Apples and Carts

Acts 11:1-18 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
11 The emissaries and the brothers throughout Y’hudah heard that the Goyim had received the word of God; 2 but when Kefa went up to Yerushalayim, the members of the Circumcision faction criticized him, 3 saying, “You went into the homes of uncircumcised men and even ate with them!” 4 In reply, Kefa began explaining in detail what had actually happened: 5 “I was in the city of Yafo, praying; and in a trance I had a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being lowered by its four corners from heaven, and it came down to me. 6 I looked inside and saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, crawling creatures and wild birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Kefa, slaughter and eat!’ 8 I said, ‘No, sir! Absolutely not! Nothing unclean or treif has ever entered my mouth!’ 9 But the voice spoke again from heaven: ‘Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was pulled back up into heaven. 
(**Peter tells about going to visit the Gentiles, and**)  15 “But I had hardly begun speaking when the Ruach HaKodesh fell on them, just as on us at the beginning! 16 And I remembered that the Lord had said, ‘Yochanan used to immerse people in water, but you will be immersed in the Ruach HaKodesh.’ 17 Therefore, if God gave them the same gift as he gave us after we had come to put our trust in the Lord Yeshua the Messiah, who was I to stand in God’s way?”

Today in the lectionary it’s the commemoration of Peter and Paul. I had a notion to look up images on the internet of Peter’s vision of the sheet full of animals. I got all wound up in following one link after another, but I ended up learning something new: there were two kinds of unclean in the Jewish understanding. I’m not going to give the Hebrew and Greek words involved, but here’s the gist of it: Some things are permanently and irrevocably unclean and can’t be made clean by any means. On the other hand, things that started out clean can be made unclean by touching an unclean thing, but they can be purified and made clean again. Evidently the Jews at the time believed that Gentiles belonged to the category of the permanently unclean. The reason Peter refused God’s command to “get up, slaughter and eat” was because the clean animals in the ‘sheet’ had touched the unclean animals and so were not fit to be sacrificed or eaten. They had become ‘impure’ but they could be made clean again. Peter’s understanding of his vision caused him to move the Gentiles from one category to another. They were not permanently unclean, they were only temporarily unclean due to their contact with unclean things. This was proved to him when he went to the Gentile’s house and the Holy Spirit descended on them all, Gentiles and Jews together. In the previous chapter, even though Peter has gone to the Gentile’s house, he complains to them that doing so has made him unclean due to his contact with them, and tells them, “You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn’t done.”  Nevertheless, Peter came because God told him to. Then I remembered that ritual purification was the very purpose of baptism; it made clean what had been unclean. That makes so much more sense! When God tells Peter to ‘Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean,’ Peter remembers that Jesus said that John baptized with water, but he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. So, when Peter felt the Holy Spirit come upon both the Gentiles and the Jews, he would have made the same connection: God was ‘making them clean’ and that meant that the Gentiles could no longer be considered as permanently and irrevocably unclean. Peter’s neat little paradigm was shattered; his assumptions ruptured; his complacency challenged; his purpose re-ordered. He had an awakening, and he understood that in God’s eyes the Gentiles were like the acceptable animals in the sheet, impure only because they touched the unacceptable animals. They were not irrevocably unclean! Furthermore, In that moment God reminded Peter that the Holy Spirit was the proof of the Gentile’s acceptability; their ritual purity had been restored, along with his own, by the action of the Holy Spirit. All of them together had been immersed in the Ruach HaKodesh and made clean.  Peter got the picture. Literally. He’s still uneasy because now he has to overcome a lifetime of social conditioning, but he summed it all up and put it neatly into perspective when he told the protestors, “Who was I to stand in God’s way?” This is just one of many stories in the New Testament about how God keeps on upsetting the apple cart! What an eye-catching image that is! First, you have this apple-cart trundling along the same old delivery route, and then you see the donkey shy at a shadow in the road, and the cart goes careening off, breaks an axle and rolls over in the ditch. The donkey breaks the harness and gallops off, bucking and kicking; the driver gets thrown off his perch, tucks and rolls, and also ends up in the ditch sitting in a mud puddle all red-faced and bedraggled. The apples go rolling and bouncing everywhere; ending up in the ditch, all over the road, under the hedges, and down gopher holes. Some of them even bounce off the driver’s head.

Legalism— over it goes!

Self-righteousness— trampled!

Conformity— apples everywhere!

Smug superiority— broken axle!

Social status— runaway donkey!

Class privilege— the driver goes tail over teakettle in the mud!

Do you think maybe we might even dare to name a few of those bouncing apples? How about the title, ‘Bigotry’?  Or maybe, ‘Homophobia’? Or ‘Racism’? Or ‘Hatred’? Or ‘Jingoism’? Or ‘Cruelty’?  Or ‘Indifference’? Or ‘Greed’? Or ‘Pride’? Or ‘Jealousy’? Or ‘Fear’? Or ‘Malice’? Or ‘Spite’? Or ‘Revenge’? Or ‘Egotism’?  Better watch out for those Apples!  

—And Then There’s This—
Just Whose Shadow was that,
darting across the road and scaring that poor donkey?


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