I love this bulletin cover that Tiffany Miller designed this week. Aside from being very hip and giving off these vibes that make us all feel a little more cool just for having the bulletin in our hands, I like the way that it presents these words from Jesus to his companions in John 13. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” A new commandment = love. It’s a surprising statement coming from Jesus, because the last time I checked love was actually a very old commandment, woven into the very fabric of the Torah, the Bible of Jesus, our Old Testament. In the other gospels when Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, he sites the ancient scrolls of Moses: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. From Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. These are old commandments.
But we get this reference to love as a new commandment.
My thoughts in studying the Acts passage were somewhat similar. Cornelius the Gentile and Peter the Jew each have visions that bring them together and lead Peter to declare that God has revealed to him that he should now make no distinction between them and us, Gentile and Jew. As we read this now, it sounds like an old, established commandment. Something that we’ve accepted as the truth for so long that there’s not a whole lot more meaning to be mined from this vision. We Gentiles, non-Jews, are a part of the people of God not because we follow or don’t follow certain dietary laws, but because of faith. Nothing too earth shattering there. A big shift back in the day, no doubt, but not a vision that has a whole lot of new implications for how we experience God and spirituality.
But it also feels like there’s something more going on here.
So I want to focus in on this Acts 11 passage and see if it can serve as an example of the new commandment of love.
The more I study this trance of Peter’s the more I feel something like being in the room at the beginning of The Matrix, with Morpheus offering Neo either the blue pill or the red pill. For those not familiar with the movie, the basic gist of this scene is that the main character Neo is faced with the choice of either returning to the world that he is familiar with, taking the blue pill, or choosing the red pill and diving into something he knows next to nothing about, the Matrix, which Morpheus tells him is the real world behind the world that Neo thought he knew. The disclaimer for the red pill is that once he takes it, there’s no going back. Once you encounter the Matrix, it changes everything. So, of course, Neo takes the red pill, otherwise the movie would be about 15 minutes long.
Rather than choosing one or the other, what I’d like to do is look at what it might be like if we take the blue pill, and what it might be like if we take the red pill. What it would be like to take this passage in more of a common reading, something that brings us to a place that we’re familiar with, comfortable, even though it wasn’t all that comfortable for Peter and Cornelius. There is also a way of reading this passage that takes us into much more uncertain territory, where the way that we have become accustomed to viewing the world gets fundamentally challenged, and we find this trance of Peter’s taking us to a similar place that it took him, where all of our precious sacred boundaries start to dissolve. More about that in a bit.
Part of this gets at the question of how it is we interpret our scripture, so these are two examples of interpretation.
First, the blue pill.
No matter which way we look at it, this is a pivotal event in the life of the church. As we have it in Acts 11, it’s presented as a flashback. Something controversial has happened. Peter has entered the home of a Gentile, a centurion for the occupying Roman army nonetheless. Peter has witnessed these Gentiles being filled with the Holy Spirit, and baptizes them. The Jewish believers back in Jerusalem catch wind of this and Peter heads down to speak with them, to defend his actions, and to give testimony to his experience of something God had done among the Gentiles. So Acts 11 is that exchange between Peter and the circumcised believers.
The question is posed to Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” So Peter replies by telling them about this trance that he had while he was in the town of Joppa, when something like a large sheet was lowered in front of him, coming down from heaven, containing all these animals with many of them being unclean, unfit for consumption according to the Mosaic law. Peter is commanded to get up and kill and eat, which, to a good Jew, would have sounded more like the voice of the devil than the voice of God. A call to break the law code. Peter is probably viscerally repulsed at the thought. Deuteronomy 14 says in plain language: “You shall not eat any abhorrent thing…Any animal that has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, the rock badger. You may eat any clean birds. But these are the ones that you shall not eat; the eagle, the vulture, the osprey.” It goes on. No pigs. Nothing that swims that doesn’t have scales on it, like shrimp. It’s very specific. And its scripture, the holy communication of God. But the voice comes at him again, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times, which I think is a sign of God’s sense of humor. Peter denies Jesus three times, three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him in John 21, and now three times Peter receives this invitation to eat. Lovely reminder. Still trying to undo those denials and learn what it means to follow Jesus.
Peter then continues his story by recalling that he meets up with some people who take him to see the righteous man Cornelius, who had his own vision saying Peter would visit him. Cornelius is stationed in Caesarea, up the coast north of Joppa, a military man working for Rome, a Gentile. Sounds like a shady guy. But Peter goes. While Peter is in Cornelius’ home with these other Gentiles, talking about these visions that they’ve just had, trying to figure out what they mean, the Spirit fell upon all who were in the house, like a Gentile Pentecost. People praising God in different languages and generally being ecstatic with joy.
