Beetles, Beasts, and Boundaries
I want to offer a warning for this sermon. This sermon is a gross sermon. You will likely find it disgusting at points. I want you all to know that this is the point. Spoiler alert: I want you to be grossed out, as a spiritual practice.
This will make more sense as we dive deeper in. Just know that you have been warned.
Now I would like your help with a thought experiment. Imagine that I hand you a glass of juice. Your favorite kind of juice. Would you drink it? Now imagine that there was a beetle floating around in your juice. Raise your hand if you would drink it now.
What if I took the beetle out, raise your hand if you would now drink it? Well what if I took the beetle out, boiled the juice, put it through a filtration system…so that it is now cleaner than the first time I offered you the juice.
Who would drink it now?
What is happening here? Can anyone explain why they wouldn’t drink from the glass, even if it was filtered? It seems as if the moment the beetle touches the juice, the contact with the beetle, no matter what you do to the juice, forever pollutes the juice.
Now, is this logical? No.
Keep that in mind.
Lets move on to Peter, in Acts, we will get back to the beetle later. This is a marvelous story. It starts in chapter ten, Peter is cooking dinner, when he falls into a trance and a sheet of all sorts of animals falls down from the heavens. God tells Peter to kill and eat from the animals in front of him, but Peter refuses. He will not eat these animals because in the Jewish tradition these animals are considered unclean, not fit to eat.
And God argues with Peter, sounding like a mom who is fed up with her child who is a picky eater: “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Now eat what is on your plate.” God has made these unclean animals clean and that is that. This is very confusing to Peter. He wakes up from his trance to see that he has burnt his mac and cheese.
Peter doesn’t fully understand what has happened until he meets a man named Cornelius. Cornelius said that God appeared to him while he was praying. God said that he had heard Cornelius’ prayers and told him to send for Peter.
Peter basically told Cornelius, “Look you are a Gentile, I’m not supposed to hang out with you, but because God told me in a vision that you all were clean, then I guess we are good. And since you have gathered all these folks here, I might as well preach the gospel.”
And that’s what Peter did. He told them how Jesus was the son of God, how he will hung on a tree yet God raised him from the dead. As he was preaching this, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening and they began to worship God.
My favorite part is in verse 45, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out..…
even on the Gentiles…”
Rolling with the momentum, Peter decided to baptize everyone. I love that Peter is so extreme. "Jesus, don’t just wash my feet, wash my whole body!"(John 13:9)And here he was like, heck let’s just baptize the whole room while we are at it!
Now in chapter 11 we hear Peter re-tell the story and justify his actions to the apostles and the believers who were in Judea. They had heard what Peter had done and they weren’t too happy. And not because Peter went nuts and baptized a whole room without proper baptism classes beforehand…but because they were Gentiles. They were particularly upset that Peter had eaten with them.
Here would be a good place to pause and ask why they were mad about Peter eating with Gentiles. Remember the sheet of unclean animals? The one that Peter said he wouldn’t eat?
Well the Gentiles were, for one, considered unclean because they ate these animals. They were also uncircumcised, meaning they hadn’t converted from their own tradition to join the Jewish tradition, whose covenant with God was marked by the physical ritual of circumcision.
But lets go a step back further.
This story has been brewing since the birth of the Israelite people. Why were some animals clean and some were unclean? Why did it matter what God’s people ate in the first place? Why was this so important?Well there is this little thing called the book of Leviticus. To us this entire book sounds like a strict, repetitive list of strange rules. But it made perfect sense to its original audience. The rules were given to Moses by God and were intended to set apart the people that God was forming from the nations around them. To do this, the rules helped the people make distinctions, “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”
This was like the original warning against peer pressure. This was like God’s way of saying, “Just say no.” However the rules were incredibly complicated, especially when it came to outlining what was okay to eat and what wasn’t okay to eat.
Take Leviticus Chapter 11 for example:
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them,
"Speak to the people of Israel, saying: 'From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.'"
Now these are just the land animals that you can eat. We haven’t even gotten to the animals in water or birds or insects…let alone to the animals you can’t eat.
But if you are curious, here is a summary for you: The people of God may eat: any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews cut, so basically: cattle, sheep, and goats.
This means that you can’t eat: the camel, the rock badger, rabbits, pigs, a variety of raptors and waterfowl, bats, rodents, lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. The only insects you can eat are: the locust, the cricket, and the grasshopper. Basically, the preferred land-creature “has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, and chews the cud” (11:3); the preferred water-creature “has fins and scales” (11:9); and the preferred insects “have jointed legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground” (11:20).
