Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
For almost twenty years, my wife and I gather with three other couples and their children for a New Year’s Eve party in Maine. At this party the adults gather in the kitchen and the kids take over the family room. The pot-luck menu has stayed the same over the years and it wouldn’t be New Year’s without sharing what has become a tradition for our families.
A lavish buffet of food is set on the breakfast bar for the adults and chips and other kid friendly snacks on the kitchen table. The adult’s buffet consist of shrimp cocktail, crab dip, scallops wrapped in bacon and an assortment of sushi. The kids also get ‘fancy’ hors d’oeuvres of hot pockets, mini egg rolls and pigs-in-a-blanket.
With all of the fancy food for the adults, it is fun to watch the pigs-in-a-blanket come out of the oven and subtly be eaten by the adults. Well as the kids have gotten older, they now make the pigs-in-a-blankets themselves and guard them so we don’t eat them all. I think if we were honest about it, even given all the extravagant options, the adults favorite food would be the pigs-in-a-blanket.
Pigs-in-a-blanket are a remarkable comfort food. In the U.S. the term refers to cocktail wieners, Vienna sausages, hot dogs or breakfast/link sausages wrapped in dough and baked. The dough is sometimes homemade, but canned dough is most common. They are served as a hors d’oeuvre, a children’s dish or as a breakfast entrée. Variations of the dish also exist outside informal U.S. cuisine and include Moshe Ba’Teiva (Moses in the ark), a children’s dish in Israel consisting of a kosher hot dog rolled in a ketchup-covered sheet of pastry.
So you may be wondering, hey preacher…what do pigs-in-a-blanket have to do with the Word of God today? Well Levitical law, specifically dietary restrictions are referenced in Acts this morning and the impact on Peter’s story is profound. Prolific author, preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor frames it this way:
I wish there were some way we could understand how important dietary law has been to the people of Israel. Most of us have eaten bacon all our lives, and we do not think twice about combining milk and meat, but if we were first century Jews, the very thought would make us break out in a cold sweat. It would be like coming to church one morning to find pork chops and whiskey on the altar instead of bread and wine
Peter knew that God told the Jewish people that… Animals with divided hoofs, cleft-footed and chewing their cud are okay to eat (so venison, lamb, goat and beef are kosher, but pigs and camels are not). Creatures of the sea or stream with fins or scales are okay to eat (so salmon and trout are kosher, but lobster and shrimp are not). Most winged creatures are okay to eat, as are insects that walk with joints above their heads (so turkey, chicken, crickets and grasshoppers are kosher, but vultures, buzzards, ostriches and cockroaches are not). But while he was in Joppa, Peter ate with Gentiles at their table, and while we don’t know exactly what he ate, we know it wasn’t kosher!
Well the news of this traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—that those Gentile non-Jewish outsiders were now in! So when Peter gets back to Jerusalem, some of his peers who wondered how he could associate with the un-clean, un-circumcised… called him on the carpet:
What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?
So Peter lays it all out for them step-by-step…
- How after getting orders from the top to visit a Roman army officer and bring him into the Jesus movement, he balked, but a God-dream opens his eyes.
- How the dream had a huge blanket, lowered by ropes from heaven that landed on the ground in front of him.
- How all kinds of creepy crawly things were hanging out in that blanket… from farm animals, to wild animals, reptiles, fish and birds.
- How a voice that told him to kill and eat… and how he swore he’d never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.
- How the voice told him that if God says it’s okay, it’s okay… and how it happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the heavens.
- How three men then showed up at the house where he was staying and that the Spirit told him to go with them, no questions asked.
- How he and six friends went with them to the man who had sent for him.
- How the man told Peter that he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor that told him to “Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.”
Peter puts aside his racism, begins to speak about the good news of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit fell upon ‘them’ just as it had upon the disciples at the beginning and you and I at our baptisms. Peter reasoned that if God gave ‘them’ the same gift as ‘us’ then what power did he have to stand in the way of God? Peter experienced the love of God breaking through, welcomed the non-Jews into the church and the Holy Spirit showed up “just in case.”
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God gave a new direction to Peter and the church that day and God continues to give new direction to you, me and all gathered as the body of Christ. The church is not about dietary laws, or rules, or traditions that focus us on us. Peter’s God-dream inspired action and openness was all about the force of God’s love. A love so powerful that it crashes against all established social protocols to make something new possible.
God reminds us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus about God’s love for all… ‘us’ and ‘them’. God reaches out to welcome in all who are, or have been excluded or regarded as second class by society and by organized religion. It took a God-dream and the Holy Spirit for Peter to know that he and all Jesus’ followers were now under a new commandment of love that flew in the face of social norms and religious tradition.
God wraps us all in a blanket of love, Jew and Gentile, citizens and aliens, insured and uninsured, employed and unemployed, believers and doubters… In verse 12 the Spirit tells Peter and you and me not to make a distinction between them and us. Regardless of how our society, or we ourselves describe or identify the ‘us’ in comparison with the ‘them’ it is God alone who gives faith without regard to our categorization, our racism, our classism, our political affiliation, our outward appearances, or our judgmental ways.
God gives ‘them’ the same gift that God gave ‘us.’ We who are baptized, we who believe, we who are sitting here as both saints and sinners this morning… who among us can limit, or hinder God? In the Greek, hinder means to restrain. To hold back like a levy restrains flood waters, like a boom is to restrain oil spills. Who are we as sinners to sit in judgment, to think or act like we have it all figured out, to exclude anyone from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the table of grace, the good news of God among us, Jesus the Christ?
Author and Pastor Rob Bell says that “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.” The church is really about ‘them’ and not about ‘us’. It is about being and living as the body of Christ, balm for the hurting, water for the thirsty, bread for the hungry. We say in the ELCA that it is about God’s work, our hands… but do we live that way between Sundays? Who are the broken outside these doors, the ‘them’ in your neighborhood, school or workplace?
I ask not as someone who can live this way on my own. We need each other the ‘us’s’ and the ‘them’s’… those Jesus ate with, and sought out. The folks that Peter gets scolded about when he was called to the home office in Jerusalem. Lutheran scholar Mark Allan Powell reminds us that “The Church would not need the power of the Holy Spirit if it were meant to be a community of the like-minded.” We are called to no longer see us and them, to be a community of faith, a table of hospitality open to all, especially for those not yet here.
Philosopher Albert Borgemann points out that our “culture of the table” has been pushed aside. We live in an age when gathering around a table to share a meal is rare. We eat on the run. We seek satisfaction in ready made, in take-out and in comfort food like pigs-in-a-blanket.
But in this and every age, we are called to turn toward God who is always doing something new. God gathers us all around this table, where we are welcomed in the blanket of love where Jesus is always the host. We taste and see. We eat and become the very bread of life. We are sent anew to be blankets of love for those who need comfort, and bread for all who hunger.