Unlearning and New Learning
With an eye on the Nov 4 American election, and the New Zealand Methodist Conference on Nov 8, and enlisting the help of foremost biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, Stuart Grant delivers a very perceptive sermon on Peter's dream in Acts 11.
Acts 11: 1 – 18; John 13: 34-35; Revelation 21: 3-5
When I looked at the lectionary readings for today I didn’t feel I could make much of them.
The O.T. reading from the Book of Joshua was about how the Israelites prepared to cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land. We won’t go into the details, but when they crossed the river they got involved with what we would call today ethnic cleansing. The Israelites had a different take on the experience.
The gospel reading from Matthew was about Jesus denouncing the scribes and the Pharisees.
I didn’t feel I could make anything much of either text. So I decided to turn elsewhere, - to the writings of Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is recognised as probably the foremost Old Testament scholar in the U.S. today, and till now I haven’t read much of him, - to my loss.
Recently I acquired his book, “Inscribing the Text”, which is a collection of sermons and prayers. One of these sermons stood out for me. It’s not based on an O.T. passage, not directly anyway, but it has a lot to do with traditional Jewish attitudes. I’m not just going to read Brueggemann’s sermon to you, but I have used its framework and much of its thought as the basis of what I have for you this morning.
The sermon that stood out for me is based on the passage we have just heard from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Peter’s dream about the sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of unclean creatures in it. This is what we can most certainly call a pivotal story in the development of the Christian Church.
Peter found himself in a deep crisis. And to understand what a crisis it was, we need to know a few things about Peter. He was a fisherman by trade, and the leader of Jesus’ disciples. In the Gospel stories he’s usually the one who speaks first. He became the leader of the very first Christians, who were all Jews. At some time he went to Rome and became the leader of the Christians there, - the Bishop of Rome, the first Pope.
We don’t know anything about his early life, but we can make some intelligent guesses. When Walter Brueggemann first delivered his sermon, it was at a Mother’s Day service, so he imagined Peter growing up as the son of a good Jewish family,
with a mother who kept a good kosher kitchen; which means of course that only food regarded as clean may be used, and they must be prepared in certain ways.
Peter would have known all about the food laws of his people, and he would have been brought up in the strict traditions of the Jewish religion.
The crisis comes when Peter has a dream that threatens everything he has been taught by his family, by his mother, and by the Jewish tradition. And we can identify with Peter to some extent. When we were small children we too grew up in a rather small world. We absorbed the ways, the traditions and values of our parents. We knew nothing else.
But when we grew older and began to mix with other people, other children and their families, we began to realise that not everyone behaved like our family. Other people had rather different outlooks on life, different beliefs and attitudes.
That sort of thing can come as quite a shock to small children.
As a church leader, Peter was regarded as safe, orthodox, and reliable. So we can imagine how alarmed some of his friends became when they heard how he had been sharing meals with a Roman soldier called Cornelius, - that is, with a non-circumcised Gentile, or foreigner. That went right against Jewish law and tradition. Good Jews did not eat with foreigners, so however good a man Cornelius might have been, it was simply not right for him to share table fellowship with Jewish Christians who still kept to strict Jewish food laws.
So Peter’s friends confront him and ask him some hard questions.
Peter tries to explain his dream to them, - a dream which he took as a word from God.
He was asleep one day on a rooftop when he had this dream about a sheet coming down from heaven with various animals, birds and reptiles in it. And he hears a voice saying, “Get up Peter, kill and eat,”
Peter is horrified. As a good observant Jew there’s no way he can eat these unclean animals. That would go against everything he’d ever been taught, form his mother’s knee. He would have remembered what he’d been taught from the old laws. You can look them up in the Book of Leviticus. Here’s just a small sample:
(Lev. 11: 13-14, 29-30) –
These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard . . .These are unclean for you among the creatures that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard, the gecko, the land crocodile.)
Not much there to appeal to my taste buds!
In the dream the whole event is heavily reinforced; it’s repeated three times. No, says Peter; yes, says the voice.
Peter gets the message. To quote Brueggemann:
Peter knew that he was to meet with this uncircumcised non-Jew, Cornelius, and eat with him. He had been taught, from little on, that such people are contaminating; and now God breaks that notion and makes new fellowship possible across old lines.
I’ve underlined the last phrase. Try to hold it in your minds, because there is the heart of the issue I’m trying to address.
