identity if we throw the doors open and let anyone in? Will we change so much that we are not recognizable for who we are? These questions are still totally relevant, don’t you think? This story about Peter calls us to look at our assumptions about what is necessary, and what is normal, and what we think God wants from us. I think, if we look carefully at the Gospel of John, we will find that what God really wants is for us to love each other, without worrying so much about what is “right.” When we do that, we too will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and able to help those around us in our hurting world.