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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Tuesday, December 8, 2020  

Today’s Scripture Reading  |  Acts 11:1–18  

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)

The first time I heard this passage preached in my childhood, I thought God was making a decree against vegetarianism. I’m sure the pastor went on to explain the deeper meaning, but at the time it went over my head and all I heard was a command to eat animals. I found that quite entertaining and asked my parents for a cheeseburger.

Years later I can now recognize what’s really happening here and that modern readers should not read this culturally nuanced account as modern dietary guidelines. Peter being Jewish meant that he was forbidden from eating food outside of traditional guidelines, as well as from sharing a table with anyone eating rule-breaking cuisine. Peter knew Jewish laws well and was passionately observant of them. This is why it was so shocking to him when the Spirit informed him that those rules didn’t apply any more when potential fellowship with Gentiles (anyone who isn’t Jewish) was at stake.

Peter never stopped being Jewish after following Jesus, yet Jesus called him to understand his Jewish identity in a new way that was more inclusive than Peter ever thought was possible. Through Christ all people of all backgrounds are made “clean,” so preexisting social boundaries become irrelevant, even imperative to break. Peter could still observe Jewish dietary guidelines among other Jews, but if Gentiles were present, sharing the table was more important than following the rules. The Spirit guided Peter to see loving his neighbors as the highest form of piety, and we who follow Jesus are charged to do the same.

Welcoming God, thank you for making a seat for me at your table so I can make seats for others as well. Show me opportunities to have fellowship with my neighbors today, even in this most unconventional Advent season. Amen.

Written by Michael Mirza, Director of Worship

Reflection and prayer © Fourth Presbyterian Church

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