Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Gospel for Shrimp: Acts 10

We’re back into the book of Acts today as we go through the whole Bible. We saw Saul’s conversion back in Acts 9 (and talked about it some), and we’ve left him at home in Tarsus for the time being. Well, he may be headed off into the wilderness to hear from God (check Galatians 1:15-17), but for all we know right now, he’s in Tarsus.

That chapter finished up with a return to examining the work of Peter. We’re actually winding down our learning about Peter: after the events of this chapter, he heads back to Jerusalem, and the book of Acts does not give us much else about him. He appears in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, but we have no further Scriptural locations for Peter. His presence in Antioch that is mentioned in Galatians 2 could have happened after this time or before it—we cannot be certain. (I think after, and I think it’s safe to think Peter makes it to Rome as historical tradition posits.)

This, though, is his high-water mark. Peter has been an instrumental part of the infancy of the church. He stands forward as the leader of the band of disciples in the wake of the Ascension of Christ. He is the public face of preaching, teaching, and healing in the early weeks and months starting with Pentecost. He is “the man” for the early church in those years.

He verifies the spread of the Gospel to the Samaritans, he raises the dead and is the visible portion of God’s discipline of Ananias and Sapphira. Then he finds himself in Joppa. Why is he in Joppa?

Well, Peter had gone to the saints (believers) at Lydda, and then gone to Joppa where he had raised Dorcas from the dead. Yes, God raised Dorcas, but He worked through Peter. Credit where it is due: all glory to God, all praise to God, and a wink to Peter for being the hands. That’s the way we ought to see all things in Christian service.

While he’s in Joppa, he has a vision. It’s the vision of a sheet, filled with unclean animals.  While we mainly think of pork in these instances, there were plenty of other unclean animals. Like catfish or shrimp. The voice in his vision tells him to eat some of the animals. Actually, to kill and eat some of them. Peter defends himself by stating that he doesn’t mess with unclean stuff, and the voice corrects him: What God has made clean, do not call common (unclean).

About this time, there’s a knock on the door as a man, a Gentile man, named Cornelius has sent them to bring Peter back to him, so that Peter can tell Cornelius about Jesus. This is a big deal, because Jews and Gentiles of the time mixed, well, infrequently. As in less often than Auburn and Alabama fans do during fall in the South.

Peter, wisely, gets the point of the vision. It’s not about the shrimp and bacon. It’s about the Gentiles. It is about the need to not cut a division between the people God is calling to salvation. No matter what the prior traditions have been, there is to be no division among God’s people that is simply based on ethnic background.

There is also certainly to be no consideration of ethnicity in the spread of the Gospel. Woe be unto any of us who choose to ignore a group of people seeking the good news of salvation simply because they are not on our list of cool ethnicities. That has been done, though it never should have, and it should never happen again. I would also note this: while responsible mission strategy may highlight a people group to work among, responsible discipleship would not refuse to spread the Gospel to different people groups, no matter the “strategy” of it.

Peter shares the Gospel, then defends the new converts to the other believers. He holds forth not only their salvation as valid, but their overall right to be considered as part of the church at large. There was to be no isolation or division into like-groupings, but the church was to unify and grow together. To walk in discipleship without regard for circumcision or uncircumcision, for all that matters is the presence of the Holy Spirit and obedience to Christ by identifying through baptism.

In all, it was a bad day for shrimp, because Christian theology has long looked back at this passage as the abolition of dietary laws. So, now we eat bacon and catfish and shrimp, though frequently not together.

Yet it was a good day for us: a day that recognizes that we have one faith, one baptism, one Lord.

So, the next time you see that Red Lobster ShrimpFest commercial, think about this: do you draw lines and divide what God has made one?

Today’s Nerd Note: Acts 10:40-41 has an interesting and infrequently considered statement in it. In those verses, Peter states that Jesus resurrected was not visible to all people. Instead, He was only visible to those chosen beforehand by God to see Him.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 has a list of those who definitely saw the Risen Christ, and more may have done so, but these couple of verses give us an insight into the question of why He wasn’t more widely seen. Why, for example, no major riots broke out when Jesus was walking from place to place and people saw Him and just went nuts. Which, really, they would have: here’s the Miracle Worker, back! What happened?

And imagine the first time He bumps into a Pharisee or Sanhedrin member? Awkward.

This is where the case is made, though, for the importance of doing historical work on the text of Scripture. If one can see that this statement by Peter is recorded, textually, fairly early, then it strengthens his argument: people may not have seen Jesus even though He was risen.

If, however, we just let the text of Acts sit as if it were composed some 2 or 3 centuries after Peter speaks, then the question becomes whether or not someone inserted this statement to answer a criticism raised against Christianity: why are there not more records of seeing the Risen Jesus? Then one must answer whether or not some later scribe added Peter’s explanation here, whether Peter made it or not.

The better of a date we can derive for the writing of the complete text of Acts, the better we understand even why Peter said this in the first place: was he answering a question? Responding to criticism? Or just telling the story as he knew it?

These are the reasons why we don’t just pick a translation, read it, and never consider some of the additional academic questions about our faith. We need to study it and dive into these issues. They matter, more than we realize sometimes.

So, nerd up. And pass the bacon.

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