“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
These are the words that rattled around inside Peter’s head. They were troubling, even disturbing. The implications of these words would shape the future of Christianity and the world for millennia.
These words came to Peter in a vision he had while meditating one morning on the roof of a house. The Bible records his vision as a very clear and vivid experience, but I tend to think it was probably more fluid and subtle when it first happened. I bet it started with a hunch, a nagging feeling in the back of Peter’s head that just wouldn’t leave him alone. In time, this hunch gave way to a particular mental image, which was then summed up in this single phrase, arising from the depths of Peter’s subconscious mind.
Peter’s vision, as the Bible records it, went like this:
He was meditating on the roof of his friend’s house when he saw a sheet come down out of heaven with several ritually unclean animals on it. Then a voice came from the sky saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
This was a big deal for him. This voice, which Peter identified with the voice of God, was telling him to go against the cultural traditions of his people. There were certain animals they just weren’t supposed to eat. It wasn’t “the way they’d always done things.” Even more than that, the vision went against everything Peter had been taught from the Bible in his youth. According to Jewish dietary laws in the Torah, known as Kashrut, there were certain animals that God had commanded the Jews not to eat. So, from Peter’s perspective, the voice of God in this vision was asking him to do something that went against everything he’d read in the Bible. This was a problem for a good Jewish boy.
Just think about that: even today, we continue to look to the Bible as the primary source of inspiration for our faith. The Bible holds an honored place in our churches and our worship services. Its authority was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and continues to sit at the center of our Presbyterian tradition. What would we say if some preacher showed up denouncing the Bible’s authority on a Sunday morning? We’d be pretty upset. So you can imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
As it turns out, the vision wasn’t actually about food at all. Coincidentally, just as Peter was having this vision, there was a knock at the door. A group of people arrived who would take Peter to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, not a Jew, who wanted to convert to Christianity. Cornelius’ conversion turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that would transform Christianity into a truly multicultural religious movement in the early centuries of the Church’s existence.
Peter determined pretty quickly that his vision wasn’t really about kosher food at all, but kosher people. The message he took from his experience is that the kingdom of heaven is a community where all people are welcome, regardless of their ethnic origins or adherence to Jewish ritual laws. This welcoming event, far from being accepted by all, became the Christian Church’s first controversial debate in history. Church leaders back then were as divided over the issue of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together as current church leaders are now divided over the issue of same-sex marriage. After two thousand years, the issues have changed but the process remains the same.
I made us of Peter’s vision this week because this is the fourth week in our series on the six Great Ends of the Church. We’ve already looked at the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, and the maintenance of divine worship as three Great Ends of the Church. This week, we’re looking at a fourth one: the preservation of the truth.
Now, this is an aspect of church life that Presbyterians have specialized in over the centuries. We’ve always been an intellectual bunch. We like to bring our brains to church. So, you can imagine that questions of truth tend to factor rather highly in the Presbyterian mind.
In the past (and sometimes in the present), we’ve done such a good job at caring about the truth that our theological debates have led to fights, which have in turn led to church schisms. At one point, there were so many different Presbyterian denominations in the United States that people started jokingly referring to our tradition as the “Split P Soup” (P is for Presbyterian). Each and every one of these separate denominations claimed to be the one true Presbyterian Church while all the others were simply heretics.
Starting in the mid-twentieth century, the largest group of American Presbyterians, then called the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, came up with a new way of expressing its relationship to the idea of theological truth: they adopted a Book of Confessions in place of a single statement of faith.
Before the 1960s, American Presbyterians had almost uniformly looked to a series of documents called the Westminster Standards as the summary of what they believed and taught. The Westminster Standards included a confession of faith, two catechisms for teaching theology to young people in Q&A format, and a directory for planning and leading worship.
