If you offered a Jewish person a bacon sandwich, what reply would you expect to get? Perhaps it would be a polite refusal. More likely something less polite because you have insulted them. One thing is for sure. No practising Jew would eat any sandwich containing bacon or ham or pork because to them such foods are not kosher – they are unclean. That was the teaching of the Old Testament Law and of the Rabbis. 4000 years of history and custom and culture and tradition have taught the Jewish people not to eat such foods or they will be defiled. If they eat unclean foods they become unclean too – separated from God and His people. So you can imagine the shock and surprise and even anger which the Apostle Peter felt when in a vision God presented him with a basket of ritually unclean animals and said to him
“GET UP PETER, KILL AND EAT” (Acts 10:13)
Acts 10 9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
Peter was shocked! We would be surprised too, if God said something as unexpected as that to us. For many folk, God is safe and sure and predictable. Many people think that God would never ask us to break with tradition. God would never ask us to do something new and different. God would never ask us to step out in faith into the unknown, out of our comfort zones to do something uncomfortable. But as our reading today shows that safe comfortable predictable God of our imaginations is not the God of the Bible. Instead the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of surprises, a God who is often on the move and calls us to move on with Him. So God commands Peter, “Kill and Eat.” And Peter replies predictably as any Jew would, as we often do when God calls us to do something new and different,
“SURELY NOT, LORD” (Acts 10:14)
“Surely not” is actually a very weak and feeble translation. The words really mean, “Certainly not!” “Never!” “No way, Hose!” “By no means.” “On no account.” “You must be joking!” “Absolutely not!” “Not a chance!” In the words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”
“Surely not Lord. … I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
But God insisted. With the same vision and the same words, not once, not twice, but three times!
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
It took the same vision three times before Peter realised the contradiction in what he was saying. “Surely not, Lord.” That makes no sense. Because we cannot declare Jesus to be Lord of our lives and in the same breath say, “surely not”. We cannot call God Lord, master, boss, and at the same time refuse to do what He commands us to do.
This was a turning point in the growth of the Early Church. Until then the good news only spread among Jews, or Jewish converts, or Samarians who had their roots in Judaism. But now a Roman Centurion called Cornelius had been saved.
Acts 10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
So people were beginning to be saved who had not been Jews before they were Christians. Here was the problem. Would the Jewish Christians accept them? During his earthly ministry Jesus had sent out his disciples to preach the gospel but He had been specific that they should only go to the Jews. But now Gentiles were becoming Christians. And God gave Peter this vision so that as leader of the Apostles in Jerusalem, Peter would welcome non-Jews to be part of the church.
Peter went with the messengers to Cornelius and by the time he got there he understood the meaning of the vision.
28 He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.
Peter realised that the vision was not about eating unclean foods, but about mixing with people who Jews would have considered unclean – Romans and other Gentiles, even Roman soldiers like Cornelius. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult this for Peter – but nevertheless he obeyed God. And God brought him to a surprising revelation.
Acts 10 34 Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
“NOW I REALISE”
Through the visions of the sheets with unclean animals, and the words of God, Peter came to realise that God’s love in Jesus extends beyond his chosen people Israel to the whole world. This would be shocking to a Jew. It was one of the reasons why the Jews rejected Jesus and then persecuted the church. But did you notice how Peter only came to recognise God’s purposes after he broke with tradition and the culture and the religion he had known all his life and actually went to Cornelius’s house. Peter obeyed before he understood. Sometimes that is the way it works. God asks us to do things before we understand his masterplan. He asks us just to trust and obey Him. So Peter obeys God, and goes and preaches the gospel to Cornelius and everybody in his house.
Acts 10 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’
Peter obeys God and preaches, and God sends the Holy Spirit down on these Gentiles. That was God’s proof to Peter and to the rest of the Early Church back in Jerusalem that the Gentiles were indeed being saved just as Jewish Christians were. Just think, if Peter had not obeyed the vision and gone to Cornelius’s house, those Gentile Christians might never have received the Spirit in that way and never been accepted by the Jewish Christians. If Peter had persisted in saying, “Surely not, Lord”.
