Did some reading aver my vacation, including Philip Yancey’s book What’s so Amazing About Grace? In a world full of ungrace, grace is the one thing Christians have to offer that is found nowhere else. As George MacDonald once said, “You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”
At one point in the book, Yancey takes an interesting look at Peter’s encounter with God in Acts Chapter 10. It is in Acts chapter 10 that the diet of the new church was greatly expanded. As far as we are concerned, that is the point and the end of the story. Before, Jews were not allowed to eat many foods, many things were just not “kosher” for them. Know that “kosher” may best be translated into English, if we would, as “fit”. So we would say that if something were not “kosher”, that means it is “unfit” for us to eat. Or that dreaded term in the Old Testament, “unclean”.
So we see in Acts 10 Peter’s vision on a rooftop. Peter has gone up onto the roof to pray in privacy, but he begins to get hungry. His mind begins to wander, and he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” This is not very specific about what the animals on the sheet were, but if we read Leviticus 11 we can get an idea. Pigs, camels, rabbits, vultures, ravens, horned owls, screech owls, storks, bats, ants, beetles, bears, lizards, skinks, weasels, rats, snakes, all would have been on the do not eat list. Being raised a Jew is Palestine, Peter would have been raised from his earliest memories that these foods were not just off the diet – they were an abomination to be detested.
If during the course of the day Peter had so much as touched the carcass of a dead insect, he would wash himself and his clothes and be unclean until evening, not allowed in the temple until he was clean of such errors. If a lizard or a spider had fallen into one of the clay cooking pots, whatever was in the pot would have been thrown out, and the pot smashed along with it.
So now, all these unclean animals, birds, reptiles, and insects are all crawling around on a sheet falling from heaven with the instruction “Rise, Peter; kill and eat”. To which Peter reminded God of his own rules – “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” To which Peter is told “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This is repeated a total of three times, followed by Peter immediately descending from the rooftop back downstairs to be confronted with a group of “unclean” Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus.
While this incident may have greatly expanded our diets (hurray for shrimp and bacon!!), why were all these foods banned in the first place? What did God have against shrimp, lobster, bacon, sausage? This is how God himself explains the ban – “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…” Leviticus 11:44 ESV. Lots of room for interpretation here, and it’s been interpreted lots of different ways.
First, there were certain health benefits that could be cited as a reason. The ban on pork would have protected the Israelites from trichinosis, the ban on shellfish kept them safe from viruses sometimes found in oysters and mussels.
Some of the banned animals were scavengers who would have fed on carrion. Other portions would have insulated God’s people from participating in the customs of their pagan neighbors. Specifically, the seemingly strange ban against boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk would have kept the Israelites from imitating a magic spell ritual of the Canaanites.
So, if we think about it many of these animals we can understand why it makes sense to declare them “unclean”. But others just don’t. What’s wrong with lobsters or shrimp? Or rabbits, which have no health risk and eat grass, not carrion? Or camels and donkeys?
Remember, maybe the best English translation for “kosher” would be “fit”. The Levitical law judges some animals to be “fit”, or proper for the Jews to eat, others to be unfit. If we look a little bit closer though, we can see that all of the animals on the “unfit” have done anomaly, maybe they are just aren’t all the way “normal”. Fish are supposed to have fins and scales, shellfish are just a little bit weird. Birds are supposed to fly, ostriches and emus don’t fit in. Animals on the land are supposed to walk on four legs, not crawl on the ground. The domesticated animals like cattle, sheep and goats all eat grass (chew the cud) and have cloven hooves, shouldn’t therefore all edible animals be like that? As Rabbi Jacob Neusner says, “If I had to say in a few words what makes something unclean, it is something that, for one reason or another, is abnormal.”
