Can anything make us unclean? I once had a discussion with a woman who happened to be a Jehovahs Witness. She said to me that the Bible stated that "Cleanliness was next to Godliness." It certainly sounds like something you would find in the Book of Proverbs. However, it was John Wesley (who perhaps was quoting Francis Bacon) who brought the saying into modern usage. He said, "Slovenliness is no part of religion. Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness." And as much as I respect John Wesley, I think there are other things next to Godliness before cleanliness. Although sitting on train next to an unwashed person may change my mind!
The passage read a little earlier in the service is not so concerned with bodily cleanliness, it is of course about following the religious purity code which claimed that what one ate determined whether you were in or out; whether you belonged or were an outsider. This passage signifies that there was a move within the emerging community of Jesus followers, from being a Jewish sect to forming, dare I say, a new "religion?" Perhaps that wasnt the intention of this early movement, but it was the consequence. It was a seismic shift in the identity of this community.
The abolition of circumcision as a mark of Jewish identity would put them outside of the faith that had given them birth and had nurtured them. Jesus had lived and died as a circumcised Jew, now his followers were taking the movement into new and unexplored territory. While Jesus was known as a "law breaker", that is, for example, he did not follow strict Sabbath laws, Peters proposal that anything goes when it comes to food was beyond even what Jesus taught. And there is a very good explanation for that (and it is something that we must learn for the church to be alive in society today) and that is, the earlier followers of Jesus truly believed and acted as if Jesus was alive and that his Spirit would guide. They were guided by the tradition found in the Hebrew Scriptures; they were guided by the oral tradition circulated in stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus. But there was this other dimension, possibly even more powerful than the other two. They were a people of the Spirit. They had confidence that they could be as a community, guided into new places by the Spirit of Jesus present among them. Thats what resurrection is all about. Not that Jesus came back to life, but that the Spirit of everything Jesus was on about was "let loose in the world" and those followers who had never met Jesus could still be influenced and transformed by his spirit.
Harvey Cox in his book the Future of Faith speaks to the modern world about the need for us - the church - to be a people of the Spirit like those early Christians. He says:
What I see is that people frequently want to refer to themselves now as not really "religious," but "spiritual." I used to be very suspicious of that. But I began asking questions and finding out what the dimensions of that term are. I looked into its history. In Christianity it goes back, of course, to the life of the Spirit and the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament. The term...refers to the personal or subjective side of the religious life, as opposed to the doctrinal side. Today, it seems suspect to a lot of clerical or institutionally-oriented people because they see it as a slippery, even a vacuous term... But what I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding. They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit. And I dont think its really going to go away. This is an increasing tendency across the board.
Can we today say something is unclean?
Sadly much of the history of the Christian Church for the last eighteen hundred years has been about excluding those deemed to be unclean. That is to say not pure or not like me! That may seem a harsh judgement, but whether it has been slaves, women and now, in the present age, people who are gay, there has been an unwillingness to follow the Spirit into uncharted waters. Listen to the tone of the passage read earlier:
"Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" asked the community of believers. 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.
What God has made clean, you must not call profane. The Christian church was on the move and at its centre at its very heart it was not energized and motivated only by tradition or only by the stories of Jesus; while these certainly had enormous influence, the early Christians were motivated by something far more intangible and you could say more dangerous: they were motivated by the Spirit of Jesus. Later in the story Peter says:
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: John immersed in water, but you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit. So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in Gods way?
In the passage I just read I deliberately changed the word "baptized" to immerse because the word baptism has become a religious word which has been captured and often reduced to a single act by the institutional church. But to be immersed in the spirit is to be alive and open to life in all its fullness. It is to be open to declaring that what or who God has called clean we are to welcome and embrace, even when it means doing what we have never done before.
The Persian poet Rumi has an aphorism that goes like this:
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about ideas;
language, even the phrase each other, doesn't make any sense.
It is obvious that there are those in the world who do cruel and hateful things. There are almost innumerable acts of violence that keep us apart from each other. Some acts are irrational and even perpetrated by the criminally insane. And there are many things that divide us and keep us separate. But as Bishop Desmond Tutu once said: "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." Well, if not your enemies, at least those with whom you disagree; those who hold different views; those you may see as unclean and not like you.
Perhaps there is no more important story in the New Testament than this one because it puts at the heart of the burgeoning faith a radical inclusivity; a theology of hospitality and welcome. But it also did something else perhaps even more important than offering the welcoming embrace. Peters story is clear that the community must be willing to change in order to accept those whom they once regarded as the outsider, the other.
I had the opportunity to teach a course on Christian Education at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee, some years ago. It was a great experience to spend time in the city that gave birth to the "The Blues." I heard BB King play in his own restaurant on Beale Street; visited Elvis Presleys Graceland and was immersed in southern culture. My friend with whom I was staying would say "Memphis is known for the Three Kings: BB King, the famous blues guitarist and singer; Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll; and Martin Luther King Jr." Why Martin Luther King? Because King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39.
On one Sunday morning we visited the largest Baptist Church in a Memphis suburb and sat in its 7000 seat auditorium. And then the following Sunday we visited New Life Baptist Church in its 2000 seat auditorium. Both were interesting and somewhat foreign experiences to me. But the point I want to make this morning is that while racial segregation is illegal in the USA, cultural segregation in the churches is alive and well. I gazed around a sea of white faces at the first Church and saw a dozen or so African Americans; I gazed around New Life Church and saw a handful of white faces. We were welcomed in both churches, in both communities, and yet there was something missing. I dont single out these two churches because they are the only churches in the world where race and culture divide us. It is more that we are still not able to embrace the Apostle Pauls most radical statement:
in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were immersed into Christ have wrapped Christ around you. Therefore there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
What God has declared to be clean and wholesome you are not to call unclean or unworthy.
On Sunday June 2, Bishop Gene Robinson will preach in this church. Bishop Robinson prayed the prayer at President Obamas inauguration. He is the first openly gay Bishop appointed in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the USA. He is an advocate for marriage equality for Gay and Lesbian people around the world. Some may find that challenging. But isnt it just another example of the inclusive Spirit of Jesus leading us forward both to welcome those whom God has welcomed and to change our minds, our attitudes and our actions toward those who have been for so long excluded from our communities.
What God has called clean we must not call profane.