That’s the closing scene that Peter relays back to these circumcised believers. Peter has witnessed, with his own eyes, the Holy Spirit being given to these unclean Gentiles just the same way that he and the others had received the Spirit. And he says, “The Spirit told me…not to make any distinction between them and us.” The vision was about people.
Being here this morning is a direct result of the early believers eventually accepting this major shift in how one went about being considered eligible for the people of God. We are represented in the person of Cornelius. We are the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and this becomes good news for us because there is an opening up taking place where God’s covenant with the Jews is being made available even to those who don’t convert to Judaism. Don’t take on physical requirements of the law like circumcising all males, eating kosher food, observing the specifics of Sabbath commands. We are saved, loved, embraced, welcomed, as Gentiles. And there’s nothing wrong or unholy or unclean about being a Gentile. What makes us clean is that we receive the Spirit and walk in the way of forgiveness, and humility, Jesus’ new commandment of love, the law of the Spirit, as Paul would come to call it. Paul goes on to really become the champion of this, going to the Gentiles all over the Roman Empire and preaching this message.
Unlike The Matrix, we really have to take the blue pill first to get a sense of what is going on, even if it just confirms what we already know. We have to hear this shift for what it meant. Those who had been touched by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus came to believe in a universal message that transcended the particular cultural expressions of Judaism. Instead of being physical ancestors of Abraham, we are spiritual ancestors, through faith. This we can accept.
OK. Well, what about the red pill? What about the portal into the other world?! Not to be overly dramatic here, but this vision is rich with possibility for our own conversion. A place where rather than looking back on the experience of Peter and Cornelius, we actually find ourselves right in the middle of the experience, undergoing the same dissolving of sacred boundaries that we tend to allow to order our world.
If the blue pill puts us in the place of Cornelius, the Gentile, the red pill asks us to experience this in the position of Peter – the religious person, that’s us, who had certain ideas and convictions about what was involved in what it means to be holy, about who was in and who was out, where the Spirit has its life.
We already know that the trance with the sheet and the animals is more than just an Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s about food, but it’s about more than food. Our religious tendency, as human beings, is to construct a sacred universe that divides the world into clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous. The lines aren’t always that obvious and we don’t always do it consciously, but we do it. It’s almost impossible not to do it, the tendency is so deeply ingrained in us. So Peter looked out on the world with his particular Jewish eyes and sense of clean and unclean and we look out on the world with our particular Christian eyes and sense of clean and unclean, the holy and the unholy. These days, conservatives would have their own list of things deemed unclean and liberals would have their own list. Probably at the top of the unclean list for the conservatives would be liberals, and at the top of the list for liberals would be conservatives, right above…not recycling and… eating McDonald’s hamburgers? But, in this trance, we are asked to reexamine all of our notions that we thought held the universe together and focus in on that core reality that is the real source of life and vitality and goodness – to notice where the Spirit is showing up. What if we notice the Spirit outside of the sacred boundaries of our own truth?
One example: Ramon Panikkar is a Catholic theologian who has dedicated his life to the movement of interfaith dialogue, listening to the religions of the world. In an essay, he uses this vision of Peter’s as an example of how the Christian tradition contains at its inception this boundary breaking kind of openness to the Spirit. He says that the lesson from Peter’s vision is that we have no control over God and that God can show up in any household of any particular human group. And so we are constantly in the process of being awed and surprised at where we detect the lively Spirit of God at work.
We could ask ourselves, in our relationships, friendships with people of other faiths, how we have detected in them the Spirit that we would call Christ. And just as the Gentiles were affirmed as Gentiles, without having to take on the particularities of Jewish religion, we can wonder if there are ways that our Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish friends can be affirmed in their identities without taking on our particular expressions of faith. Because God is in the process of making all of us holy and clean.
I find it a little odd that some Christians have trouble knowing what to do with Gandhi. The guy was a Hindu who took on the life of Christ in a way that few Christians have ever attempted, definitely more than the Christian British who were occupying his country. So what do you do with a Hindu who looks more like Jesus than the Christians do? I guess we bear witness and give testimony, like Peter, that we have seen wonderful things and that the Spirit is so much wider than we first thought.
Maybe this is challenging for you or maybe this is a place where you’ve been for a while now. If we are, ourselves, to enter into this trance of Peter’s then I think we will also have our way of ordering the world, our sacred universe we have made for ourselves, challenged and upset. I think accepting the red pill version of how we interpret this text puts us in a place where we are continually being surprised and in awe of the boundless Spirit of God. We discover that there is a universality to God, to Holy Spirit, to Christ, that we have such little control over, such little awareness of, that we are always in the process of being brought into these little Pentecost moments where the Spirit shows up, speaks in languages and words we can’t even understand, and leaves us with a sense of having to again re-evaluate just how big of a Love this is we’re dealing with.
That was the new commandment. Love. Love in the way that Jesus loved. Love that makes no distinction between “them and us.”