July 8, 2019- Left Out? Or Invited In?Clean or Unclean? Acts 11:1-18, John 4:21-26, Matthew 27:51-54

clean and unclean

Clean and Unclean Foods in Mosaic Law: Leviticus 11

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11:1-18 (ESV)

It is human nature for people to congregate in communities that share similar ethnic heritage, language and customs. It is also human nature to go beyond appreciating one’s own heritage and culture and language to assume that people belonging to different ethnicities, who are of a different culture, and who speak a different language are somehow “less than” those of us who share the same common ground.
In the early church many of the first Christian believers were ethnic and religious Jews. They followed the purity and dietary laws outlined in the first five books of the Bible- including circumcision, observing certain days and festivals, and avoiding forbidden or “unclean” foods.  An observant Jew would have no dealings with Gentiles, or people outside of the faith.

The laws of Moses were given by God to set His people apart from the rest of the world around them.  The Law also shows God’s people that it is impossible to keep the Law, and that in the end every person is completely reliant upon God’s grace.

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” John 4:21-26 (ESV)

In Jesus’ day the Samaritans were considered to be “unclean” and faithful Jews had no discourse with them.  It was also not typical for Jewish men to speak with women, especially non-Jewish women.  But Jesus changes everything!

In Jesus we are given God’s grace.  When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn, giving access to the Holy of Holies to all people.

At that moment (when Jesus gave up His spirit) the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Matthew 27:51-54 (NIV)

Peter was having some struggle with the new reality that in Jesus it’s not about being an observant Jew (or anything else that we do) but about having faith in Jesus- in knowing that God comes to us and is with us.

God comes to humanity and redeems us.  Even people we might think to be “culturally inferior.”  Jesus’ love extends to even the “unlovable-”  the drug addicted, those who have committed crimes, those who society has written off.  Jesus came to the apostle Peter in this graphic vision to show him that no one is beyond the love of God.  The lesson is the same lesson God’s people need to hear today.  The person we might see as beyond help or a basket case is still a person that Jesus loved all the way to the cross.  May we extend His mercy and love to even the “unclean,” the “basket case,” and the “beyond hope,” for these are also people for whom Jesus died to save.  No one is beyond the love of God.

Regular Guys- Matthew 14:22-33

jesus-on-the-water

Immediately he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

stained glass saints.jpg

When we encounter familiar stories of Scripture- we tend to look at the disciples and other heroes of the Bible from the perspective of “These guys are on the stained glass windows, and they are portrayed in sacred art as pristine clean with pretty halos, and they are NOT us.” We refer to the venerable “saint so and so” but we forget they were saints and sinners at the same time just like us.  I hesitate to use the descriptive of “Saint so and so” when I speak of the disciples or other people portrayed in the Gospels, simply because all believers are saints. The disciples and the other saints of the Bible were guys (and girls) like us.  The disciples most likely were guys who smelled- and roughhoused, and drank, like guys.  We see the stained glass saints and think the disciples were old guys, all clean and neat and bearded and looking like my Dad if he were wearing a halo and a dress.  In reality they were young guys. The disciples were probably all in their early 20’s or maybe even younger when they walked with Jesus.  They were very young, rough and probably had coarse manners and language.

Jesus 1940s

How many times have we seen Jesus portrayed in sacred art as a clean cut, angelic, very Anglo looking man? This is a wonderful portrait that was my grandmother’s from the early 1940’s. I loved to look at that portrait as a child. Grandma had it hung on the wall in the spare bedroom.  It normally hangs there now, where my own granddaughter can see it when she stays with me.  It was a comforting image, and had someone asked me when I was five what Jesus looked like, that picture would have come to mind.

african jesus

I was a bit taken aback by a portrait of Jesus I saw when I was in college and was visiting a friend of mine who is Black. Jesus was Black- complete with an Afro- in her portrait of Him, which looked sort of strange to me until I realized that there is part of us that wants to believe Jesus looks like us, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should see Jesus in His humanity as well as his divinity.

But if Jesus had looked like either the Anglo man or the Black man for that matter, in real life, He really would have stood out in 1st century Palestine. Had He really been haloed, sparkling clean, fair skinned, blond haired and blue eyed, or if had he had African features, He would have really stood out.  It would have been, “Hey! Check out this dude!  He looks special!  He looks different.

holygrail-arthur-3knights

I am a huge fan of Monty Python. One of my favorite Monty Python movies is called “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which they parody the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  In one scene, King Arthur and the Knights pass by people as they are calling out, “Bring out your dead!,” and the people are picking up the bodies of plague victims and tossing them in wheelbarrows. Someone sees King Arthur, who is wearing his nice white tunic and silver and gold crown, and cries out, “He must be the king.” Another asks, “Why?,” to which the other replies, “He hasn’t got any s—t on him!”  The king was supposed to look different.  He was supposed to be above everyone else.  The king wasn’t supposed to get dirty. The implication is that the king was above all the dirtiness and nastiness of real life.

