Are You “Clean” or “Unclean?”

Never consider unclean what God has made pure.

Are You “Clean” or “Unclean?”
Photo by Pascal Debrunner / Unsplash

There’s some strange stuff in the Bible.

When Jesus came on the scene, “the Bible” as we know it today did not exist. The Torah, or the first five books of what we call the Bible, were taught by Rabbi’s. Added to that were writings of the Prophets and other works that would eventually become what we call the Old Testament. These writings contain early humanity’s understanding of their relationship with God.

The early followers of God developed many rules for God’s people to follow. Eating an ox was ok but a pig was not. No bacon or pork for our Old Testament brethren. Also not ok: most birds (though chicken was fine), shrimp, lobster, reptiles, and some bugs. Other bugs, locusts and grasshoppers, were perfectly fine to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’d choose bacon over grasshopper any day. Guess I wouldn’t have made it as a early follower of God…

These early dietary restrictions were a form of covenant between God and humanity. People showed their devotion by only eating food considered “clean” and completely avoiding anything considered “unclean”.

A passage in Leviticus says should an “unclean” bug fall into a clay water pot, any water in the pot is now “unclean” and the pot itself must be destroyed. The pot, any any water to be poured from it, will forever be “unclean.” Oh, and if that dead bug happened to touch your oven, well you better smash that up, too.

Strange, right?

What was considered “clean” was also called “sacred”, or connected to God. What was considered “unclean” was also called “profane”, or disconnected from God. This is where profanity comes from: “unclean” words. Profanity means “blasphemous or absence language.” So anything we say that is disconnected to God is “profane”.

Unfortunately people did what people do and began applying this concept to people. All of a sudden, you were either in or you were out. You were either sacred or your were profane. Awful, right? Enter Jesus.

Jesus’ entire ministry can be summed up in what we call The Gospel, which translates to Good News. This Good News is love and grace for all people. Humanity is sacred, clean, and connected to God. No exceptions.

In the book of John, shortly before he would be arrested, Jesus told his friends:

34″I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” John 13:34–35 CEB

Jesus preached love. Yet, just like today, a lot of people didn’t get the concept. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples continued spreading this Gospel of love.

Peter, one of those disciples, shared the Gospel with a man named Cornelius. The only problem, Cornelius was a Gentile which was first-century code for “unclean” or “profane” or disconnected from God. Here Peter, a “clean” and “sacred” Christ-follower decided to share God’s love with Cornelius, an “unclean” soldier. Scandal!

The early church leaders thought Peter made a terrible mistake and called him in for questioning. The book of Acts captures Peter’s response:

“I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals — including wild beasts — as well as reptiles and wild birds. 7I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ Acts 11:5–7 CEB

Did I mention there are strange things in the Bible?

All of the animals Peter saw in his vision were considered “unclean” and yet the voice of God is telling him to eat them. Peter responded:

‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. Acts 11:8–10 CEB

Peter doesn’t get things easily. Jesus said Peter would deny him three times. Peter said surely not, yet denied knowing Jesus how many times? Three. Here, in his vision, Peter needed to hear God say, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure” three times for it to sink in.

Peter continues to explain how at that moment, three Gentile (see, “unclean” or “profane”) men arrived and the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them. He traveled to Caesarea and when he entered their house, he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles.

Remember, Peter is still on trial explaining why he brought the Gospel to “unclean” people. He addresses his investigators and says:

16I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?” Acts 11:16–17 CEB

At this, the religious leaders calmed down and concluded Gentiles were deserving of the Gospel. In other words, the religious leaders listened and affirmed all people were “clean” and “sacred”, just as God created them.

Yet, here we are 2,000 years later and there are religious leaders who still label certain people “unclean” and undeserving of God’s love. This is garbage and, just like Peter, they need to be repeatedly told, “never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

Every person is created in God’s sacred image. To call someone “unclean” or “profane” is to call God “unclean” or “profane”. Like Peter said, who are we to stand in God’s way and classify people on God’s behalf?

In the Methodist Church we understand the Bible to be inspired by God but written by humans. Such, it’s important to read scripture with our reasoning, experiences, and traditions in mind.

While there is good stuff throughout the Bible, a lot of it is strange. Yet, when scripture get’s confusing we can return to the Gospel, the Good News, to learn from Jesus’ teachings:

34″I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” John 13:34–35 CEB

Nadia Bolz-Webber is a Lutheran priest and author and all around amazing person. I’m reading her new book, Shameless, and this passage struck me as on the nose:

There are those who will say that it is dangerous to think we can decide for ourselves what is sacred in the Bible and what is not. I reject this idea and here’s why: the Gospels are the canon within the canon. “The Bible,” as Martin Luther said, “is the cradle that holds Christ.” The point of gravity is the story of Jesus, the Gospel. The closer a text of the Bible is to that story, or to the heart of that story’s message, the more authority it has and the further away it is, the less it’s authority.

It’s a story of how the God who spoke through profits and poets was the same God who showed up later in a human body and walked around like he didn’t understand the rules. Jesus said God’s love is like a father running into the road to meet his no good child, as if the child’s no-goodness was no matter.

Jesus’ stories seemed like nonsense but then also seemed like absolute truth at the same time. He just kept saying that the things we think are so important rarely are. Things like holding grudges and making judgments and hoarding wealth and being first.

Then one night this Jesus got all weird at dinner and said a loaf of bread was his body and a cup of wine was his blood and all of it is for forgiveness. All of it means our no-goodness is no matter. Then he went and got himself killed in a totally preventable way. Three days later he blew his friends minds by showing back up and being all like, “you guys have any snacks, I’m starving.” Then he made a fire, grilled some fish, and invited his friends to join him.

This is the Gospel. This is messy, strange, and powerful message God wanted humanity to know: Jesus died in a totally preventable way so that our no-goodness is no matter.

All people, every one of us, is created in God’s image and made sacred and clean through the grace provided us at birth. Jesus’ personification of love and forgiveness is available to all people, no matter what category someone might try to put us in.

When we get lost or confused or some misguided religious leader tries to call us “unclean” or “profane” we can return to the Good News: God is love embodied in Jesus.

No matter what anyone says, never consider unclean what God has made pure. You are clean. You are pure. You are loved by God.