Have you seen the movie Ratatouille? I think about that movie all the time. If you haven’t, it’s an animated movie (trust me, if you don’t know what it is, you’re going to be glad it’s an animated movie once you hear the plot) about a rat name Remy who ends up working with a human boy. The rat is a great chef; the boy got a job at a restaurant, but really can’t cook. So they work together, with the rat controlling the boy, and the restaurant starting to flourish.
The whole movie is built around this creed: “Anyone can cook.” It’s a simple message, but a powerful one. “Anyone can cook.” It means that there’s no place you can come from, no type of person (or even rat) you can be, that prevents you from being a great cook. Remy is definitely an interesting protagonist in the movie; he’s never quite at home as either a human or a rat, but once he’s able to explore his calling, it’s when he truly shines.
Of course, this is a particularly apropos topic in light of today’s text from Acts, because it’s all about food, what is and what isn’t clean, and what it means to become who God means us to be. So we begin long before this text from Acts, because, like all stories, this one assumes that you have some amount of background knowledge.
You may well know that, at the time of the beginning of the book of Acts, the Jesus Movement, known then as “The Way” (as it wouldn’t be known as “Christianity” for many centuries) was made up entirely of Jews. Jesus had Jewish disciples, he lived in Jewish areas, and he spoke almost exclusively to Jews. So everyone who paid attention to and followed him shared some amount of the same culture.
That culture included many presuppositions, just like ours does. Many things about Jewish culture and law are recorded in the Bible, and can be talked about at any time. But of greatest interest to our passage today are the dietary restrictions in Judaism. You probably all know that Jews don’t eat a number of foods. For example, they don’t eat pig at all (so no ham or bacon), and they don’t eat shellfish (so, sorry if you love lobster). One is not allowed to eat meat and dairy together, so cheeseburgers are out. Even the meat that was allowed (like beef) has to be slaughtered in a certain way in order to be okay to eat. Next time you’re enjoying a porkchop and drinking a glass of milk, or scarfing down some pepperoni pizza, know that you’re violating Jewish dietary laws in two ways, and be glad you’re not Jewish.
And that’s the thing about the Jewish dietary laws – they always seemed like a big obstacle to overcome when bringing the Good News of Jesus to non-Jews. Many of the early followers of The Way didn’t even want to include non-Jews.
Some just thought that the Gentiles (the word for non-Jews) were just too different. Their culture was different. After all, they’d have all these dietary laws to learn, right? They’d have to become Jews first, in order to truly understand Christianity. And, after all, how are you going to go into a culture and expect everyone to change their diet overnight? I mean, let’s just be honest; it’s a lot easier to just ignore them, and keep this Jesus stuff in-house.
But that’s when we encounter Peter in today’s passage, and we see how God interacts with him to change the course of human history.
In a vision, Peter actually sees a sheet lowered from heaven, representing all the animals of the earth, and he’s told to kill them and eat – all of them, not just the ones Jews have traditionally been allowed to eat. It’s a vivid image, and he actually denies it three times. But that makes sense; after all, his whole life has been based on following those laws. So even if God is the one telling Peter, it’s hard for him (like any of us) to get rid of our lifelong habits. Yet, in the name of doing what God wants him to do, and in order to reach a group of people he might not otherwise be able to connect with, he does the unthinkable.
Peter actually eats the unclean food.
But it goes further than that; he eats with unclean people. Just as food could be clean or not, so could people – particularly if they weren’t following certain laws or customs.
But people all belong to God. As the saying goes, “God don’t make junk.” All people are accepted – and then God shows that Peter’s doing the right thing. The Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (non-Jews) exactly like happened on the Jews at Pentecost. Peter sees that God is working in their lives, as well. His own prejudices are washed away because he sees that God can work in those people that he thought were beyond God’s reach. Peter’s own ideas about who God should – or even could – be interested in get washed away in this single act.
But Peter’s rebellion against his own culture goes much further than that – he takes these lessons back with him, and they are taken to heart by the early Christian leaders. You see, Peter doesn’t let this radically transformative experience of Jesus remain something that will only change his personal, individual opinions. Faith, for Peter, isn’t just something that happens in the mind in terms of what you believe. It’s not just about the me-and-my-God personal relationship that has often become the sole matter for many American Christians in today’s world. Rather, faith is the way you live your life. And for Peter, his life now must be lived differently because of this experience of God’s new calling. And that means a new way of life in terms of his personal conduct (in what he eats), the relationships he keeps (with Gentiles as well as with Jews), and the things he believes (both about God and about his neighbors).
The Good News here is that Jesus legitimately changes lives. Peter could have continued to go about his life exactly as he did before. He could have just said, “Well, that was a weird dream,” and moved on. But he was looking for the ways in which God was speaking to him, and he took those things out into the world with him. His own pride or assuredness of how his whole life would be different couldn’t help but change the core of who he was and what he believed. When Peter let Jesus transform him, his whole world changes. We see that our lives can change, too, when we open ourselves up to what Jesus is asking of us.
Jesus wants us to be changed. But the good thing is, that change doesn’t rely on us; it relies on him. He is the one who makes everything happen. He is constantly inviting us to see what God is doing, and to be part of it. See, Jesus is not hidden away from us, begging for us to look for him. I had the youth do a scavenger hunt in here at 3F a couple of weeks ago. I asked them to find 10 crosses in the church. They discovered that you could actually find ten crosses just in the sanctuary. But I’m guessing that most of the people in here haven’t ever thought about it. It’s a good analogy for what I’m saying, though: Jesus is right in front of our eyes, begging to be seen, and showing us the way. We just miss him, either because we’re not paying attention, or because we’re so wrapped up in our own, selfish thoughts that we simply don’t give him a chance to be seen – in other words, we often ignore what’s plainly in front of us.
But once we recognize what Jesus is doing in our lives – once we see where God is taking us – we need to go along with what God is doing. Peter here takes a very, very bold step; he sees that the way things have been done traditionally isn’t going to continue working – not if there are new people to be reached. Not if Jesus’ ministry was meant, not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, as well. And once he came to accept that reality, he saw that it was time to change how things were done. Even though it was uncomfortable, even though it would mean basically changing everything he had been brought up to believe since childhood, the influence of Jesus on his life was so strong that he was able to do change; to become someone different; to see where Christ was calling him to be at that particular moment.
When things seem hard for us, we need to be willing to go against what our habits and culture might be telling us, we need to listen for what God is saying. This is a scary thing. We all have things that we believe; we have things we’re sure about. But why we’re sure about those things varies a great deal. We can see that some things are because of our parents, and some things are because of our culture – where and when we grew up. The tricky part of that kind of problem is trying to cut through the other influences in our lives to find what Jesus is asking of us.
Unfortunately, this is not a sermon of easy answers. I wish it were; it’s not. The “easy answer” sermon in here has to do with celebrating how Jesus makes us free to eat cheeseburgers and pile whatever toppings we want on our pizza. But that’s hardly a message of Good News from the Son of God. The message I was struck by instead is this: Jesus cares so much about all of us that he continues to work in and through us, even in this day, even when what we’re hearing is not what we expected to hear, even if the thing Jesus is saying to us pushes against what we assume to be right, rather than with it.
Like I said, there are no easy answers here, because I don’t know the questions facing you. There are a thousand different things that could be going on in your life, so I don’t know what Jesus wants out of you; I do, however, know that, no matter what else you might think, Jesus is working to change your life right now. He’s calling you into something deeper – a relationship with your neighbors or with him; a change in your personal habits; a different way of treating those around you. Have the courage that Peter had to listen, to go forth convicted that you are right, and may you travel Christ’s path boldly. Amen.