What makes faith “biblical”? If you embrace something (or someone) that is forbidden in the Bible does this make your faith “unbiblical”? What if you forbid something the Bible clearly permits? Is that “unbiblical”? The resounding response on the conservative end of Christianity has been, “Yes, your faith is unbiblical.” Surprisingly, many liberal Christians seem to agree with the conservatives! Only, instead of insisting that the Bible trumps all other forms of revelation like their conservative sisters and brothers, liberals move in the opposite direction. They let go of the Bible.
When it comes to a hot-button issue like faith and homosexuality, are these the only choices available? Must we choose between making Scripture the fourth member of the Trinity or throwing out Scripture entirely? Just what is a “biblical” faith anyway?
I love the story in Acts 10-11of Peter and his struggle with a vision to contradict what the Bible and his faith tradition plainly says. It serves as a model for what a truly “biblical” faith looks like – a faith that is simultaneously bound and unbound by Scripture. Apparently the author of acts, Luke, felt the story was a pretty important model, too, as he spends more time recounting it than any other story in Acts.
Read The Message version of Peter’s summary of the story in Acts 11:1-18 here: http://bg4.me/VQ6com
So here’s Peter – a man with a Cross imprinted on his heart – out on his porch in Joppa praying. Right off the bat we have a great model of “biblical” faith. It starts with PRAYER. Apparently, Peter had taken notice of how long Jesus himself spent at prayer. Likely he concluded that if it took Jesus so long to get the message right from God, it would probably take him even longer. He wasn’t like many modern Christians who think they can find and set direction in a few seconds of prayer hastily whispered while driving to work.
After some time, Peter’s mind starts drifting toward thoughts of lunch. Yet rather than responding to his hunger pangs like most of us would, ending our prayer and grabbing a bite, Peter asks for lunch to be prepared for him and continues on. Then comes the vision: Something like a blanket drifts down from the sky, suspended by ropes. On the blanket is spread before Peter all the non-kosher animals of Earth. Then a voice says, “Peter, go to it. Kill and eat. It’s barbeque time!”
“Now wait a minute,” Peter says, “This isn’t … uh … kosher!”
Remember, Peter is a Jew. All the Christians of his day were of Jewish descent, not Gentile. And Jews eat kosher. They eat kosher not out of gastronomic preference but out of respect for God’s Law, given to Israel during the Exodus, inscribed in the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. By the time we reach Peter, Jews had eaten kosher as a sign of love, devotion, and humble obedience for well over a thousand years.
If Peter had been a fundamentalist Christian, he might have resisted the vision’s encouragement to kill and eat the animals stating, “God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it!” He could have cited Leviticus 11 in defense, where God instructs Israel about which animals are “clean” and authorized for eating, and which are “unclean” and therefore forbidden. He could have insisted that the Bible “plainly and clearly” states that camels, for instance, are “unclean” and must not be eaten while cows are “clean” and therefore permitted. Camels are considered unclean because they chew the cud and don’t have a divided hoof, but cows are “clean” because they chew the cud and do have a divided hoof.
Peter could have stood on a stack of Bibles and insisted how the inspired Word of God states in black-and-white that fish with scales are fine to eat, but that scallops, oysters, and crabs are “unclean” because they live in the sea and don’t have fins or scales. Peter had been taught these things – from Scripture – since he was a child. God had made it clear that eating non-kosher foods was abomination to God. Before he had his vision, if someone had told him that God was doing a “new thing,” and that eating kosher wasn’t required anymore, he probably would have accused them of arrogance, or apostasy, or both.
You may think that a spat over kosher food would have been silly from the start. “There’s nothing wrong or evil about eating crabs or scallops.” But roll back the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight and the picture gets a lot murkier. If you were in Peter’s sandals, do you really think you would have thought that a change of dietary law was “no big deal?” Or if you were one of those whom Peter would later try to persuade, would you have accepted his vision without question, or would you have thought that he’s being soft on shellfish? What may appear to be a little ripple to many of us was experienced by our Christian ancestors as a tsunami.
