December 19, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Be Open to New Paradigms
Acts 10:1-23, 44; 11:18

We often fail to see what is right before our eyes because our assumptions block our vision. Just last week I drove south on Rt. 15 in search of a certain store. I had been told that it was on the opposite side of the road from Dairy Queen—and I knew where that was!—and I also assumed that it was a well-marked and well-lit. After driving up and down the road several times, I finally stopped at a motorcycle repair shop in hopes of finding my destination. I was, the man behind the encounter informed me, several miles from the store. He likewise told me that the store was in fact not on the opposite side of the street from Dairy Queen at all, but was located in a small, nearly unmarked building just down the road from there. Surprisingly, I had driven by it countless times in recent months, including once that same evening. I just missed it. I had the wrong impression of what I was looking for. I was operating under faulty assumptions. Within minutes following the paradigm shift given me by the clerk at the motorcycle shop, I was standing inside the store.

As the early Christians in the book Acts continue on their journey, they, too, have their impressions and their paradigms. As Jewish believers living in and around Jerusalem, the first Christians lived with a Jewish paradigm. We saw last week that such a paradigm was stretched somewhat when Philip shared the Gospel with the Samaritans, who subsequently believed the Word of God, were baptized, and received the Holy Spirit. The Samaritans’ reception of the Gospel caused quite a stir for these Jewish followers of Jesus who had thought throughout their lives that Samaritans were smelly “half-breeds” unworthy of their time and attention. They now learned otherwise.

What follows next, however, goes even beyond the paradigm-stretching experience with the Samaritans. Samaritans were only half-Gentile, after all. They at least had some Jewish blood flowing through their veins. What about pure Gentiles? Could they be next? No cultural or religious barriers of the modern world, F.F. Bruce has suggested, are remotely equal to the degree of separation between Jews and Gentiles in the 1st century. Could Gentiles be next?

Cornelius, an official in the Roman army, was a devoutly religious man who worshiped in some way the God of the Jews. He was, nevertheless, a full-blown Gentile. During one of his “devotional” moments, God instructed Cornelius to send for the Apostle Peter, who was at that time staying in the coastal city of Joppa. This Cornelius does without any apparent hesitation, finding nothing objectionable himself in the prospect of meeting with a Jewish leader. Gentiles did not outlaw encounters with Jews. Such a meeting, however, presented a far greater difficulty for Peter. Jews, as Acts 10:28 reminds us, were not permitted to “associate with or visit a Gentile.” Peter would need to be prepped in some way before meeting with Cornelius. He needed orientation.
Peter, like Paul, had been reared on the law and the scaffolding that had developed around it. He believed, as did many Jews living after the exile, that a person could avoid a repeat of God’s judgment by following the law tenaciously. Keep the commandments. Observe every regulation. Be good, religious people. And among the many regulations that the Jews were required to keep were the so-called dietary laws—what foods could be eaten and how they should be prepared.

The book of Leviticus, no doubt a favorite of everyone here this morning, provides the basis for these dietary laws. Distinctions, for example, were made between so-called clean and unclean animals as a way of reinforcing within Israel’s mind their call to be holy and to live godly lives. While all clean animals were suitable for human consumption, anything unclean—such creatures as pigs and lobsters—had to be avoided at all costs. These laws became virtually inviolable. They were at the very heart of the Jewish community’s identity. This is simply Peter’s worldview. He would, once again, need some sort of preparation before meeting with Cornelius. Such preparation comes in the form of a vision in 10:9-16.

Peter’s vision here in Acts 10 must have been absolutely revolting to him. In his vision, he sees an entire assortment of unclean creatures lowered before him on a large sheet—camels, vultures, storks, bats, beetles, lizards, rats, and snakes, and other delicacies. “Get up, kill and eat,” Pete is instructed. You can nearly see him gagging if you picture the story in your minds. This platter full of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds is, to Peter, worse than a carton of liver fingers to a child at Filey’s pre-school. It is, to Peter, worse than the string of maggots described to us a few weeks ago by Marilyn Laszlo, the missionary to New Guinea. The idea alone of eating this stuff is disgusting! From birth it had been drilled into Peter’s little Jewish mind—don’t even touch such things.

