A Much-Needed Vision
This morning we are studying a sermon by Peter. It would be easy to read this passage and think well, it’s a sermon, nothing unusual about that. The Bible contains plenty of sermons. But this is a sermon that almost didn’t happen. It almost didn’t happen because God had to give Peter a vision in order to open Peter’s heart and mind to an important truth that enabled Peter to preach that sermon. Let’s retrace the events leading up to this sermon.
Turn with me to the beginning of chapter ten. Chapter ten opens with a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion - a centurion was a Roman solider in command of 100 soldiers - and as a Roman he was a Gentile.
The relations between Roman soldiers and Jewish people were generally not very good at this point in history; in fact, the relationship was generally very bad. But there was something different about Cornelius. Verse 2 tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearer, which was a designation given to someone who had attached themselves at least partially to Judaism. A God-fearer was a Gentile who rejected the religions of the Roman Empire and accepted the one God of Israel and attended worship at a synagogue. Imagine that our country is under occupation by a foreign power, mistreated by the soldiers of that occupation, and when you come into worship one of those soldiers is sitting next to you. The bottom line is, Cornelius was exactly the kind of person someone like Peter would have been taught to avoid.
Verse 3 tells us that Cornelius receives a vision and is told to send for Peter. Cornelius dispatches two of his servants to find Peter, and while they are on their way Luke shifts the scene to Peter, who also has a vision. Peter, at the home where he is staying, goes to the roof to pray, and while on the roof he becomes very hungry, and God gives Peter this vision – the sky opens and a great sheet is lowered and the sheet is full of all kinds of animals. A voice tells Peter Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” Listen closely to Peter’s answer, because he is speaking to God. Peter answers by saying By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean (verse 14). Peter has been so trained to think a particular way he cannot accept a direct command from God. Think about this for a moment; this is really an unbelievable point we are reading. It took three instances (sounds like another series of three, doesn’t it? See John 21:15-19) of a direct command from God to begin to open Peter’s mind to the fact that he was freed from his dietary regulations and could eat whatever he wanted, but Peter still wasn’t entirely convinced. Look at verse 17 - Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be... Greatly perplexed? Could God have made it any more plain for Peter? He shouldn’t have been perplexed at all! But Peter’s mind was so conditioned by certain beliefs he couldn’t open his mind to what God was telling him.
Remember who we are talking about. This is Peter. Peter was, arguably, the one human being who was closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry. Peter was a part of all the significant moments of Jesus’ ministry and was one of three – along with James and John – that comprised the inner circle of Jesus. Peter walked with Jesus for three years, he saw him crucified, he saw him resurrected, and yet, he still struggled to understand God’s desire to welcome all people to himself. If this can happen to Peter, it can certainly happen to us as well.
Let’s be honest about ourselves – we are not where God wants us to be. Peter – for all his talent and ability – has some pretty big shortcomings revealed in the Bible. Are we closing our hearts and minds to what God is trying to reveal to us? Have we stopped growing, stopped moving forward in our faith?
Sometimes we have to overcome what we have been taught; sometimes we have prejudices and stereotypes ingrained in us that keep us from being open to welcoming people and from loving certain kinds of people. We don’t always free ourselves of these attitudes just because we are followers of Jesus, and Peter had not yet freed himself from some of his prejudices and attitudes.
This vision was to open Peter to the visitors he was about to receive and to open him to the gospel being for the Gentiles. The barriers between people in the time of Peter are essential for us to grasp if we are to really understand this passage. A very observant Jew in the time of Peter would not have contact with a Gentile, but notice what Peter does – when Cornelius comes to the home where Peter was staying, Peter invites them in and gives them lodging (verse 23). That seems like such a small thing to us, but it was an enormous step to take in that day.
While Peter was puzzling over the meaning of the vision the servants of Cornelius arrive. The Spirit of God tells Peter to Go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself (verse 20). Peter goes downstairs, welcomes them, and asks why they have come. The men say they are there to take Peter to the home of Cornelius so that he might hear a message from Peter (verse 22).
The fact that Peter welcomed these men and then agreed to travel with them back to the home of Cornelius was a remarkable step. There were probably many people who saw them traveling and wondered what’s Peter doing with those people?
Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and makes an amazing confession – you yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean (verse 28).
That’s a remarkable statement. God has finally broken through to Peter with the truth that God’s love is for all people. This was a tough issue for Peter. Peter struggled with this so greatly that he was even confronted publicly by Paul (But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face; because he stood condemned – Galatians 2:11).
Here was the essential question for Peter – is the gospel for all people? Would the gospel remain captive to the law that is reserved only for some, or open up to grace that is for all?
Over and over again, the gospel broke down human barriers that divided people. It is typical of human nature to erect walls and barriers that separate people; it is typical of God to tear down those walls and barriers. As the church – the people of God; those who bear the name of Jesus – we can be a part of tearing down those walls and barriers or we can be a part of building them.
As Peter moves into his sermon listen to how he begins – I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality (verse 34). It’s rather remarkable to hear Peter confess that he has now grasped this foundational truth of the gospel.
In Peter’s day everything was about separation and partiality. God was more partial to males than females; to Jews than Gentiles; to healthy people; to rich people. Righteousness was demonstrated by withdrawing from certain groups of people rather than loving them and demonstrating compassion to them. It’s no wonder then, that people reacted so strongly to the vision of Peter, and that he struggled with it himself.
The central aspect of God is love and compassion. In one way of looking at the world it becomes a virtue to be separate and to separate one’s self from people; in the other it becomes a virtue to love and associate with those very people. When Jesus touched a leper, when he touched a woman who was hemorrhaging, when he entered a graveyard occupied by a man full of evil spirits – these were actually sinful activities in the eyes of people of the day who thought themselves righteous. This is also one of the points of the parable of the Good Samaritan – the priest and the Levite had bought into religious rules that allowed them to elevate exclusion over compassion and then be rewarded for their failure to be compassionate. They didn’t avoid that injured man because of a fear they would be robbed and beaten; they avoided that man because of who that man was – their religious rules would not allow them to have anything to do with that man.
We are tempted to separate ourselves and to believe that God plays favorites. Certain people don’t qualify as righteous because they don’t go to church; certain people don’t qualify as righteous because of their activities. We go to church and we avoid certain activities so we are meet our own invented scale of righteousness while others don’t.
Who are the Gentiles of today? Who are those to whom we need to love and demonstrate compassion? If God were to give us a vision with the same purpose as the one he gave Peter, what would be in the sheet he would lower in front of us?
The table around which we will gather in a few moments is a very real repudiation of the separation of people. One of the great symbols of separation in the day of Jesus was the dinner table; you simply didn’t eat with certain kinds of people. Those who gathered around a table to eat told who was considered righteous and who was considered unrighteous. It is interesting, then, that a table and a meal became one of the central elements of Christianity.
So here is the question to ask this morning – what’s in your sheet? If God were to give you a vision of a sheet, who or what would be in your sheet? Are there people – or kinds of people or groups of people – to whom you don’t want to extend the love and compassion of God? This table is a repudiation of any separation we desire to make. Jesus died for all, and he asks that we love all.
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.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
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.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.