Consider, too, that visions in the Bible don’t come on a flashing neon sign accompanied with a booming voice from the heavens that announcing that the vision is from God. Biblical visions occur like they occur to you and I. They come to us in hunches and intuitions … or quick visual images that come and leave as quickly as they came … and ah-ha moments when something “clicks” into place and changes our perspective … or risings within the heart of our hearts that seem to say, “Look! Listen! I’m here. I’m speaking to you!” Never can we be sure immediately that one of these hunches or intuitions or visual images have come from God. We may be under the influence not of God but of the pizza we just ate.
Given the fact that Peter’s vision stood in such stark contradiction of both scripture and tradition, one can imagine Peter throwing out the vision the first time it came, figuring it had been triggered by hunger not the Holy Spirit. It probably wasn’t until the vision came again that Peter started taking it more seriously.
Here we find another clue to what a “biblical” faith looks like in action. It involves what the ancients called discernment. If you believe that God has spoken to you in some way, encouraging you to do something that’s quite different from anything you’ve done before, it’s an extremely good idea to be skeptical and test the vision. Peter shows us one way of doing this – casting it aside, again and again, and throwing your best arguments against it. If it’s from God, it will come back, and when it comes back, it will continue to “click” things in place, triggering a deep (if quiet) sense of peace or joy at your core. Something else often comes along to add weight to the vision. In Peter’s case it was the insight, “What I have declared clean you shall not call profane.”
Nevertheless, Peter continues to resist the vision. Here again, he provides the model. Godly visions can withstand the greatest doubts you can throw at them. God is patient with us, and God wants us to be discerning. I’ve never understood why so many Christians are threatened by doubt. Doubt is essential in the discernment process. It helps us keep the faith, not lose it! This is the exact kind of faith that Peter models in our story.
Then, while Peter is still wrestling with his doubts in the wake of the third occurrence of the vision, God provides him with a little more help. (That’s something you can expect, too, if God has a hand in it.) There’s a knock at the door. Three Gentiles have come, asking Peter to accompany them to Caesarea where a Roman centurion wants to ask him a few questions about Jesus.
Peter has already been told to consume all this contraband on the blanket. Now, with these three Gentiles at his door saying they want him to accompany them to Caesarea to talk to them about Jesus, Peter’s stress level is probably spiking. Doubtless, scripture is running through Peter’s head: memories from the book of Nehemiah are floating to the surface – memories of Jews divorcing their foreign wives so that they could become pure in God’s sight; memories of Jews being commanded not to associate with the Gentiles.
As these three Gentiles stand before him wanting to take Peter to Caesarea to speak about Jesus, Peter is probably filled with a myriad of conflicting thoughts and emotions. But Peter has been to Ground Zero. He has a Cross-shaped mark upon his heart. He looks at these Gentiles before him and something clicks. It’s like God is saying, “The people I have declared ‘clean,’ are you to call ‘unclean’?” Bam! Lightning has struck, and Peter is now sure where these visions have been coming from. So Peter looks at these people he has always been taught to stay away from and says, “Of course I’ll go with you!”
Peter goes with the Gentiles to Caesarea (about 32 miles away). He meets with Cornelius, the captain of the Roman guard – someone the Jewish people would have considered especially detestable. They start talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Everyone wants to be baptized as a Christian after that – something that until this moment would have been impossible without circumcision. Did you notice how Peter sums up what happened at Cornelius in our Scripture reading? This is a man who sees the Big Picture. The force of the tsunami is fully upon Peter, and he’s surfing! Says Luke:
Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open.” The Message he sent to the children of Israel – that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again – well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.
That first ripple was a big one! The water from it became the water of baptism for the Gentiles. Through the centuries, it has provided the water of our own baptisms as well – brought to us by someone who surfed the wave rather than sinking beneath it; someone who had the courage – and faithfulness – to stand in the face of over 1,000 years of biblical and religious tradition and acknowledge that God is still speaking, shedding new light on an old faith. In so doing, Peter modeled what a truly biblical faith is all about.