We found ourselves in the ninth chapter of Acts, verses nine through twenty-three. According to the text, it is about noon, and Peter is near Caesarea. He finds the home of a fellow disciple and ascends the stairs to the fat roof. That sounds odd to our ears, but it was common in those days. Homes were built with flat roofs for privacy. Peter wanted to use that privacy to pray. However, prayer must have been difficult because he was hungry. Just think about it for a minute. It is noon and he is hungry. That means it is lunchtime.
I don’t want to shock you, but I like lunch. It is one of my three favorite meals. I am not a picky eater. I will eat anything for lunch, anywhere. Several times a week, I meet for lunch in a local restaurant with various friends. The best is when I meet my wife Kathryn for lunch. However, I never complain when I eat lunch at home. I have eaten many leftovers for lunch through the years. There is nothing better than a cold slice of pizza, cold pasta, or a cold baked potato with some sour cream. In my time, I have eaten gallons of ramen noodles. They are cheap and ready in just three minutes. I have never met a sandwich I didn’t like. There is nothing better than a roast beef and Colby cheese sandwich with horseradish. My favorite beverage with that is a tall glass of buttermilk. Don’t get me started on goose liver and onion on a cracker with mustard. I consider that the food of the gods. One time, when I was in Russia, I ate goat soup for lunch. It was kind of stringy. Do I have to go on? This is the point: I am not a picky eater.
Peter was a picky eater. He only ate certain things. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them. He had never eaten them because the Old Testament law did not permit them. Never forget, Peter was Jewish. From the very beginning of his life, his diet was controlled by the law. Leviticus 11 laid out what was permitted and what was not permitted. You must understand that fact to appreciate what happens next. According to the text, as he waits for his lunch to be delivered, Peter falls into a trance. He sees food. (Have you ever dreamed about food? I have.) He sees a giant picnic filled with everything he has never been permitted to eat. It is too good to be true. God basically says to him in verse 13, “Chow down!” Peter protests because change has always been hard. God tells him nothing is off limits, everything is good. Peter must have never forgotten that day. It was the day the law died. Without the law, Peter’s life became simpler. Just think about it for a moment.
Did you know the Old Testament contains 613 laws? Three hundred and sixty-five are negative in nature. Two hundred and forty-eight are positive. You can classify those laws into three groups. The first group are the self-evident laws, such as the law the laws against murder and stealing. The second group deals with religious duty or tradition, such as keeping the Sabbath holy. The third group is random laws. They don’t fall into any category. In addition to the 613 laws, the Pharisees, experts on the law, created other laws to protect the original laws. You would think 613 laws would be enough, but no. There are more.
In the mid nineteenth century, the world started working on something called “international law”. Countless hours were spent in the League of Nations and the United Nations trying to refine international law. It sounds simple but it is complex. How do you distill all the laws in the world and find common ground? Every culture looks at the world in a different way. International law has become a big deal because our world is growing smaller, due to advances in transportation and communication. International law is important if we are ever going to have world peace. There are so many international laws they can be broken down into three categories, international economic laws, international security laws, and international criminal laws. You would think that would be enough laws, but no. There are more.
Someone once said the United States, or any nation, is nothing more than a series of laws. On the Fourth of July the United States will turn 247 years old. Over that time, our government has produced many laws. They are necessary to regulate behavior. They are not all bad; some laws are good. I am all for the law that says you can’t drive your car down the sidewalk. Without it, people would get killed. I am for the law that says you must pass through airport security before you get on a plane. Our world is a violent place. I am for the law that says convicted sex offenders must register, because it protects our young. I am for the law that says that everyone can own property and vote. I am for the laws that bans any form of discrimination. I am against the Ohio law that says it is illegal to fish for whales on Sunday. However, I am for the law that prohibits dueling. You would think between international law and national law, and state laws there would be enough laws, but no. There are more.