Various biblical scholars have wondered and debated why there is this incredibly detailed and specific vetting process when it comes to food consumption. Why are some animals considered clean and others unclean?
One reason might be that this was simply a means of survival. The animals considered clean were reliable sources of healthy food, while the unclean animals might have made people sick. Another reason might be that the animals they were allowed to eat were from distinct, identifiable categories. They know a sheep when they see one.
They could have been thinking, “What is with these bat type things. They fly like birds, but they look like little rats? I don’t like these sky rats so lets leave them alone.”
Or… “Also snakes. What are they? They are danger noodles that we run away from instead of eating.”
Either way, for whatever reason, these laws were literally set in stone and not to be messed with. Either way, God took a vulnerable people, a people that was just freed from slavery under the Egyptians, and created a safe container with boundaries and categories that would keep God’s people distinct and alive.
These rules helped prepare them to meet Jesus. They enabled… “a holy God to dwell in the midst of a world vulnerable to sin and defilement…” But here is where things get tricky and confusing.
God seemingly took painstaking care to craft a nation prepared for God’s holy presence in flesh, God created all of these rules that God’s people were to follow, and then God sent a son who proceeded to systematically break all the rules in the book.
It’s like they say about pastor’s kids, either they become a pastor themselves or they rebel like crazy. Jesus did the second part.
Not only did he break the rules, but he changed them and invented his own.
Jesus said that all the commandments and all the laws can be summed up in the greatest commandment, “Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.”
Why would Jesus do this? Were the laws wrong? Did the people misinterpret God?
The difference lies in the beetle, you know, the beetle that you all refused to drink.
If a beetle is in a glass of juice, the juice is ruined. But if you drink the juice with the beetle in it, you are ruined. The difference is that God’s people didn’t stop at saying that there were unclean animals that shouldn’t be eaten. Or unclean behaviors that needed ritual cleansing to undo.
God’s people took it farther and said that people who eat unclean animals or participate in unclean behaviors, are they themselves unclean.
Not only did they declare people, and entire people groups, unclean…but they determined that God’s people needed to stay as far away from the unclean people as possible. Any contact with an unclean person would make you unclean as well.
Further, not only were you unclean, but you were considered sinful, perhaps even evil. And, “People tend(ed) to think of evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion.” Like the story of the good Samaritan, if an unclean person lie dying in the street, people would cross to the other side of the street to avoid being contaminated themselves.
Yet Jesus intentionally crossed the boundaries between the clean and the unclean. He touched lepers and people possessed by demons and women who were bleeding. One of the number one rules was to not drink blood. And what did Jesus tell his disciples to do? He raised a cup of wine and said this is my blood, poured out for you. Drink.
Jesus sat with sinners and tax collectors. He let a woman of the city come and anoint his feet with her tears and hair. Jesus told the disciples to eat on the Sabbath and he healed on the Sabbath. He talked with women and learned from them.
In Hebrew scriptures it says anyone hung on a tree (cross) would be cursed. Jesus hung on the cross but broke the curse. Jesus was a man of breaking boundaries.
However, he didn’t do it just to be a rebellious GK (God’s kid).
“In the gospels Jesus re-frames notions of sinfulness. Rather than focusing on “unclean” people Jesus focuses on the boundary separating “clean” from “unclean.” Jesus brought the Holy into the ordinary. He made heaven kiss Earth and Earth has never been the same. The holy is mixed with the common and therefore God is everywhere. We can’t separate the Holy from the common or unclean.
You can’t just take the beetle out of the juice and filter the juice. They are irrevocably blended together. Not just within the earth, but within ourselves.
As one commentator puts it, “Humans are a wondrous mixture of dust and glory.” So where does Peter fit into all of this?Well uncircumcised Gentiles were considered contamination. They were pushed to the outskirts and avoided. But we see here in Acts that the Gentiles wanted in.
They wanted a seat at the table.
They wanted to experience this God of Holy mystery, this Jesus of bread and blood and resurrection. Maybe because Jesus wasn’t with them anymore they needed a reminder of what kind of messiah they followed?
And God responded.
God made a point in the most spectacular, dramatic way: he let the beasts rain.
In doing this God vividly demonstrated the holy power that comes when we followers of Jesus make more room at the table.
