I am reading a book right now that has really called me to think about the nature of religion. The name of the book is Not in God’s Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It looks into violence done in the name of God, in the name of one monotheistic religion or another. He looks at violence done in the name of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity throughout history. One thing sticks out to me more than anything else, who ever enters onto these crusades or Jihads or holy wars does so with the understanding that they have the “true” faith and anyone who believes differently is attacking God and must be made to come to submission and in the process conversion. As I read this book, I come back to this passage of Acts time and time again and keep turning it over in my mind. I can’t help but feel that there is something wrong.
Something has gone wrong with our understanding of God. I can’t believe that the God of love, compassion, and forgiveness would condone the actions of people who kill one another in His name. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, to accept one another, to love one another, and to be each other’s support in life. Yet, we all occasionally place barriers on God. We tell God what is right and wrong. We tell God what is acceptable or not. Something has gone terribly wrong in our world where people not only approve of the barriers and violence done in God’s name but are ready to kill themselves for it.
People, and nations, throughout history have used religion to try to build walls around God, to fit him into a model that is acceptable to the way of life that humanity wants to live. Just as God showed Peter with his vision of the sheet with the clean and unclean animals, I feel as if God is again trying to tell humanity to stop putting barriers on his word, barriers around his message. God’s telling us to stop using His name as an excuse to cause each other and ourselves pain. Many people think that our scriptures from today were about food: what was acceptable to eat and what was not. This is a misreading of these passages. They are not about food at all. The animals represent humanity. They represent the Jewish Pharisee believers in Christ and the gentile believers.
It was believed by the Pharisaic believers that if they came into contact with gentiles, that they would become unclean in the eyes of God. Barriers. It is all about barriers. God was breaking down barriers between people who traditionally looked down upon one another and even at times have killed one another. They viewed each other as somehow wrong in their religious faiths and backgrounds. They saw each other as persecutors of the “true” faith. In order to receive the salvation of Christ one had to first convert to Judaism. Before one could be baptized, one had to be circumcised in the mind of the ultraconservatives of the early church. Peter did not follow their rules.
But today, we still struggle with this same mind set in religion. We all think that there is a certain faith that is correct, a certain way people of faith should act and we believe that this faith is Godly, as God intended it to be. In reality, what Peter shows us in his vision is that no one has a correct understanding of God. No one way of believing is better than another. God was challenging Peter to think outside of the box in order to touch more lives with the love of Christ. Peter then brought this message to the Conservative Christian church in Jerusalem and challenged them to think outside of the box as well.
Psalm 148 is a song of praise but it too challenges people to see one another not for what is different but rather for what all humanity holds in common. It says, “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him”. We were all created by God and with the enlightenment of Peter’s vision we now know that all faithful people are counted among God’s people.
To often humanity gets caught up by specifications, labeling people, places, and actions and we forget that God does not fall neatly into specifications. God doesn’t follow the rules and boundaries that we have grown comfortable with. God doesn’t fit nicely into the boxes we have made for him. This is the beauty of our Lord. God is the god of love and compassion and challenges us to follow him where ever he might lead us in that mission. We are to allow for Him to define us and not the other way around. It is easier to be like Peter and say, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”. It is easier to stick to what we know and are comfortable with rather than to take risks and chances for the word of Jesus.
We are challenged to leave our assumptions about God behind us. We are called, as Peter was, to break the barriers humanity places around God and others and to just live into the true message of Christ: a message of ultimate love, compassion, and forgiveness. We are challenged to allow for God to lead us forward in our work opening our hearts to His message of love and care for all peoples. So like Peter, we are left with the question “What is God asking of us this day?”
 Psalm 148: 5 and 14, NRSV.
 Acts 11: 8, NRSV.
(Based on Psalm 148 and Acts 11: 1-8)