Every organization has its own laws. The church is no exception. In the church, we call laws “rules”. They do the same thing. They regulate behavior. The United Methodist Church has certain rules we must follow. They are all found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Did you know we are required to audit the books of every financial account found within any United Methodist congregation annually. Did you know no alcohol can be consumed within any United Methodist Church building? Did you know there will be no gambling or games of chance, within any United Methodist Church building? When I served in the United Methodist Church, I was required to attend Annual Conference. Did you know every appointed minister is required to have an annual Charge Conference? Did you know, at my ordination, I had to promise to be itinerant? In other words, I must go where the bishop sends me. Did you know any United Methodist congregation can borrow money from itself, but it must be paid back? The United Methodist Book of Discipline is filled with rules we are required to follow. You would think that would be enough law, but no. There are more.
Every local church has their own set of laws or rules. There are some churches who have more rules than they do people. In my opinion, that is part of the problem. My last church was no exception. We had our fair share of rules. How many rules can you name in your church? Most are based on common sense, but everyone has a different standard. Maybe you have heard these in the past? If you are going to use the kitchen, then clean the kitchen afterwards. If you are going to use a cup in the kitchen, then wash your cup. No food is to be left in the refrigerator. (That is why I left my food on the altar.) The last person to leave the church at the end of the day must make sure the doors are locked and the lights are off. If you want to be refunded for any church expense, then you must have a receipt. One of the reasons I never had office hours was I couldn’t remember all the rules. I don’t want to be reprimanded. How many laws or rules does your church have?
One of the reasons I love Jesus is that he only had two rules. I can remember them. They are found in Matthew 22:36-40. This is the first one: you are to love God with all your heart, mind and soul. In other words, you are to love God completely. This is the second: you are to love your neighbor as yourself. Church work is not hard; we make it hard. In the life of the church, all we must do is talk about Jesus and care about others. Everything else we do is optional. Everything else is distractive. Everything else can be eliminated. In the scripture lesson for today, Peter was told the law was eliminated; the only thing that really mattered was Jesus. It is still true today.
In 1994, I was appointed to the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio. I inherited a mid-week program by the name of Youth Club. At the time it was a popular program that was found in many churches. The concept was simple. On Wednesday, the children would come and gather for a lesson and dinner. Those who ran it did a wonderful job. Everyone, regardless of age, had fun.
One day in December the youngest class was out in the narthex, standing near the glass looking into the courtyard. They were all fixated on the courtyard because the Christmas decorations had just been put up. The life size plastic nativity set was on display. The group had their noses pressed against the window. It was like one of those Norman Rockwell scenes. The teacher tried to hold them back because there was a rule about touching the glass. The glass had to be spotless. I have never been a fan of rules. I said, “Let them go! That is why they make glass cleaner! We must keep Windex in business.” Then, I got a better idea. Why not let the class out into the courtyard and experience the figurines for themselves. They were just the right size. The class was the same size as the images. I walked to the door to open it when the teacher told me to stop. She said, “Russ, you are new. No one is allowed to go into the courtyard, especially at Christmas. Those figures are sacred.” I thought, those figures are plastic, and to be honest with you, they were tacky. I said to the teacher, “Aren’t we supposed to be introducing our children to Jesus?” She said, “Yes!” I said, “So let’s do it.”
I opened the door and the children flooded into cool fresh air. They didn’t go crazy. They were controlled, like they were walking on sacred ground. One of the students stood by the camel and grew still. One student hugged Joseph. One went eye to eye with a shepherd and smiled. One touched Mary’s face with his fingertips. One kid picked up Jesus and kissed him. He looked at his friend next to him and said, “This is Jesus!” Then, ever so gently, he passed Jesus to him. One by one they took turns holding Jesus. Those children knew at their young age there was something special about those plastic tacky figurines, because there was something sacred about Jesus. There always has been and there always will be. Without Jesus, we have nothing at all. Perhaps, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) said it best, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” The only thing that really matters in the life of the church is Jesus!