Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Peter and Inclusion: 1st Century Debate with 21st Century Implications

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Following up on our conversation on Peter, I was reading the story in Act 10 where Peter sees the vision of the blanket descending out of heaven, filled with animals that were unclean and offensive to him. We hear the voice of God telling Peter to rise, kill, and eat! This happens three times and each time, Peter vehemently declines, stating that no unclean food has ever touched his lips. One might applaud Peter's conviction, or draw a direct parallel to what we talked about yesterday: Peter's three time denial of Christ.

As a Western reader, I think it's extremely difficult for us to relate to this passage and understand just how offensive this directive really was to Peter. A casual Jew, not even an especially devout one, would have found this vision to be problematic. For the Jews, their dietary restrictions were a fundamental part of their national and religious identity. It helped to define who they were as a people. Simply put, they were different, special, right down to the type of food they put into their mouths! God was so involved with who they were as a nation that he was interested in everything about them, even about what they chose to eat. And, this was very important to them, to say the least.

So, you can imagine the internal struggle that must have been going on inside of Peter when all of a sudden, God changes his mind about something that was settled a long time ago. Remember, many of these dietary injunctions were given to them by God himself (via Moses), and were a part of their oral and writen tradition. These laws were written down for all Jews to read and observe. Obviously, and as Peter would soon find out, there was allot more at stake here than just food or dietary restrictions. God was about to embrace the other: an entire segment of the world's population who had hitherto been rejected, were now being chosen and declared acceptable by God. And, he was going to do it without their consent or opinion!

One of the things that strikes me the most about this story is that God changes his mind. While this not a new concept by any means (there are numerous places in the biblical record where God repents or changes direction, etc), it is one that we often pass over quickly and fail to recognize. I mean, to be honest, I can't say that it's something that makes me feel very comfortable. It kind of rubs me wrong and offends my God sensibilities. Changing one's mind seems like such a human thing to do. Surely, God can see things from all angles and therefore, should make the right decision the first time around. Right? But, regardless of how we interpret it, God changing his mind is one of his sovereign prerogatives. This was a HUGE change in policy! And, for all us non-Jews reading this today, let's be thankful for it!

If you continue reading this into the 11th chapter, you'll find that Peter is confronted with his (supposed) violation of Kosher laws, visiting and fraternizing with Gentiles, even baptizing them into the faith. In his defense, Peter recounts the vision that he had to his fellow Jewish believers, recounting how these Gentiles had received the same Spirit as the Jewish believers had on the Day of Pentecost, and then makes the same observation that he made when commanding Cornelius and his entire household to be baptized. That is, if God has embraced these Gentiles, with their non-Jewish diets and the such like, then how can we deny them their rightful place alongside us in the faith?

The crux here is what God said to Peter in the vision: do not call profane what I've called (have made) clean (Acts 10:15). You don't have to understand, agree, or even like it, but you do have to acknowledge it. God has a right to do things that we don't like. He has a right to change his mind. And, this is something that I think is very important for us to understand.

I'm a part of an UCC congregation and the denomination's motto is one that I have always loved: “God is still Speaking.” Meaning, the final word hasn't been spoken. I know this will rub many of my fundamentalist friends the wrong way, and those with a very high view of scripture will vehemently object. But, I think that our story is still under construction. I think God still has something in store for us that will surprise us, no matter how biblically versed we are or think that we've got it all figured out.

On a practical side, this speaks definitively to the LGBT issues of our day. Peter was willing to go against millenniums of oral tradition, as well as an entire segment of written law, based entirely upon a vision and what he deemed to be acceptable fruit.1 He saw with his own eyes that God had accepted the Gentiles. His relationship with these people and his proximity to what God was doing in the present, convinced him that God had indeed changed the course of human history and had made these Gentiles fellow participants in the work and ministry of Christ. 

It is very easy to pontificate about a segment of people (abstractly) and deny them access to God and the church. It is another matter, indeed, to know them, build relationships with them, and then pronounce such upon them. It's different when it's your brother or father, than when it's some abstract “someone” out there who is different. But, I think that regardless of how we interpret scripture, we can use the same litmus test that Peter used.

LGBT persons have tremendous talents to offer the church. Many of them have received the same callings, gifts, and talents that their heterosexual counterparts have received. They recount the same conversion experiences, exhibit the same attributes, have a relationship with the same God. They're fighting and working in the same trenches for justice and peace. They are in love with the same Jesus. And quite frankly, who are we to continue to designate them as unclean when God has clearly embraced them and called them to be a part of the same body of Christ? 

1.When God Breaks the Rules
   A sermon on Acts 11: 1-18 & John 13:31-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 May 2004


Jessica M said...

A great post! Very thought provoking. I think it's still possible for God to speak in men's hearts fresh new messages relative to our experience of culture today.

I'd love your opinion on an article I recently wrote, just this week: http://ascendingthehills.blogspot.com/2011/08/if-your-child-were-gaydiscussion-of.html It relates to "the Church's" view on homosexuality.


C. M. Keel, Sr said...

Thank you Jessica, for reading. Also, thank you for the link. I will definitely read and comment on it.

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