Peter had to do some serious un- learning. In his time of crisis he had to move beyond the long held tradition of his Jewish heritage. We can have no doubt that it was difficult for him, but the whole experience opened him up to a new freedom. He learned to put aside distinctions of clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile. He realised that while such distinctions can loom very large in our small human minds, they have no place in the wideness of God’s mercy.
At the beginning I described Peter’s experience as a pivotal one. And that is true. It led to the exclusively Jewish early church being opened up to non-Jews, - Gentiles, foreigners. We can’t imagine the church being anything other than open to all. But what if Peter had said “No” in his dream?
There’s a vital, major principle at work here, one which faced everyone who meets Jesus and is addressed by his Good News: that God’s love is far greater, far wider than we can ever imagine. And if we remain truly open to that love we can expect to be on a series of learning curves throughout our lives.
Harking back to the Mother’s Day theme, there may be times when we need to break away from the confining rules of childhood and unlearn some of what our mothers, or our fathers, taught us. Instead, we need to be ready for what Jesus has to teach us as we realise the fuller purposes that God has for our lives.
St.Paul knew this. You may recall these words of his:
“There is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no longer male nor female, for all are one in Christ.”
Peter had to unlearn the old distinction of his culture between clean and unclean; he realised that this also meant abandoning the distinction between Jew and Gentile. And we in turn find ourselves continually in an un-learning and new-learning process.
For the people of the U.S.A. the question of slavery or freedom was a huge issue not all that long ago. In the 1860’s it was a major issue in their awful Civil War. In a few days’ time, we may see the first black President of the U.S.
So there’s been huge progress, but racial prejudice is still there. And don’t let’s kid ourselves that we don’t have any racial discrimination here in Aotearoa – New Zealand. It’s still there, in subtle or unsubtle ways.
We’ve made huge progress on the “neither make nor female” issue in the church, - but there are many who still have some un-learning and new learning to do on this issue.
The question that’s causing us a lot of anguish in the Methodist Church of New Zealand is the question of the acceptance of gay or lesbian people in leadership. Recently Tongan members of the Methodist Women’s Fellowship decided to boycott its annual convention because the keynote speaker, the Tumuaki (Leader) of the Maori section of our Church (Te Taha Maori) is a declared lesbian. The executive of the Women’s Fellowship, to their credit, refused to buckle to the pressure, and the address went ahead. Three Tongan women attended, despite the boycott.
A letter in the November edition of Touchstone, our church newspaper provides a good example of un-learning and new learning. A woman who had previously been opposed to gays and lesbians in leadership wrote how she had had a change of heart because of family members who had declared their sexual orientation.
I quote Walter Brueggemann again:
It is the same issue one more time, the same issue that always surfaces in God’s large love, the same issue about unlearning what our family taught us, because some of it is not true. The fact hits us here and there, in a dream, in a trance, in a prayer, in a thought, and we are shaken to move into God’s newness.”
I reflect, sadly that so often the Christian Church, or some elements of it, see the Church above all as the guardian of tradition, the still point in an often frighteningly changing world.
Now there is a very real sense in which we turn to the church, to our faith, when we face difficult times. We need and we want comfort and help.
But as I read the Bible and the whole thrust of its teaching, Christian faith is about change, about being led on into the future by God. The hymns I chose for this services reflect that, and the readings too.
If we’re serious about Jesus Christ and his Good News we must be prepared for un-learning and new learning, new forms of mission, new neighbours, new possibilities that challenge us, - and even frighten us.
Brueggeman again: “But comes the voice in the dream to assure us that we will be safe in a new place. And the voice says, ‘Take and embrace what you thought was scary and forbidden.’”
Think of Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
This is all about God’s newness. But so often we learn to put limits on Jesus’ words:
Love everyone, but be careful of strangers. Love all Methodists and Presbyterians, but be careful of Catholics. Love all Christians, but be careful of Muslims.
(How wary most Christians are about any kind of interfaith dialogue!)
We live in a global village, - a small world with limited resources and ever more competition for them. People become fearful, violent, destructive.
We are people who belong to Christ, and we are set in the midst of all this. Our calling is to counter the fear, the hate, the anger, and the exclusion; to help ourselves and others see and experience the height and the depth and the breadth of God’s love.
And that brings us to the last promise in the Bible:
“See, I am making all things new.”
We are to embrace that newness; not cling to tradition, to the safe and the familiar, to prejudice and ignorance.
Imagine what would have happened to the Church if Peter had resisted God’s call in his vision. The young church would have withered and died. But Peter did not resist. And nor do we, if we truly go with the love of God. Amen.