A Kentucky clerk claimed “God’s authority” this week when she refused to issue a marriage license to same-sex couples. As I read her story, I was reminded of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, who had a vision about God’s authority.
This story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10. The story about God’s authority comes down to this verse:
"God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."
This verse was an absolute game changer for Peter and the early church. And it should be a game changer for us today.
Peter made this statement after he had a vision of a sheet falling from heaven. On the sheet were “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”
Many of the animals on the sheet were unclean according to religious law. For example, Leviticus 11 provides the classic biblical teachings, supposedly from God through Moses, about which animals are clean and unclean to eat.
Well, those clean and unclean animals appear on the sheet in Peter’s vision. God tells Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” God makes no distinction between clean and unclean — rather, God just tells Peter to eat up because it’s all good!
Peter protested, because, you know, the Bible. And that was Peter’s problem. He elevated the Bible above God.
Peter complains, saying that he would never eat that unclean stuff.
“For I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
Then God gives Peter a lesson in God’s authority.
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Okay. Is God pulling a Jedi mind trick? I mean, Peter was right! After all, Leviticus says you can’t eat bacon. But I love bacon! And there on the sheet in Peter’s vision was a nice, fat pig. God told Peter to go kill it and fry up some bacon. Understandably, Peter was confused because of the purity codes in Leviticus. But God was now saying that he had actually made all those animals clean and they that they are good to eat.
And I’m so thankful because bacon is amazing.
But for Peter, this vision was about much more than saying all animals are now clean, despite any previous biblical teachings. It was about human beings. It meant that we could no longer use religious principles or laws to call certain people clean and unclean.
After the vision, Peter went to a town called Joppa and baptized a Roman soldier named Cornelius. An important element of the story is that Cornelius was a Gentile, and a member of the hated Roman army. Just like Peter didn’t think it was kosher to eat bacon, he also didn’t think it was kosher to hang out with Gentiles, especially a Gentile who was a Roman centurion. But when Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, it was full of Gentiles.
Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Peter’s vision was about animals, but it was about much more than animals. It was about human beings. It’s important to note that every culture has these kinds of purity codes that tell us who is included and who is excluded, who is clean and who is unclean. Sometimes those purity codes are based on religious principles and sometimes they are based on other cultural standards. The point is that these purity codes create a barrier of hostility between “us” and “them.”
But God’s vision to Peter changed all of that. He could no longer call anyone unclean. Later in the story, Peter explained his actions by stating, “The Spirit told me … not to make a distinction between us and them.”
Why? Because “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” This is such an important verse because our words mediate reality. When we call others unclean, when we decide who is included and who is excluded, we construct a reality that is in opposition to God. God shows no partiality, so neither should we.
In Peter’s day, it was the Gentiles who were thought to be unclean. Who is it in our day?
This brings us back to yesterday, when the Kentucky county clerk claimed she was “under God’s authority” to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The Kentucky clerk is using her interpretation of biblical principles to call certain people profane or unclean. Because, you know, the Bible. But Peter’s vision tells us that we shouldn’t use the Bible as justification to make those kinds of distinctions. That is to elevate the Bible above God. It turns the Bible into an idol.
Just as the Spirit told Peter not to use the Bible to “make a distinction between us and them,” so we shouldn’t use the Bible to make a distinction between us and them.
We aren’t under God’s authority when we make declarations of who is clean and unclean, who is worthy of marriage and who isn’t.
As Peter’s vision shows us, God’s authority doesn’t divide us from them. Rather, it includes us and them.