Peter’s experience on the rooftop in Joppa (Acts 10:9-23) illustrates that original meanings of the Law can change, and that we can be instruments through whom God can work to effect the change. Two insights from Peter’s experience can assist us as we explore the possibility of being such today.
The first clue is God’s call to Peter to look at things in a new way. Peter’s immediate “absolutely not!” response (10:14) shows how deeply he held to the original interpretation of the Law, even to the point of believing he would be unfaithful to God to consider another view. In fact, it took God three tries before Peter relented! But God was persistent in calling Peter to look at the passage differently, and thankfully, he did.
The second clue is the Spirit’s invitation, through the guests who arrived, for Peter to go to Caesarea and connect with people he had previously avoided and judged. Peter did not even realize that his longstanding viewpoint put him inside a box which prevented him from seeing the larger work of God. God called Peter to journey outside his accustomed crowd and observe what the Spirit was doing elsewhere.
With respect to the first clue, Peter discovered that a familiar passage could be re-interpreted to create a new Kingdom reality. With respect to the second clue, he found that the people he thought were “unclean” were actually clean. It was the original interpretation that had gathered dust and needed cleansing.
Peter’s ability to be the instrument who affected this anointed breakthrough was contingent on two things: (1) his ongoing openness to the Holy Spirit regarding a new interpretation of an old Law, and (2) his willingness to go to Caesarea and meet real people who were as filled with the Holy Spirit as he was. Take out either of these two things in Peter’s life, and the inclusion of Gentiles (to say nothing of subsequent amendments described in Galatians 3:28) would either not have happened, or would have had to be accomplished through someone else.
These same dynamics are necessary if we are to make amendments in the Law today. If we persist in the belief that the original meaning of the Law is the only possible and permanent meaning, and if we hold fast to our conviction that we have the “clean/unclean” thing perfectly figured out, we will miss the opportunity to be instruments in God’s hands to effect change.
But if we are willing to move beyond our initial “absolutely not!” response, and if we are willing to befriend people who are different from us, we can be instruments of change in our generation just as Peter was in his. Like Peter, we will discover that “God is no excluder of persons” (Acts 10:28, 34-36). And another expansion of the Kingdom of God and a richer understanding of the Church will have occurred.
The absolute linkage with this passage of scripture and my own context each week is beyond debate. I spend 30 plus hours a week working in a cultural situation so different from my own background and identity, if you had said to me just a few years ago I would be where I am today I could not have imagined such an immersion, although passages like this certainly over the last 3 decades have informed and reformed me to pay much more attention intentionally to those persons I choose to participate in life with. The reality has become that I feel much more at home in the context of people different from me in so many different ways in terms of color, culture, language, world view, etc. than I ever did in too many congregations of like skinned, like economic folk. And even more remarkable, I feel much safer where I am than too many places of my past. The Kingdom beyond the proverbial bubble is an amazing place to be.