The pivotal reading this week may be Peter’s justification of the inclusion of Gentiles before the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem – and of course it is pivotal to us Gentile Christians, as Peter recalls the “Gentile Pentecost” at the house of Cornelius.
Focusing on this reading provides for an all-age idea: Have a large sheet available, and a supply of stuffed toy animals to put in it. Have children choose animals to put in and talk about whether they would eat them or not. Explain that Jewish people weren’t supposed to eat some kinds of animal (see Leviticus 11), but now God is telling Peter something surprising and different.
Click on this picture for a larger version which you can print out:
In talking to adults, we can stress that the meaning of the vision is about breaking down the purity barrier and the fulfilment of the inclusion of gentiles in God’s purposes. (See preaching starters below).
In terms of preaching application, we all need to be challenged about whom we still regard as unclean. Adults could volunteer to stand in the sheet to represent such persons – or the preacher could stand in the sheet and suggest whom they might be.
The three readings also have some obvious links: The commandment of Jesus to “love one another” as a testimony to the world; praise offered up by all creation in Psalm 148; making all things new in Rev. 21
You could sing as a Gradual (or during Communion) the old Scripture in Song chorus “A new commandment” in this version:
It’s short enough to print in your bulletin! (There’s no copyright on this text.)
Here are some preaching starters:
Bill Loader: One way or other, both Paul and Luke reach the conclusion that no discrimination, no matter how biblically based, can stand in the way of God’s outreaching love. Of course, Jews and Christian Jews who remained strict adherents of biblical law also affirmed such love for all, seeing circumcision and other provisions as God’s gift of guidelines to sustain and protect the special relationship. Luke is close to them, needing divine interventions from heaven to contemplate change, but Paul goes all the way in arguing that one needs to recognise the unintended consequences of some biblical laws, which stand in tension with what should be seen as its heart and promise. Making love so central that it gives us freedom to set aside even biblical laws where new cultural contexts make them inappropriate was the insight which Paul brought. It is still at the heart of the much conflict about use of scripture today.
Walter Brueggemann: The trance reported by Peter places Peter (and his church) exactly “in between” (a) the old purity requirements and (b) God’s new verdict on what is “clean.” Were I preaching this text, I might read at some length the purity rules of Leviticus 11:2-28 and Deuteronomy 14:3-20 in order to get the trance in context. I would do so not to trivialize the notion of purity but to invite the congregation to consider quickly its own list of what or who is unclean and abhorrent. We might consider our contemporary “purity codes” that find “impure” all those unlike us. In dominant culture that could include Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, poor people, aging people—all those who do not meet our expectations of “productivity.” Peter lingers over the “codes,” but must hurry to catch up with a new verdict rendered in the trance.
Dan Clendenin: I’ve found it a humbling exercise to ask what categories of people I sanctimoniously spurn as impure, unclean, dirty, contaminated, and, in my mind, as far from God. If Peter had his Cornelius, what is my modern equivalent? Maybe Rudy Giuliani and his wife who between them have been married six times? Or greedy executives, lazy welfare recipients, Republicans who lied us into a catastrophic war… ? How have I distorted the self-sacrificing, egalitarian love of God into self-serving, exclusionary elitism? What boundaries do I wrongly build or might I bravely shatter? I pray to follow Peter’s obedience and experience what Borg calls a “community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion.”
For further reflection:
* Are there special categories of people you are tempted to exclude as “impure?” … (and there are some more useful questions here – Ed.)
Jon M. Walton: If Golgotha was the day of reckoning for our salvation, then the day that Peter dreamed of innumerable unclean creatures made clean in God’s estimation was the day salvation actually came to our house, to you and to me. Before that moment, Christianity was not available to those who were not born and ritually inducted into Judaism. But ever since the early church was opened to gentiles, Christians have struggled to be as open in other times and places, and as willing to embrace those we thought were unclean but whom God has declared clean.
with acknowledgement to http://www.textweek.com