These documents, so it was said, presented the summary of Presbyterian teaching in a single voice. But the problem is that Presbyterians, going all the way back to John Calvin himself, have always acknowledged that there are other legitimate believers in other churches around the world who don’t necessarily know about or follow the Westminster Confession. In fact, John Calvin himself never read the Westminster Confession or called himself a Presbyterian. In recognition of this fact, American Presbyterians in the twentieth century adopted a collection of multiple statements of faith from various times and places around the world. Taken together, these documents present a composite picture of what we value and believe. All have equal authority as confessions of the church. No single statement perfectly summarizes what we think. Many of these statements even disagree with one another. Moreover, our Book of Confessions is not a closed book; it can be added to. The last document to be added was the Brief Statement of Faith, which was added in 1991. As recently as 2010, our denomination has contemplated adding yet another document: the Belhar Confession from South Africa, although this document failed to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote to be included in the book.
The many documents that now comprise our Book of Confessions are taken together as “subordinate standards” and “expositions” of what the Bible teaches. We acknowledge that these documents are not perfect, they can be mistaken in their interpretations. Nevertheless, we include them in our book because we feel they are important. They are the first, outer layer of church tradition that we embrace and honor as our own.
The next level down from the Book of Confessions in our preservation of the truth is the Bible itself. This is the big one for most Protestants. We view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative witness to the Living Word of God revealed in Jesus. Some have supposed this means that the Bible itself contains no errors of a doctrinal or historical nature.
While I respect such folks’ reverence for the biblical text, I’m not inclined to agree with them about the Bible being inerrant or infallible. These folks claim that the Bible speaks with a single voice on all matters and serves as the final, debate-ending source to quote in a theological argument.
However, reality is much more complicated than that. First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice about anything because it’s not a single document. The Bible is a library. Like the Book of Confessions, the Bible is a collection of many different documents produced by different people in different places and different times for different reasons. Parts of it contradict one another. Most of the documents are stories, poems, and letters that have been preserved over millennia. This collection is much more central and important to our identity than the Book of Confessions, but it too falls short of the modern ideal of a once-and-for-all source of accurate information.
What we have in the Bible and the Book of Confessions is conversations within conversations about conversations. Like late-arrivals to a cocktail party, we present-day believers walk into the room, pick up on the nearest conversation, and try to get involved while catching up on what’s already been said. Chances are, the party and the conversations will still being going on when it’s time for us to leave. The best we can hope for is to contribute meaningfully to the best of our ability and bond closely with our conversation partners in the time we have available to us. At no point does anyone seem to have the last word on any part of this conversation.
How then can we be preservers of the truth? By admitting that we don’t hold all of the answers. Truth is not a commodity that can be owned, bought, or sold in the open market. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is something that is known only to God. The rest of us are obliged to listen to one another if we are to enlarge our understanding of truth.
Preserving the truth, for Presbyterians, means continuing the conversation about God, the church, the Bible, and morality. We often disagree about what the truth is about any given matter. I would dare to say that it’s okay. Faith is not about having all the answers. Faith is about reaching out beyond what we know in order to touch the mystery of existence. Faith is the trust that transforms our lives to look more like Jesus’ life.
In Peter’s case, faith meant trusting the voice in his heart that said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” For him, faith meant opening the doors of the church to welcome those who were not previously welcome due to someone’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible and religious doctrine. Preserving the truth, for Peter, meant keeping an open mind toward the new thing that God might be doing in the world, in spite of the fact that it went against what felt familiar and sounded orthodox to him. Preserving the truth and possessing the truth are mutually exclusive of one another.
When Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Even Jesus admitted that there are truths that could and should be spoken but didn’t pass through his lips. He entrusted that ongoing work to the Spirit of God living in the hearts of his followers. He told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, [that Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.
A church that preserves the truth is a community of people who continually listen for the still, small whisper of that Spirit in their hearts, who keep open minds toward the mystery of truths they do not yet know, and who welcome the presence of outsiders in their midst as potential messengers of truth, insight, and discovery. May we be such a church and may we preserve the truth to the best of our ability.