A few years ago, I was down in Atlanta to preach. I flew in on a Friday afternoon and later that night I met up with my sister and cousin to celebrate another cousin’s birthday at a local bar. We were all having a good time, getting to know each other, meeting new people, and exchanging pleasantries. I got into a conversation with a new friend and we immediately hit it off. We talked about many things and then that dreaded moment in the pastor’s life happened. She asked me, “So what exactly do you do?” After trying hard with no luck to avoid the question I finally had to come out to her as a pastor.
As we stood there, in the middle of the bar after I had just asked for one more round, she asked the question that I knew was coming:
If you are a pastor, what are you doing here? Why are you in this place drinking, dancing, and partying? If you are a preacher, why are you acting so unholy, why are you in such a profane place doing profane things?
I think St. Peter could have related to this story as he returned home to Jerusalem after his trip in Acts 11. As the story goes Peter was summoned by Cornelius, a Roman centurion and apparent “God fearer” to come his way and preach the gospel. Peter did this and was apparently very successful, with the scriptures telling us that many Gentiles were converted that day. After the revival it seems like Peter really enjoyed himself there and stayed quite a few days.
But all good things must come to an end, as did Peter’s trip. And once he finally got home, word had beat him back to Jerusalem that Peter might have had a little too much fun out there. Yes, they heard that he may have gained a few more believers, but they also heard that to do that, he had to live closely and partake in the ways of the Gentiles. He had to eat with them, drink with them, and hang out with them for a few days probably breaking Jewish purity laws to do so. By the time we meet Peter in Acts 11, he was on his way home to stand before an official Council of Elders and defend himself from accusations of being a bit too profane.
The interrogation began and they asked the first question: Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat? Standing there, before this council of his peers and elders Peter told them this story:
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.”
That experience shifted everything for Peter, the Council and what would come to be the Christian community. The light bulb went off and they had their formative “ah ha” moment. Their questions about how to engage the other, particularly ritually un-pure and morally unclean Gentiles, were answered in a single phrase. Their dispute was settled and something new was revealed in the midst of this theological crisis — the truth about God no longer singularly or exclusively dwelled in the laws written in the Torah or sealed in the rituals practiced by the Rabbis, but experience with God would now primarily reveal the truth about God and who could fully be in God’s beloved community.
William H. Willimon says, “Luke has edged us out of Jerusalem, and into Samaria, moved us into Joppa past the converted Samaritan and Ethiopian Eunuch, and has brought us face to face with the Roman soldier so that we may feel the full force of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The full force of the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that this is God’s world and God declares what is holy, clean and sacred, and God discloses that to us. Sometimes using scripture, sometime using preachers, sometimes using religious authority and tradition, but not necessarily those exclusively. God also discloses what is holy through Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid,” M.A.A.D. City, Beyonce’s lemonade, Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and the transgender activist preaching of my Pastor Allyson Robinson; God uses the story of profane plebians, rogue rabbis, and even partying preachers so we may know that the love of God has no limits and is open to all whom God has created.
That is the argument that Peter made to that council in Jerusalem and that is the argument they accepted and built a church upon. They built a church out of believing that the boundaries of the holy and profane were not theirs to set, but God’s. And as far as they were concerned, God revealed to Peter that God’s people, wherever they were, whatever they ate, however they dressed, whomever they slept with, and married and believed themselves to be, that God’s people’s literally Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, male, female, transgender, and gender non-conforming were to never be called unclean or profane because God had made them ensuring that they were holy, precious and beautiful in his sight.
Christians all over the world, but especially those in North Carolina, Mississippi and wherever else they may be who advocate for discrimination and promote dehumanizing laws against our gay, lesbian, transgender and gender nonconforming neighbors, must re-read this text from Acts, re-examine their conscience, re-connect with their God, and ultimately re-pent for how they have called God’s beloved creation profane and unclean when God has named them holy. And may we, God’s church, continue to look for the presence of God in the faces, lives and stories of the seemingly profane.