Peter was a fisherman. He worked on boats. Most fishermen I know who work on boats are pretty rough sort of characters who are pretty handy with their hands. You have to be able to fix things on a boat. You work hard and play hard.
So when we read of Peter falling into a trance we assume this is not normal for him. Practical, hard working, blokes like him don’t start seeing visions. Having a bit much to drink maybe, but you don’t have trances out on a fishing boat when there is fish to catch. By the way the Greek word used for trance is the word ekstasis from which we get our word ecstasy, but I don’t think Peter was doing drugs.
There’s something else about Peter. He’s an observant Jewish man. You don’t think of hard working fishermen as religious but Peter and all the Jewish people of his village kept the Torah and like most religious systems it had much to do with avoiding impurity. There were foods you were not allowed to eat. No pork, shellfish, reptiles or rabbits, or birds of prey. Fish had to have scales and fins. Animals had to be slaughtered using the shechita process in which all blood was drained and the killing was done in a humane way, and only animals that had a split hoof were allowed. You even checked that eggs had no blood in them, and meat and dairy products were not to be eaten together.
But impurity laws also included people. Touching a dead body made you unclean. Going into a non-Jewish house made you unclean as did sharing an eating vessel with them. Basically non Jewish people were unclean.
But back to Peter’s ecstasy trip. I need to point out it occurs in the middle of the day so probably we can rule out drinking. It’s so important that it gets reported on twice in two chapters of the book of Acts. He sees a sheet coming down from heaven and it’s filled with all sorts of food. Did you recall some of that food? Reptiles, birds of prey, all sorts of four footed animals without split hooves– unclean life. But Peter hears a voice saying, “get up kill and eat.” Peter is shocked and resists. He’s not about to break years of religious habit and practice. Eat that sort of stuff and someone is bound to say he’ll go to hell. But the voice persists telling him to not call anything impure which God has created. This happens three times and the sheet then goes back up to the heavens.
So what was Peter to make of it? His gut reaction was shock and resistance. But what was that gut reaction based on. Years of religious teaching, reading the scriptures, the expectations of the religious community he was part of. It’s based on his devotion to God. He resists God in the name of God. It’s possible to resist God’s call to growth by appealing to your religious convictions. Confusing isn’t it..
But as soon as the trance is over there’s a knock at the door and there are three men there…. A couple of slaves and a soldier – Romans. There were ‘them’ and ‘us’ and these guys are definitely ’thems’. They say come and meet our leader who was a Roman centurion – an officer of rank. Peter feels the urging of the Spirit to go and true to character is prepared to take a risk. Things in life are not entirely random and along the way he seems to work out the vision, because when it comes to entering Cornelius’s house he says,’ God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.’ And let’s be clear here. This centurion washed every day and scrubbed up very well indeed. His sandals were clean and shiny, his clothes spotless. Unclean simply meant you didn’t think someone else was worthy or to be valued. Unclean meant you could be nice to someone but actually you wouldn’t invest any energy to care for them. Unclean meant that in your eyes they were not up to it, not really a fellow child of God. Uncleanliness had to do with despising, writing off in some way, not respecting. Unclean people are people we would prefer not to bump into or welcome into our lives…. Unclean is anything we would prefer not to enter or engage in our lives….a person we don’t like. But it could also be some thing we don’t want to engage with in our lives, something we want to push away, a brush with cancer or illness. It could be something about ourselves or past that we just want to bury and pretend doesn’t exist.
We don’t talk about people or things as unclean, but there are people we don’t want to engage with, there are things we don’t want in our lives. Unclean is not just then, but now.
Peter was brought up in a faith that said Romans were not good people, not real people. He’s almost certainly never been inside a Roman house before. Stories had been told about how Romans ate unclean food, and had wild parties with much drinking and all sorts of carrying on. Romans had crucified his messiah Jesus so there was a personal story as well. I suspect there were other personal stories involving family members killed or raped by brutal Roman crackdowns in his home town of Capernaum. Romans, especially soldiers, were not of God.
The story tells us Peter thought about this. Actually he battled with what happened next for years and I think never really quite got it. God was at work in these unclean others. God was bigger than his little clan. Thank God Peter trusted his moment of ecstasy.
He crossed the threshold, and I suspect feeling very uncomfortable, engaged with these outsiders. And he discovered that his picture of them was blown out the window. It turns out they were human like he was. They did things differently but they were reaching out to search for God and the fulfilment and peace of true life. God’s Spirit was alive within them.
This is huge. Peter’s understanding of his religious convictions are being turned on their head. The scriptures were quite clear. Gentiles were gentiles and therefore unclean. Romans worshipped idols and did disgusting things. Things were simple, black and white. But things now were turned on their heads. The apple cart had spilled apples everywhere. Peter’s whole way of looking at the world and others was shattered. There is a word that describes what Peter faced and it’s the word DISRUPTION.
But disruptions are the often the source of our growth. You travel and taste, you meet people from other tribes, you read new things, you see other ways, you hear new perspectives and you discover your previous ways of categorising and labelling and believing don’t work any more. I’ve seen it many times. Someone vehemently opposed to homosexuals discovers a friend is gay and….We thought Muslims were all bloodthirsty terrorists but now discover they have aspirations similar to us. And you have a choice. Circle the wagons and hold fast to what was, or take the plunge to open yourself to something new along with the pain of leaving the old ways behind. It’s actually exciting because your world becomes larger but it also becomes more complex. It can be liberating, but also traumatic like the carpet being yanked out from under you. But once you’ve tasted you can’t untaste. Once you’ve seen you can’t unsee.
Peter crossed the threshold into the centurion’s house knowing this was risky business. Heaven knows what would happen or what all his friends would say. But he also felt something calling within…. This was the very right thing to do. The Jesus Spirit within was urging him on.
I wonder….is there someone in your family, is there someone in this congregation you see as unclean.
Is God whispering of looking to disrupt something in you, to open your eyes to something new? To enlarge your vision. To enlarge your understanding.
I believe our faith is about a journey in which we always have something more to learn, some new surprise to shake us free from the prison of comfort, some new step of growth. I find it easy to slip back into a pattern of thinking I know it all and being an old dog that has no new tricks to learn.
It’s strange but often God is speaking in our lives through those we label outsiders. God speaks through the ‘not welcome’ places, the struggles in our lives, the places of pain. The earthquakes or catastrophe’s where the what was smooth becomes rough and broken. Haven’t we seen God at work in the outpouring of love and the hard work of reconciliation that so many are committing to following our massacre. Learning the them’s are actually us.
Listen, take note, and see what you can learn from the ‘not welcome’ places and the ‘not welcome’ people of our lives. Listen for the Jesus Spirit within and take a risk.