Even so, Peter was criticised for what he had done, and that shows us just how shocking it all was to Jewish Christians.
Acts 11:1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him 3 and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’
Peter was criticised – which just goes to show that can happen even to people who are most in tune with God’s will! Which is why it is so important that Christians and churches are listening to God. But it was so important that Jewish Christians welcomed Gentile Christians into the church that for the first half of Acts 11 Peter tells the other apostles what had happened.
Acts 11 15 ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’
So it was that, because of God’s vision to Peter, the Early Church welcomed non-Jewish Christians into the fold. Peter gives us an inspiring example of true faith – going out on a limb for God. Peter stepped out in faith taking the risk that if it was not God speaking he would fall flat on his face, and be rejected by the rest of the first Christians. Although as we think about it we will remember that Jesus also mixed with and welcomed as his disciples the kinds of people respectable religious Jews considered to be unclean, lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes.
This story of Peter’s vision was of enormous importance in the spread of the Early Church. But it also has implications for us today. Because there are times when God calls believers in every generation to step out into the unknown, to reach people we might not expect to come into the church, Sometimes God can call us to leave behind the security of our habits and traditions and to step out of our comfort zones for Jesus. And sometimes we can respond a bit like Peter did. “Surely not, Lord.”
Perhaps we say that when God calls us to show His love and share the gospel with what we might consider to be “hopeless cases”. People who are so far from God that we can’t see how they could possibly be saved. “Surely not, Lord.”
Perhaps it is when God calls us to draw closer to him in patterns of worship which are unfamiliar to us. “Surely not, Lord.”
Perhaps it is when God is calling us to devote ourselves to prayer in new ways, to listening to God speaking to us in dreams and visions and prophecies, “Surely not, Lord.”
Sometimes it can be when God calls us to show his love to others we find to be unlovely, or to show his kind of forgiveness to others who have hurt us deeply. “Surely not, Lord.”
Perhaps it comes when God calls us greater discipleship, to repentance, to commit ourselves to greater holiness. “Surely not, Lord.”
Sometimes it is when God calls us to open our lives to the Holy Spirit working in new ways. Signs and wonders, miracles of healing and deliverance. He longs to thrill us and surprise us with His sovereign power. No thank you, Lord, I’m comfortable as I am. Please accomplish in me today some new work of loving grace I pray. Unreservedly, have your way. “Surely not, Lord.”
Sometimes it can be when God is calling us to some new area of service in the life of the church. But I’m too busy. “Surely not, Lord.”
Or maybe it is when God calls us to talk to our friends and neighbours and colleagues about Jesus. We feel scared and nervous. “Surely not, Lord.”
There are occasions when God calls all of us to step out of our comfort zones. Perhaps it is as simple as when He urges us to take the next step in our faith, by becoming a member of the church, or by being baptised as a believer, or maybe even by accepting God’s free gift of forgiveness and eternal life and committing our lives to Christ for the first time.
In all these situations when God is asking us to move on with Him that can involve doing something new and unexpected. It is so easy for us to respond as Peter did at first. “Surely not, Lord.” But if Peter had persisted in that attitude he would have blocked God’s blessing. He would have obstructed God’s purposes in his own life and in the lives of others also. Peter discovered that he needed to obey God first and understand God’s purposes later. Only after he had obeyed was Peter able to say, “Now I realise.”
It makes no sense to call Jesus Lord yet at the same time say to him, “Certainly not!” “Never!” “Not a chance!” “You cannot be serious!” If Jesus isn’t Lord of all He isn’t really Lord at all. When God calls us to do something, the only proper response is to say, “Yes Lord.” “Yes Lord.” “Yes Lord – Your will be done!”
Sing ABBA Father let me be yours and yours alone.