Are you able to tell the difference between a man-made Christian tradition and the biblical mission? Can you think of a tradition that might actually be getting in the way of you and your church accomplishing the mission?
This week we’ve been studying Acts 9:32-11:18, and in that story God gives Peter a dream trying to help Peter see that a Jewish tradition was getting in the way of the mission Jesus had given his disciples.
What Peter heard in the dream was not a new concept for him. How do we know this? Because Jesus years before had taught them so. Jesus mentions these cleanliness laws in Mark 7:1-23. In Deuteronomy 14 God said that certain animals made the people unclean when those people ate them. Jesus flips that and says, “No, it’s what is already inside you that is unclean, and it is revealed when you let it out of your heart.” In Mark 7, verses 21-22, Jesus makes a new list of what is unclean: evil thoughts, sexually immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. When you notice those actions coming out of you, that should concern you, Jesus says, not pig’s meat.
Mark even makes a brief parenthetical comment in verse 9, saying that Jesus had now declared all foods clean! But the disciples hadn’t followed that part of Jesus’ teaching. Why? Perhaps they were allowing their Jewish culture and tradition to take precedence over Jesus’ teaching.
Before we get down on Peter for needing to be reminded of what he’d heard before, of the truth Jesus had spoken to him previously, perhaps we can all admit that when we are dealing with a deeply entrenched cultural value, it is hard to see things a new way. Peter tells God that he had never, ever, in his whole life, eaten something unclean. I don’t believe Peter is exaggerating. For Peter to have a vision is shocking enough, but for the message of the vision to be an overturning of the practice of holiness, it seems wrong to Peter.
Many of us have similar struggles, right? We have read or heard what Jesus wants us to be about, but we’ve got reasons why we don’t have to follow his teaching. As we’ll see, a similar lack of follow-through on the part of the disciples had much more significant ramifications that just what foods Christians can eat. God steps in, giving Peter a dream, because he has big plans for his people, and he doesn’t want their tradition to get in the way of those plans.
God is reminding Peter of what Jesus already taught back there in Mark 7, and he is taking it to a new level. You see what God is doing? He is saying, “Peter, all those lists of clean and unclean animals were for a day that has come and gone. That was kosher thinking. You are under a new covenant. I define holiness a different way now, and I want you to think not only about food, but more importantly about people, with this new mindset.” The church was allowing their traditional understanding that the Jews were God’s chosen people to keep the message of Jesus within Jewish circles.
A few years ago at Faith Church, a man in our church family approached me with a unique outreach idea. He was a ballroom dance instructor in his professional life, and he felt that if the church offered beginning dance classes for free to the community, it would be a big hit, and a great way for the church to connect with the community. He proposed that he would teach a 4-week series of classes as an experiment. Inwardly, I doubted his opinion, but I loved his creativity and initiative and said, “Let’s take the idea to the Outreach Team!”
Some people in the church felt very uncomfortable about the thought of ballroom dance classes in the church fellowship hall, because growing up, there was no dancing allowed in the church. That was the traditional viewpoint. But it is absolutely okay to dance in a church fellowship hall, provided that it is tasteful, classy dancing, which is what ballroom dancing is all about. The Outreach Team stepped out in faith, approved the idea, publicized it to the community, and to my surprise and delight, on the first night, so many couples showed up, we had to turn some away! Over the next few years that we held ballroom dance classes, I believe God opened the eyes of some of us who grew up in a no-dancing tradition. In Acts 10-11 God opened Peter’s eyes too, and what we’ll see in the next post is that the rest of the story is wonderful.