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey searches for a contemporary analogy to Peter’s summons to eat unclean animals. Yancey likens the scene to a Southern Baptist convention in Texas Stadium in Dallas. Imagine, Yancey writes, that during such a convention, a fully stocked bar is supernaturally lowered onto the playing field, and a booming voice from heaven urges all of the teetotalers to “Drink up!” “Never,” the participants would surely respond. “Beer is off limits!” For Peter, eating such unclean animals was not only repulsive from a culinary point of view, but a theological impossibility. God simply would not ask such a thing of me. “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

There is, of course, considerable tension in this story, isn’t there? There is tension between a commitment to tradition, on the one hand, and an openness to new ideas, on the other. There is tension between the desire to obey what one understands to be God’s expectations, on the one hand, and the need to be flexible and open-minded, on the other. Peter no doubts want to remain committed to God and what he perceives to be the truth, but he also begins to realize that his “commitments” and assumptions—his paradigms—could prevent him from seeing God in new and unexpected places. Other characters in the Bible struggle with very much the same thing:
Naaman, a Syrian military official referred to in 2 Kings 5, came to the prophet Elisha after hearing that he could cure him of his leprosy. When Elisha instructed him to dip in the Jordan River seven times, Naaman initially refused, arguing in essence that the remedy was too simple given the seriousness of his disease. According to Naaman’s asumptions, God worked only in elaborate and grandiose schemes, with a great deal of pomp and pageantry. Naaman’s paradigm blocked his vision—he couldn’t see God in the simple and the ordinary.
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, Job’s so-called friends, assumed that Job’s tragic misfortune resulted from his own sin. They had placed God in a neat box of theological assumptions and simply could not see him co-existing with pain and suffering. God always operates this way, they argued. Their paradigm blocked their vision.
Now Peter, who embraced a systematic and rigid understanding of religious ritual, ran the risk of missing God in the face of Gentiles like Cornelius and his family. His paradigm blocked his vision, or at least was about to. He needed a paradigm shift. In fact, the entire early church did.
Like Peter, the very commitments and assumptions that we sometimes defend the most rigorously can block our vision and prevent us from seeing God in various unexpected places. When the love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us, our paradigms are often enlarged and our vision clarified.

God has, after all, often worked throughout history in sneaky and unexpected ways. There is something about God that enjoys surprises. He’s not fond of overly rigid paradigms. When it came to creating a community of priests who would serve as his people in the world, he chose the smallest and least likely group of people he could find. When it came to delivering these same people from Egypt, he chose a murderer turned shepherd named Moses to lead the way. And when it came to redeeming the entire world from its bondage to sin and decay, he himself took on flesh—he himself!!—and hoisted each and every one of us upon his shoulders. Unfortunately, we oftenfail to see him because our assumptions—our paradigms—block our vision. We drive up and down Rt. 15 in search of some sort of destination, often failing to realize that it is right before our eyes.

In the 1st century, the Jewish people had other paradigms that went beyond the dietary laws Peter was _____ with. They waited for God to work among them. They waited eagerly for a king to come in David’s line, a king who would successfully rule over a restored earthly kingdom. They waited eagerly for a deliverer to come who would free them from their oppression at the hands of the Romans. And they waited eagerly for a warrior who would lead them against all earthly foes. They waited, eagerly, but their categories grew increasingly distorted. Their paradigms, like Peter’s, were disfigured.

The God they waited for did indeed act on their behalf, but their categories and prior commitments prevented many of them from noticing. God sent a king, not to rule over a restored earthly kingdom, but over human hearts. God did send a deliverer, not to deliver his people from the Romans, but from the greater tyranny of sin. God did send a warrior, not to lead them in battle against foreign nations, but against principalities and powers, against all forces of evil. God did act, but the commonly accepted and rigorously defended paradigm prevented so many people from noticing.

What about your paradigms? What faulty assumptions might be blocking your vision this morning, preventing you from seeing Jesus all around you? Notions of the grandiose that, like Naaman, prevent you from seeing Jesus in the ordinary? Theological straight-jackets that, like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, keep you from noticing God in the midst of your pain and disappointment? Misguided expectations that, like so many Jews in the 1st century, lead you to equate God with power, prestige and wealth? Rigid religious practices that, like Peter, prevent you from seeing Jesus in unexpected places? God is here. That is the point of Christmas—that is it in a nutshell. Immanuel—God is with us. What keeps you from noticing? When Christ’s love compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us, our eyes open to new possibilities. We begin to see God where we would never have expected him before.