So, I've had two attempts at this week's sermon and I'm still far from happy with it. That's OK I think, because I have a sense that wrestling is good, is of God, and am reminded that Israel can be translated 'wrestles with God' and that Jacob was someone who, after Peniel, walked with a limp. It isn't meant to be easy to work it all out. In part I'm trying to work out what God is saying to me (as distinct from us) as I work with the passage, and in part I'm struggling to find contemporary equivalence for parts of it.
OK, that's as clear as mud. I'll try to elaborate.
Peter's vision involved a 'vessel that looked like a sheet' containing all manner of quadrupeds, birds and reptiles: animals that were defined as 'unclean' by Levitical law (i.e. by God) and he was told to kill and eat. There are lots of ways this is significant.
Firstly the dietary laws were something that marked 'the children of Israel' (the successors of the one who wrestled with God) apart from other nations; there was an ethnic aspect to it. But it was possible for a 'God-fearer' to convert to Judaism part of which meant accepting the moral codes and norms of the Law, so accepting the dietary rules and all the rest of Leviticus. Thus, there is also a religious-ethical element. Whilst for Peter it was ethnicity that was the key, the vision can be read more widely (for example as is the case by the Baptist interfaith group Joppa which sees it as a significant step on the path to dialogue).
Secondly there is a sense of God's mind being changed (I think) - for centuries these animals have been deemed 'unclean', 'common' or 'profane' (and the people who ate or revered them likewise). Now it seems God has had a change of heart, that which was once unclean isn't any more. So have the animals (and people) changed or has God? And if this bit of Leviticus is up for review, then what about the rest? This is where it gets thorny and the wrestling really begins... which bits a timeless and which bits aren't? It is 'obvious' that some things (like murder) are eternally wrong, but how do we decide which are or aren't?
Thirdly, and this is where it really get tricky, what are the equivalents today for Christians? We have no dietary laws, no rules about what we wear (which is why the recent protests about wearing crosses are unfounded), how often we pray, which way we face our 'altars' (pace high C of E and RC). If God lowered a sheet from heaven into my vision containing all the things that are 'beyond the pale' what might they be? What practices or factors exclude people from the promises of God in Christ? I struggle to identify any - yet the church so easily sits as judge and jury. But, and here's the rub, there are practices we see as contrary to God's Law because Leviticus says so. If Jesus came to fulfil the Law not overturn it and if Paul says we are free from the Law, who is right? If God can, seemingly, change a view on the cleanliness of rabbits and pigs (to name two that Biritsh people eat) or of people who by accident of birth happen not to be Jewish, then how else?
It does seem significant that I have been working with this passage at a time when the church of England has been tying itself in knots over whether or not to allow women or openly gay male clergy to be appointed as bishops. It forces us to ask tough questions of ourselves, to avoid proof-texting this or that perspective, to wonder just what is timeless and what isn't.
Peter's 'epiphany' may have triggered a 'kairos', certainly a paradigm shift (a line lifted from my sermon) that changed the church forever. What I am left wondering, and will be trying to get people to ponder on Sunday, is what might do the same for us as individuals, as congregations and even as a world-wide church.
For most of history the church seems to sit quite comfortably with its views; whole generations pass by never questioning anything, never really wrestling with what God might be saying on tough topics. The danger for each and every one of us is that we get comfortable with our views, no longer able to hear other perspectives, no longer willing for God to make us different, to change the direction of our understanding. Being 'agnostic' on thorny questions, committing to wrestle with them, to allow head and heart to argue, is not the place many people are willing to be; we like it clear, right/wrong, in/out and so on. We like to walk confidently and with long strides rather than limping because we have wrestled with God.
Lastly of course the note of caution: how do we test out the new insights, making sure they are Godly rather than our own wishful thinking? How to we avoid 'anything goes licence' and embrace 'fulness of life'? If, as happened for Peter, it seems that God is overturning that which God has said, then how do we treat the Bible as benchmark for this purpose? One encouragement I have is that often when I am wrestling wih something other, seemingly independent, people or groups express ideas that connect or reflect my thoughts. I have a strong suspicion this is God's Spirit at work. I am always wary when people say 'God told me/us this or that' preferring the more tentative 'I think God may be saying...' but maybe the 'epiphanies' the 'kairos' need/bring that level of certainty.
Enough. This is long enough to be a sermon. I will stick pretty much with version 2 of my sermon I think (even if this is maybe a progression from it) and trust that through it God will say something meaningful to someone.