[Peter] saw the sky open, and something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners. In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.” (Acts 10:11-13)
I’ve never had a vision, so this story in Acts 10 is a little strange. Although I have been hungry enough to make some really bad choices. Maybe Peter’s not so different from me after all. Or different from you, so stick with me.
There’s a couple of things that set the scene for Peter’s vision. The first is that he’s a very good Jew. And Jews had rules about what you could eat. A lot of rules. Some were given by God in the Torah and there’s some good evidence that these guidelines were largely for their health and well being. Then there were the other rules, those placed by the religious leaders, behavioral guard rails that kept you from even coming close to breaking the actual ones. Regardless, Peter knew them all. And it seems he kept them very well.
The other thing is that Peter gets this vision as he’s waiting for lunch. He’s hungry. Is this vision some low-blo0d-sugar-induced temptation to satisfy his rumbling tummy? No matter, because it is a temptation nonetheless. He’s hungry and can likely smell the cooking food rising from the kitchen below. “Kill and eat them” sounds like a pretty good idea.
So when Peter sees this vision — animals in a sheet all bunched up, the “unclean” animals contaminating the “clean” ones as they all tussle in the gathered sheet — he’s being thrown into some tension. It’s a tension between his physical need and observation of reality (I’m hungry and bacon would be amazing…) versus his religious belief about what is right (this is clean and that is not).
And what does Peter do with this tension? He argues, of course.
“No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.”
But the voice spoke again: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.”The same vision was repeated three times. Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven. (Acts 10:14-16)
It’s really easy for me to sit here and judge Peter for this. I mean, he’s getting a vision from God and his first response is to argue with it? He sees it 3 times and it still perplexes him?
If you’ve read the full story, though, you know that this had very little to do with animals. It had to do with a particular way of viewing the world. And the fact that reality was banging up against that way of approaching life. This wasn’t about food; it was about people.
Peter was trying so hard to be right that he ended up being wrong.
(Rob Bell has a wonderful podcast explaining this in detail. Check it out here.)
The Law Peter was given, the one which he rigorously adhered to, had given him a lens through which to view the world. It governed his calendar, his profession and his menu. It was very helpful in these areas. But when the lens was applied to other people, it ceased to work well. Food could be “clean” and “unclean.” People, however do not fit into these tidy categories.
Peter’s religion was getting in the way. Instead of being a springboard to bless others, it had become a roadblock.
This was always Jesus’ main beef with the religious leaders during his ministry. In their desire to be right and keep the Law, they had lost the big picture of who they were supposed to be. It’s a wonderful thing to keep the Sabbath and dedicate a day to rest and the Lord. But when the Sabbath kept you from helping someone else? Well, then we’ve got a problem.
Maybe this is why Jesus said,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
Because righteousness is so much better than rightness.
Rightness is about me.
Righteousness will always be about blessing others.
This is our identity as Christians. We are not people who walk in fear of getting something wrong. We don’t have to tread carefully in the world, fearfully watching each little step afraid that at any moment we can lose our way. This story is not about our own rightness.
This is about getting on board with the righteous thing God is doing in the world. Reconciling all things to himself. Making the broken whole again. Including everyone in redemption. Healing and bringing light to all people.
So we can be courageous. We can be fearless. We can be radically inclusive and unswervingly welcoming.
We can hunger and thirst for righteousness, even when it doesn’t always feel “right.”