When Jesus walked the earth, He didn’t look anything like either my portrait, or my Black friend’s, or Monty Python’s King Arthur. He was a working class guy.  He was Jewish. He would have been olive-skinned, dark eyed, and dark haired like everyone else in 1st century Palestine. Nobody had running water and daily showers or Whirlpool washers- no sparkling white tunic for Jesus, or a gold and silver crown either.  He would be dusty and dirty from carpentry work and from walking around on dusty dirt roads.  His hands were calloused.  He wasn’t squeaky clean. The King probably did have doody on him, unlike King Arthur in the Monty Python movie.  First century Palestine was not known as a halcyon era of sparkling clean hygiene.  He probably “smelled like a man” and like farm animals too.  There was no such thing as Right Guard or Old Spice either.

But God has a history of picking “regular guys”- and often “rejects” at that- to do His work. God loves the misfits and the unlovely.  Jesus was described by the prophet Isaiah as the suffering servant, as “having no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.” Isaiah goes on to say further that He was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised and we esteemed Him not.” (Isaiah 53:1-5)  This kind of destroys our perception of Jesus looking like Robert Plant in a toga, no matter how pretty the painting is. But Jesus was one of us. He got dirty.  He looked like us.  He suffered like us.  He felt joy like us.  He loved like us.

Along the same line, in Psalm 118:22 it is said of Jesus: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” God has a great sense of humor. The guys Jesus picked to do His work were regular guys.  The disciples were regular guys who were coarse around the edges. Today they may have been truckers, or farmers, or automotive technicians. They were regular guys who blended right into a crowd- no halos, no stained glass, and no angelic looking faces.  They didn’t go to some high faluting seminary or theological school.  They simply walked with Jesus and learned as they lived with Him.    They were saints- but we forget sometimes that they, like us, were also sinners in desperate need of grace.

The disciples were delightfully human, just like we are. These guys were scared out of their pants when Jesus appeared to them when they were in the boat in the storm, just like we would be if we saw someone we knew just randomly walking across water.  That doesn’t happen.  They were afraid. We would be afraid too.

The phrase “do not be afraid” is found numerous times in Scripture, because we ARE afraid. The disciples were afraid that their boat was going to sink.  They were also afraid that Jesus- appearing to them in a supernatural way- was a ghost and not the same “regular guy” they were used to hanging out with.

Peter is the boldest disciple, and perhaps the best example of a very fallible human among the disciples. He reaches out to Jesus in faith, in a way knowing that he can trust Jesus for what he needs to walk on water, but in another way doubting his own ability to carry it out. What could be more human than that? We have to come to that realization like Peter did that we can only navigate life- let alone walk on water- if we cry out to Jesus, and surrender to Him. Sometimes we also have to realize that Jesus comes to us through other people, who He calls and sends to us to help us carry our burdens.

There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the way the disciples reacted to Jesus and how we react. How often do we say to ourselves, “Jesus is really the Son of God,” but then we doubt His ability to get us through the difficult times in life, or we think we can walk across the water all by ourselves- until we panic and sink.

It’s good for us to hear other people’s testimony. It’s good for us to see how God is working in other people’s lives and to share how He is working in our lives.

In the Lutheran tradition we aren’t always the greatest about sharing our testimonies, but it is a good practice, not only to remind us, that hey, Jesus really is the Son of God, and He really is working in our lives, but also to make that reality known to others. We are called to encourage others and help build their faith.

We also have to remember that we don’t have to look up at stained glass windows to see the saints, and that Jesus isn’t necessarily going to appear as a very white Anglo-Saxon or as an African man with an Afro in a pretty portrait. More likely than not, the saint who walks into your life and works miracles might be dirty and coarse around the edges. More likely than not, the saint who walks in to your life will be a fallible, human person with flaws and fears and doubts. He or she might have greasy hands and dirty clothes. He or she might be the exact opposite of who you were expecting to see.

Jesus might come to us as a needy child, or an elderly woman, or as a friend with the right words of comfort at the right time. We don’t have to wait on the supernatural to see God working all around us, but we need to have eyes to see those beautiful examples of God at work.  Like the apostle Thomas, in our human nature we really do want to see and touch His wounds to prove that yes, Jesus did rise from the dead.  The more we share our testimonies and listen to those of others, our faith is strengthened.  Our minds gather the evidence that eventually makes its way to our hearts as we share with other believers.

Do we have eyes to see Jesus and to experience the saints in the “regular” world? We don’t have to have a degree in divinity or a background in theology to be as Christ to one another.  One of the beautiful concepts in Lutheran (as well as most Protestant) theology is something called the priesthood of believers– meaning that all believers are fully qualified to participate in God’s kingdom regardless of what our vocations may be.

We are also qualified to serve God through our vocations, regardless if we dig ditches or do neurosurgery or ask people if they want fries with that. In Christ we have the same potential for God to work in and through us as anyone else. God made us for His purpose, and we can do anything He intends for us to do.

Do we have the courage to share what Jesus has done for us?  Do we have the courage to believe in ourselves the way that Jesus believes in us?  We really can walk on water on God’s command if we keep our eyes and minds and hearts on Jesus.

In His strength we can do impossible things, but we have to be willing to try. We have to be willing to see the sacred and experience the supernatural in the very ordinary and perhaps unlovely people we encounter every day.