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"Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

-- Acts 10:15 NIV

Peter knew his Bible. He faithfully followed the law from Leviticus 11 identifying clean foods from impure foods. But one day, in a noontime vision, he saw something like a large sheet being lowered from heaven. In the sheet were both clean and unclean animals. Peter heard the Lord's voice telling him to eat. Peter protested. He had never eaten pork or other unclean foods. Three times the vision was repeated. Then the divine voice commanded, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

At that moment Gentile visitors arrived inviting Peter to meet a Gentile Roman soldier -- an unclean person. Peter realized, the vision was not just about food; it was about people. He went to the home of Cornelius. While Peter told Cornelius' household the story of Jesus, the Gentile listeners were filled with the Holy Spirit and manifested the gifts of the Spirit. "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" The first Gentiles were welcomed into the Christian church.

It was a controversial decision. The apostle Paul faced years of opposition to his full inclusion of Gentiles into his congregations. But eventually, the work of the Holy Spirit prevailed, and Gentiles were fully accepted into the Jesus movement.

Peter's vision has been repeated throughout Christian history. Whenever some portion of the Church has recognized the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the "unclean," we have repeated this pattern anew. Some of us will have a vision, and we will realize that we have been calling impure those whom God has made clean. We will see in them the fruit of the Holy Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and temperance." We will remember Paul's words, "There is no law against such things." (Galatians 5:22-23) We will call for their full inclusion. But others among us will quote Scripture and invoke cultural traditions to maintain our discriminating customs. We will have a period of conflict. Eventually, the formerly excluded will be included.

We've seen this historic pattern repeated in our nation's history: in the liberation of slaves, in the right for women to vote, in the welcome of successive waves of immigrants, in the legalization of interracial marriage, in the passage of civil rights for blacks, and most recently in the inclusion of our LGBT neighbors. In each of these movements, some of us recognized the fruit of the Holy Spirit in those who had been formerly regarded as impure or inferior. Some of us worked to revoke laws against these and to welcome them into church and society with full inclusion.

But each of these liberation movements has been controversial. In each case, well-meaning, conscientious Christians have opposed these inclusions, always defending their views by quoting Scripture.

An example: It is very easy to use the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. The Ten Commandments enjoin us not to covet our neighbor's slave. Abraham was a slave owner. The New Testament instructs, "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back ..." (Titus 2:9) Jesus spoke of slaves in several of his stories and never directly condemned the institution of slavery.

In the 1800's, Southern preachers and politicians confidently invoked Scripture to support slavery as they justified their choice to separate from the Union and go to war. Arkansas' Gov. Henry Rector put the North-South difference very simply in his speech to the 1861 Arkansas Secession Convention, "They believe slavery a sin, we do not, and there lies the trouble."

Today, no Christian believes slavery is justified. Women's suffrage is no longer a religious issue, though a woman's role and right to leadership is still debated. After initial resistance we've embraced some waves of immigrants (Germans, Catholics, Irish, Italians), but not others. Interracial marriage is increasingly accepted. We've made progress, but full racial equality is still a distant goal. And acceptance of our LGBT neighbors is proceeding in an encouraging way. Justice is slow. But the Holy Spirit works over a long time frame.

For Christians who are bothered by these things in our generation, just look to Peter's example. Recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the unexpected person. See that these others "have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." Trust God, and joyfully join God's glad movement of liberation and justice.

Commentary on 10/25/2016

Print Headline: Bible-based exclusions?

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