Priorities and Faith
Sunday, April 28
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Priorities and Faith
Alpha and Omega, First and Last, glory outshining all the lights of heaven: pour out upon us your Spirit of faithful love and abundant compassion, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
All Readings For This Sunday
1. What should be the priorities of Christians today?
2. Which is more important: protecting the environment or creating jobs–or is this a false choice?
3. What is the proper place of animals in a theology of creation?
4. What are your “rules of food”?
5. How might a change in your attitude toward food affect your attitude about other people as well?
Reflection by Professor Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary
Which is more important: protecting the environment or creating jobs? Safeguarding animal habitats or achieving national energy independence? Policy makers and political parties often insist that we have to choose between these values, pitting care for people against care for the earth.
Two of this week’s lectionary texts challenge such either-or thinking. Psalm 148 places humans and the rest of creation on equal footing, and Acts 11 shows how rethinking our relationship with food can help us rethink our relationships with each other.
This poem is one of five doxological hymns that conclude the book of Psalms. Likely intentionally placed at the end of the book to shape the Psalter into a document of praise, these psalms all begin with “Hallelujah!” (“Praise the LORD!”) and are repeatedly punctuated with the imperative, “Praise!” The command to praise is the sole theme of Psalm 148. Apart from two verses that explain why God deserves praise (6 and 14), each verse begins with the same command (sometimes implied). The psalm first addresses the heavens (1-6), then the earth (1-7), and finally ends with a summary and a repeat of its opening line: “Praise the LORD!”
These structural features cast humans as equals with the rest of creation. In its middle section addressing the earth, the psalm makes no formal distinction between mountains, wild animals, kings, and people of all ages and genders. Each is addressed in the same way–creeping things equally capable of and responsible for praising their creator as are princes. Throughout, the sole object of praise is God. Animals and mountains do not serve people: they, along with people, praise and serve the divine one. The glory of the heavens and the earth is eclipsed by the glory of the God whom they serve (v. 13).
The mention of God’s favor for Israel in verse 14 continues rather than interrupts the psalm’s theme of universal praise. God’s closeness with the people is presented as motivation to join the rest of creation in praise rather than as a privileged status over the world; the covenant relationship does not place God’s chosen people above creation.
The book of Acts is organized to depict the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. Chapter 11 appears mid-way through this advance, explaining how key figures such as Peter came to accept Gentiles as part of the Jesus movement.
Peter’s vision is first narrated in Acts 10. After the Gentile Cornelius has a vision in which an angel instructs him to contact Peter, Peter himself experiences a vision in which unclean animals are offered for food. The two men meet and recount their visions, leading Peter to conclude that “God shows no partiality” (10:34), and the Holy Spirit comes upon all those gathered. In ch. 11, Peter recounts the vision to those skeptical of including Gentiles, and they are persuaded by his testimony. Peter’s recap of the events in ch. 11 does not mention Cornelius by name, though both chapters acknowledge the role of a Gentile, two visions, and the Holy Spirit in shaping a new understanding of the believing community.
This well-known passage is often interpreted in ways that explicitly or implicitly promote anti-Judaism. The dietary and membership restrictions of Judaism too often are cast as narrow and arbitrary, in contrast to the purportedly more enlightened inclusivity of Christianity. Such interpretations are not only detrimental for contemporary interfaith dialogue but also fail to recognize the ways in which this story shows how people’s views can change and how attitudes toward food relate to attitudes toward other humans.
The foods offered to Peter go against his understanding of what it “fit” to eat. They are described as “profane” and “unclean,” categories drawn from the purity system of the Hebrew Bible. As studies of the purity laws underscore, these labels refer not to matters of hygiene or sanitation but to a particular cultural and religious understanding of how the universe is ordered.
While modern Christians often dismiss the purity system as irrelevant to their own lives, we nonetheless hold to our own notions of “fit” foods. Many would second Peter’s refusal to eat reptiles and birds of prey and add other rules about food to our list:
• A proper dinner includes meat.
• A meal that includes a wide variety of foods (for example, numerous small plates or tastings) is more elegant than a single dish.
• Food should be easy to prepare.
• All produce should be available year round.
• Bottled water is better than tap water.
Numerous studies have shown that these “tastes” have severe consequences for the planet, our own health, and the food supplies of others. Simple internet searches on “environmental impact of bottled water” and “environmental impact of meat consumption” offer useful and challenging data. A search on “variety and overeating” reveals the ways in which a variety of food choices leads to overeating.
In Acts 10-11, Peter’s willingness to change his mind about food prompts him to change his mind about people. His vision, the Holy Spirit, and his encounter with Cornelius allow him to discern the interconnectedness of all creation: “what God has called clean, you must not call profane” (11:9). Might changing our own views of food help us do the same? Could drinking tap water help us be more aware of the privilege of having clean water readily available to us? Could quenching our craving for variety reduce our waistlines and our monopoly of the planet’s resources? In her short, readable book Eating and Drinking (in the series Christian Explorations of Daily Living, Augsburg Fortress, 2011), Elizabeth T. Groppe investigates the sources and implications of the food her family consumes in a single day. Following her lead might help us take more responsibility for the environmental and human impact of our tastes.
Tastes and cultural norms are hard to change. But we trust that the Holy Spirit can empower us to embrace more of creation, just as it empowered Peter and the Jerusalem church.
Our guest writer this week for Mission 4/1 Earth
Dr. Julia M. O’Brien is Paul H. and Grace L. Stern Professor of Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Her academic specialties include the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, (especially the Minor Prophets) and the intersection of gender studies and biblical studies. The author and editor of numerous commentaries and monographs, Julia currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies and is completing a feminist commentary on the book of Micah. Julia also lectures and leads workshops on various topics related to the Bible and contemporary culture–including (homo)sexuality and the Bible; the family in ancient and modern perspectives; biblical promises and Middle Eastern politics; and secular readings of Old Testament narratives. For more information, go to http://juliamobrien.net.
For further reflection
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century poet/philospher
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Wendell Berry, 20th cenutury
“In the loss of skill, we lose stewardship; in losing stewardship we lose fellowship; we become outcasts from the great neighborhood of Creation.”
John Calvin, 16th century
“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”
Michael J Cohen, 20th century
“Our estrangement from nature leaves us wanting,and when we want there is never enough. Our insatiable wanting is called greed. It is a major source of our destructive dependencies and violence.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century poet/essayist
“People only see what they are prepared to see.”
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