Think of a time in your life that you were transformed. Think of a time when you had one way of doing things and one day found yourself following a different path.
People I know who’ve struggled with alcohol or drug addictions have some of the most powerful stories to tell. One day their lives revolve around booze or narcotics and their lives are spinning out of control; the next day they’ve stopped, and their lives begin to turn around.
Those are dramatic stories that some of us can relate to. Today’s story from the Book of Acts is also dramatic. Peter falls into a trance and has a vision. But what about the rest of us? Maybe you’re not in recovery from addictions. Maybe you haven’t fallen into a trance and had some supernatural vision. You might be thinking, “My life is pretty ordinary.” Transformation? What’s that have to do with me?
Today’s reading from Acts is about transformation. It’s about ordinary people whose worlds are turned upside-down. Transformation is about seeing the world in a new way. Something happens that shifts the way we think, and our world is never the same. Often the experience is something we don’t choose. But always it’s an opportunity to ask how God is inviting us through that experience to allow our hearts to be opened up, expanded, to see the world as God sees it.
Peter is a pretty ordinary guy. He’s a regular, hard-working, blue- collar, fisherman. Peter’s world, you may recall, had been turned upside down—first, as a disciple of Jesus, then, at Jesus’ death, and again at his resurrection. Constantly, Peter is called to change his mind, to see the world differently from how he had before. The death of Jesus was an experience that could’ve shattered him for life. That could have been the end of transformation and Peter could’ve spent the rest of his days angry, bitter, and afraid of the future. Instead, by the grace of God the Holy Spirit was able to use that experience to grow Peter into a more mature disciple of Jesus Christ.
In the vision Peter sees a sheet lowered from heaven. Inside the sheet are many animals that Jewish religious law says are forbidden to eat. (I have a pastor friend who calls this story “pigs in a blanket.”) But in the dream Peter hears a voice that says, “Kill and eat!” Peter is offended. He knows what the religious rules are, he takes pride in being obedient to those rules and he replies, “I’ve never done such a thing and I never will.” But the voice of God answers, “What God has made clean you shall not call profane.” It’s a command that takes us all the way back to the Book of Genesis, to the very beginning of the Bible, to the beginning of creation, where we are told, concerning every part of creation, “God created it…and it was good!”
Well, here’s a story that could be applied to any contemporary situation in which people take sides. Doesn’t matter what the issue is: sexual identity, national, gender, race, age identity. Wherever people take sides on an issue and think of the other side as “unclean,” the voice of God says to each of us, “What I have made clan do not call profane.” Or, as Jesus teaches in today’s first reading, love one another. Starting with your fellow Christians, treat each other as Christ has treated each of us, as an example to the world.
This is a tall order! It may seem out of reach. And yet, in Peter we find hope. Peter, like us, struggled to hear and believe the Word of God that called him to a new way of thinking, a new way of believing, a new way of living. Peter resisted when God called him to be transformed!
In the end, Peter was transformed. But it didn’t happen all at once! When he heard the voice command him to eat those foods that Jewish law had called profane, he replied, By no means, Lord; for nothing profane has ever entered my mouth. Seems like he was always saying something like this. For example, when Jesus announced that he would wash his disciples’ feet, Peter said, You will never wash my feet. When Jesus predicted that he would be killed Peter replied, This must never happen to you. And at the Last Supper when Jesus predicted Peter’s denial Peter replied, Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.
Peter had strong religious beliefs and nothing was going to change his mind; he was convinced that he was on the right side. Over and over he pledged to be true to his beliefs and loyal to his friends. Over and over— sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently—the Holy Spirit called him to transformation, called him to see the world in a new way, to see the world as God sees it. This was hard, because it began to dawn on Peter that the vision he had wasn’t about food. It was about people. It was about taking Jesus’ command to love all people–starting with those close by.
Peter started out like almost every other human being, convinced that his religion, his nation, his beliefs were the best—or even, the only. And who among us isn’t tempted in that direction? But over the course of his lifetime Peter was transformed. Over and over he was shown the limits of his vision, the smallness of his world, and gradually he was transformed into someone who could trust the word of God that commanded him not to make a distinction between his group and others.
In today’s second reading from Revelation, this is the language that is used: a new heaven, a new earth, the new Jerusalem, and a voice that says, “See I am making all things new!” The gospel of Jesus Christ is about transformation. It begins with each of us hearing God’s Word, taking it in, and gradually, over time, finding ways of practicing the love of Christ with one another, so that we are prepared for the challenges we meet each day the rest of the week!
So—if we find this new commandment to love one another daunting, impractical, unrealistic, let us be gentle with ourselves and trust that if God could transform a man like Peter, a man set in his ways, God can certainly transform each of us, and certainly is at work transforming us. No matter how hard we resist, still God is at work. Even better–when we long for transformation and doubt that anything in us is changing, still the Spirit is at work in each of us, creating something new!