This week’s sermon is brought to us by our former seminarian Leif McLellan. We are grateful to him for bringing us the Word today.
So last fall, around Thanksgiving, I had to move out of my on-campus apartment at Drew because of a heating issue in the building. I chose to move into an on-campus townhouse where one of my friends was living. Now, this townhouse was originally built for maybe 3 people. And I was person number 4 moving in. Yup, 4 young men living in a space for 3. What could go wrong? Now, I am not going to pretend like I am the cleanest person in the world… but I will do my dishes, yes all my dishes, regularly. This is not how 2 of my roommates operate. They are more… clean what they need for lunch kind of guys. Of course this means that the sink fills up real quick and stays full. For a long time. The other day, I simply had enough. I didn’t care that the sink was full of dishes that weren’t mine. I cleaned them all. Boy did it feel good to have a clean sink. I told my friend about it, and he was delighted. He told me that now he feels like he can cook. He no longer has to deal with a dirty sink.
I love my friend dearly, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to cook when the sink looks like a post-Godzilla Tokyo. But I think his desire for cleanliness—let’s call it purity—illustrates a trap we Christians get ourselves into all the time. We often have such a desire for purity that we lock ourselves up in purity paralysis. We so concern ourselves with cleanliness that we fail to participate in the feast that God sets before us.
Among other things, our scripture reading from Acts today is a story about purity. We enter todays story of the early Jesus movement just after a gentile, a military commander named Cornelius, seeks out Peter because and Angel of the Lord came to him. Just before the group that Cornelius sent arrives, Peter receives a vision from God while praying. Peter recounts this vision in today’s reading: A big sheet descends from heaven towards Peter like some sort of celestial slide show. He looks and he sees a wide variety of animals: four footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. A voice says to Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter replies, “No way! I am too pure for that! I’ve NEVER eaten anything unholy or unclean.” The divine voice answers, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!”
If Peter would have remembered his Genesis stories, he would have remembered that God made all things and saw that they were good—very good. He needed a voice from heaven to drill into his heart that God has made all creatures holy. Peter eventually comes to Cornelius. And he says to Cornelius and a group of gentiles, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Peter then starts a preaching tour among the gentiles and we read that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
At the beginning of our reading, we learn that there were some apostles and believers who were grumbling about Peter’s new openness. “The circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”” These men—yes they were men—were so concerned with the purity of this new Jesus movement that they couldn’t handle the thought of sharing it with uncircumcised folks. They wanted to restrict the movement of the Holy Spirit—as if they could.
Now, I want to make a couple of things very clear. This is NOT a story about “Christianity” being more “tolerant” than Judaism. This is a story written by Jews about Jews. Peter is a Jew operating with a particular, first century Jewish frame of mind. Notice how no one in this story is called a Christian. A thing called “Christianity” did not exist until the 4thcentury. Instead, there are apostles and believers. This early church was a particular subset of Jews who followed Jesus. They were also a subset of Jews who apparently did not like associating with gentiles. Even though Peter says “it is unlawful for Jews to associate with non-Jews,” we know that Jews DID associate in many different ways with non-Jews. The ancient world was like today in the sense that diverse peoples were always mingling with one another. This is a story about a particular group of Jews who learned that the Holy Spirit burns in ways they cannot control.
These Christ followers were experiencing purity paralysis. It took God sending a vision and a Roman sending his slaves to break them out of their desire for purity. This desire for purity shrouded their eyes to the work of the Spirit. I love what Peter says to his grumbling church: “If God gave [the gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter can see that these folks outside his own little circle have the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have valid experiences of the divine. They have something to offer God’s reign that is always breaking into this world. Peter also recognizes his own part in trying to keep these people out. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” He recognizes that little old Peter with his little purity games are no match for the Holy Spirit. Why constrict this little group? Why try to hinder God when God offers life abundant?
Just like in the story, even if we don’t realize it, we experience the same kind of purity paralysis that Peter and his community did. Can you think of ways you have felt pressured to be pure? What does purity look like in this corner of New Jersey? Is it having a family like everyone else’s? Is it keeping our mistakes shoved underneath the rug?
If I had to hazard a guess, when many of us hear the word ‘purity’ we think of bodies and sexuality. When Peter refused to eat the animals in his vision, he says, “nothing unclean has entered my mouth.” He is worried that his body will be defiled by something entering it. But God reassures him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” No matter what you have done with your body, God declares it holy and clean. No matter what has been done to your body, God declares it holy and clean. Any talk of pure bodies is pure illusion. The Holy Spirit has come to each one of you. And it not only cleanses us, but it also burns, whether we know it or not, with a desire for the God of Life.
Not only do we as individuals feel so much pressure to be pure, we try to impose this same purity on our society. Our culture tells us that certain bodies don’t belong. Remember how Peter’s church in Jerusalem said that those with uncircumcised bodies do not belong. Today, those excluded bodies might be “too fat” or “too skinny;” they might have scars on their wrists or wrinkles on their face; they might be intersex or transgendered bodes. We constrict our circle of acceptable people until we find that we have really ignored the gifts of God.
One of my best friends from college, her name is Chloe, discovered about two years ago that she is a woman. Her gender at birth was assigned as male but she knows herself to be female. In her senior year of college, before she made this discovery, we were roommates. Now, since I’ve known her, Chloe has always been very witty and outgoing and empathetic—all around fun to hang out with. But I could tell that year that she was hitting a real bad funk. She rarely turned in assignments on time; she expressed very little enthusiasm for the future; her self-esteem seemed very low… After she came out as trans and started taking hormones, I saw a night and day difference in her. I remember one day I asked how she was doing, and she replied, “How can I not be doing well when I wake up loving the woman that I am?” …Wow, what a gift! … What a gift to love the skin you’re in. God has given us so many people like Chloe who show us how to rejoice in our bodies as they are.
Together with the apostle Peter, we ask: if God gave others the same gift that God gave us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who are we that we could hinder God? God shifts our focus from purity to gift. Our bodies and other bodies are not impure things that we should fear. They are gifts. Yes, our bodies are oftentimes weak; we will fail and make mistakes. But with a world crying out for justice, we make a bigger mistake seeking after purity. We need not be timid disciples, afraid that we might overstep the boundaries that constrict us. God has made us holy with the Holy Spirit through Christ Jesus. That is something to celebrate! God has given us every gift we need for an abundant life. Thanks be to God!