And as the author Phillip Yancey sums up in his book, you might say there is one phrase, one principle, that can sum up all the Old Testament laws on uncleanness – No Oddballs Allowed. No oddball animals on the menu, and the same could be said about “clean” animals used in worship or for sacrifice in the temple. No worshipper could bring a defective, injured or otherwise imperfect lamb into the temple, because God only wanted the unblemished lamb from the flock. From the time of Cain forward, people followed precise instructions or risked having their offering rejected. God demanded perfection, God deserved only the best, no oddballs allowed.
And so this applies to people as well. In the very temple of God, there were rules that applied as to whom, exactly, was “fit” to go into the ever constrictive circles. There were the outer courts, where even the Gentiles were allowed. A little farther in, and Jewish women were no longer allowed. Beyond that, only the priests were fit to enter, all the way to the inner most holy-of-holies, where only the high priest was allowed once a year. And when he went in, he had a rope tied to his ankle just in case he screwed it up somehow and got struck down by God, they could pull him out without having to enter. Because, after all, they were unfit to enter the most holy meeting place of the most high God.
And now to what really is the whole point of writing this. It’s one thing to label certain animals unfit to eat, unclean. But the Old Testament does not stop there. How can we forget the long list of people who were rendered “unclean”, unworthy, less than, unfit? “”Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.” Leviticus 21:17-20 ESV. If you had a damaged body, or damaged family lines (bastard child), you don’t qualify, you’re not worthy. Menstruating women, men who had just had a nocturnal emission, women who had recently given birth, people with any skin disease or open sores (lepers), anyone who had touched a corpse, all these people were unclean, unfit to be touched or associated with. No wonder the religious leaders in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan ran to the other side of the street!! They would be made unclean just by the potential contact with that poor sap on the road.
To us, we don’t understand this blatant ranking of people based on gender, race, and bodily health, but this the exact system that defined Judaism. Jewish men would begin each day with a prayer thanking God, “who has not made me a Gentile…has not made me a slave…and has not made me a woman…”
Acts 10 shows us the result of this attitude. Peter, introducing himself upon visiting the house of a Roman centurion, says it well – “And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”” Acts 10:28-29 ESV. God called Peter to go to the Gentiles. Peter argued. God won the argument. The revolution of grace was underway, whether Peter understood or not.
The customs and traditions of Judaism ran deep in Peters blood. Yet Peter had been there all along with Jesus as Jesus would systematically break down those barriers which separated Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. It seems in fact, if you read the Gospels, that Jesus always was much closer to the sinners than the saints, doesn’t it? (Of course, our true saints never lost sight of the fact that they, too, were really just sinners who needed a savior). Jesus never avoided all those branded “unclean” or unfit by the law. Yet, somehow, Jesus was never made “unclean” by his unsavory contacts. Somehow, by meeting and coming into contact with Jesus, all those who were once unclean became clean, the unfit became fit once and for all for the kingdom of God.
Today, we have a new holy-of-holies. We have a meeting place with God where all are invited, no one is considered unclean. In fact, the only way we can make ourselves unfit for this meeting place is by putting up barriers or otherwise making it hard for someone else to come to the meeting place of God. Isn’t this what Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians 11 (message translation being used. I hear a lot of people don’t like this translation. I think a lot of people also don’t much care for the Bible once they actually understand what it says!). “And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship—you come together, and instead of eating the Lord’s Supper, you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can’t believe it! Don’t you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church? Why would you actually shame God’s poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing.
Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me. After supper, he did the same thing with the cup: This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me. What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.” 1 Corinthians 11:20-28 MSG.
So we come to the holy-of-holies. No one is excluded. All are invited. Many of you like a good “altar call”, a call for all those who don’t know Jesus to come to the altar and meet him. Isn’t every time we take communion the best and truest “altar call” there is??!! Come to the table, meet Jesus Christ in his glory, all the glory of his shed blood and broken body!! As he himself told us, Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me. And just like those Emmaus Road disciples, we can know him best in the breaking of the bread.
Misfits and Oddballs are always welcome at the table of grace…
“The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.” Acts 10:9-16 ESV.
“Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you. “And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.”
Leviticus 11:4-8, 10-19 ESV