As one commentator says, “Sharing a table with others holds great power. It can, and maybe always does, indicate some level of acceptance, support, and partnership with them.”
When Peter agreed to preach with, baptize, and eat with the Gentiles, he was demonstrating that maintaining a distinct identity within a Roman Empire was not as important as welcoming others into the fold.
But this required a total transformation of identity. It meant re-drawing the borderlines. This practice, today, is not easy. This process is actually disgusting.
Richard Beck, author of the book, Unclean, says that “disgust” is an emotion that prevents something dangerous from entering us and harming us. This goes for food, but it also goes for our social groups. Disgust guards the border between the holy and the profane. Beck says that our self is defined as a boundary, what is inside is embraced, that which is outside of our bodies is rejected as alien and other.
Examples of this include spit: we swallow spit all the time, but if we spit in a cup and someone told us to drink it…that would be gross.Hair on our head isn’t gross, it is still part of us. Hair off of our head, like in our sandwich, is gross.
We, as individuals and communities choose what becomes embraced, what becomes a part of ourselves, and what stays on the outside. The absolute craziest part of this passage is that God says that we are not the ones who get to decide what is Holy and what is Profane!
God is the one who decides.
So, we are left with Jesus and Peter as models for how to faithfully live out God’s new vision for God’s people. Luckily, there is a practical way for us to try and live this out.
If you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this phrase “suspended disgust.”
In order to practice God’s challenge to let God decide what is clean and unclean, then there are times that we must suspend our disgust and sit down at the table anyway. Suspending disgust means recognizing that something is triggering the emotion of disgust within you.
You recognize the disgust and then you do the thing anyway.
We do this all the time. One example includes changing a baby’s diaper. It is gross, but you love the baby. You see the baby as an extension of yourself. It is part of the fold. So you do the gross thing. I have seen a parent, without thinking--without missing a beat, stick their hand out to catch a baby's vomit. Now that is love.
Other examples would be washing your dog after it has been sprayed by a skunk, bandaging up your friend’s bleeding leg, eating food your host serves that you hate, etc.
This is not logical. In fact it goes against logic.
Suspending disgust is a practice in mercy. It is a sacrifice of mercy. I think that we, as a Christian community, would benefit by incorporating suspended disgust as a spiritual practice. We already do that when we wash feet.
Yet in order to extend mercy and love by suspending disgust we must first have an honest, uncomfortable, and disgusting conversation with ourselves. We must thing about the practices we find disgusting. What practices make our skin crawl?
And we must think about people we find disgusting.
When do we blend practices and people into one thing?
When do people become disgusting, not just their practices?
Can we think of just one person?
Or a group of people?
What would it take for us to suspend our disgust long enough to share a meal together? To get to know one another? To worship together? Remember God decides what is clean and unclean.
So I guess that means that we all need to just buckle down and drink the beetle juice.
 (10:10; 15: 31) as read on page 150 of The Harper Collins Study Bible
 Information about clean and unclean animals is taken from Jacob Curtis’ article, “Guarding the Boundaries between Life and Death: Holiness from Leviticus to the Church”.
 Pg. 28 from Curtis, “Guarding the Boundaries”.
 Unclean by Richard Beck, pg. 19
 Dreaming in Joppa: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148
Jon M. Walton
 Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
 Beck, Unclean pg 85
The Christian Century. “Blogging toward Sunday (Acts 11:1-18).” Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-04/blogging-toward-sunday-1.
“Coloring Outside the Lines: Acts 11:1-18,” David E. Goatley.
“Commentary on Acts 11:1-18 by Brian Peterson.” Accessed May 16, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4061.
“Commentary on Acts 11:1-18 by Kyle Fever.” Accessed May 16, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1617.
"Commentary on Acts 11:1-18 by Mitzi J. Smith"
"Guarding the Boundaries between Life and Death: Holiness from Leviticus to the Church" by Jacob Curtis. May 15th, 2019.
The Christian Century. “Dreaming in Joppa: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148.” Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-04/dreaming-joppa.
"Luke’s Point of View of the Gentile Mission: The Test Case of Acts 11:1-18" by vanThanh Nguyen, S.V.D. Catholic Theological Union.
Morton, Russell. “Between Text and Sermon: Acts 11:1-18.” Interpretation 66, no. 3 (July 2012): 309–11. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964312443196.
Unclean, Richard Beck