This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

What God Has Made Clean

Thomas Matthews MC'61

From Charles Speel, I learned much. He introduced me to the riches of the Christian tradition in his class "The History of Christianity." Through his teaching, I became acquainted with Athanasius, Augustine, as well as many other shapers of the Christian heritage.

Charles demonstrated to me a passion for parish ministry. Within his busy academic schedule, he found time to lead worship at the West Side Presbyterian Church. As a student intern at this church, I benefited from his teaching and preaching.

Charles maintained a lively interest in current events. Christian conviction led to informed action. When my Monmouth social fraternity struggled to integrate racially, I turned to him for advice.

In appreciation for Charles' respect for theological heritage, his passion for parish ministry and his concern for social righteousness, I submit this sermon.

I should not call anyone profane. . . .

Acts 10:9-29

A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Richardson, Texas, June 20, 1993

"What God Has Made Clean"

It is noon. Peter is in prayer. He is hungry. Opening before him is a strange vision. A sheet is let down from heaven. The sheet opens, revealing strange animals for food--"reptiles and four-footed creatures" our scripture tells us. Acts 10:12 Peter is commanded to eat. He is unnerved by this instruction. The animals for a ritual-keeping Jew are unclean. Peter protests the command: By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean. Acts 10:14

Peter's revulsion was similar to mine when I visited Michelle McCallum at Baylor Hospital. Michelle was a delightful young woman in her 30's--the mother of a daughter. She participated in the Divorce Recovery Program of this church and in worship. Michelle was admitted to Baylor in the last days of her battle with AIDS-- a disease she contracted from her husband. Michelle, sadly, lost this battle.

My visits with Michelle were not easy. I was uncomfortable in the presence of one with AIDS. The sight of her suffering caused anguish. When I would take Michelle's hand in prayer, I was aware of touching the flesh of someone with a dread illness. On one of my visits, Michelle's tray was brought in for lunch. I wondered how I would feel sharing a meal with someone with AIDS.

These feelings of repugnance were Peter's when in the vision he was ordered to eat unclean animals. Since he had been a child, Peter had been told such animals were unclean and under no circumstances to be eaten. Peter was puzzled by this vision. What could it mean?

A moment of insight comes for Peter when three men extend to him the invitation to visit a certain Cornelius. What makes this request so surprising is that Cornelius is a Gentile. No observing Jew would socialize with such a person. Compounding the "uncleanness" of Cornelius is that he is an officer in the Roman army. Peter is asked to fraternize with a representative of an occupying political power.

Cornelius is amazed by the presence of Peter. Peter gives this justification for his visit: You yourself know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. Acts 10:28

Peter's attitude toward who is "clean" and "unclean" is transformed by this encounter. The one previously seen as an outsider is now to be welcomed into God's family. Cornelius is to be embraced as a brother. Peter has undergone conversion on this encounter with this Roman army officer. If Peter could experience such change in attitude toward the "insider" and "outsider," can we?

Confronted with someone with AIDS, we hear the same voice that spoke to Peter: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

An AIDS sufferer is a human. This person has hopes and fears as does any human. Most importantly, this person has a need to be included, wanted and loved.

AIDS victims and their families tell troubling stories of rejection and exclusion. Friends--or ones presumed to be friends--are no longer available. Jobs are terminated without justifiable cause. Even relatives of AIDS sufferers are afraid to reveal to employers this disease of a loved one, for fear they too will be fired.

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

Prohibitions against association with AIDS sufferers are torn away, with this injunction. In the name of a compassionate God, we are to minister with those whom society shuns. Three cheers for the day school at the Richardson church which welcomes children who are HIV positive.

This inclusiveness comes at a price. The staff required special training for any contingency that might arise. Some parents pulled their children out. Other families refuse to enroll their children in a school with such a policy. There is a price for inclusion, but this church is willing to pay the price. In so doing, this congregation is faithful to a loving God.

One reason ministering to AIDS victims is difficult is that the sufferer is often a homosexual. Not all AIDS sufferers are, of course, gay. But a large percentage are.

Is there any more difficult subject for us? for the church? than homosexuality?

Our own Presbyterian family is ripped apart by the question of ordaining persons openly homosexual. But we are not alone. Methodists agonize over the place of homosexuals in their fellowship. Lutherans are perplexed. Catholics stonewall. Baptists deny.

One reason we have such difficulty with discussing homosexuality is that we have a difficulty addressing sexuality.

When was the last time we offered in this church a serious study on Christian Attitudes Toward Sexuality? How many times is the subject mentioned in a sermon? Every several years, a seminar on sexuality is offered by the church for teens, but this effort is one of our few attempts to consider the topic.

This absence of discussion is not a reflection of our society. Consideration of sex permeates our common life. Movies are rated by the amount of explicit sex. TV shows are filled with sexual innuendoes. Magazines--even general circulation ones such as Reader's Digest--carry articles on some dimension of sexuality. Americans may be fascinated by the topic, but rarely seriously discuss the subject in the context of faith.

The beginning point for our discussions would be the words addressed to Peter: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:15).

God has created every dimension of our person--body, mind and soul. What God creates God calls good. Our sexuality is part of this good. God intends for us to be sexual persons. Sexuality is God's gift to us.

Acknowledging the goodness of sexuality should allow us new appreciation for the origins of homosexuality. More and more researchers recognize sexual orientation is determined by forces beyond us. Genetic factors and early family influences are as crucial. Recognizing these determining factors should allay some of our fears about homosexuality. Homosexuality is not something learned or forced on another. Homosexuality is an awakening of a tendency already present.

Granted this, are not we forced, like Peter to reconsider our understanding of "clean" and "unclean"? Is not the "Cornelius" for us the homosexual person--the excluded and shunned?

Peter's "conversion" is a recognition that the one denigrated as "unclean" is now an acceptable member of God's family.

In candor, we need to recognize many of us have not shared in such a "conversion." Homosexuality, we believe, is deviant behavior contrary to God's purpose. Homosexuality--even when practiced responsibly and faithfully--is rejected.

If indeed this be your conviction, then I would encourage you to separate the person from the practice. Apply Peter's revelation at Acts 10:15 ("What God has made clean, you must not call profane" to the person, if not to the sexual orientation of the person. At least affirm the person as a child of God. Such affirmation excludes denigration. "Gay bashing" is no longer an option. "Queer" jokes are out.

Notice in the account of Peter's and Cornelius' encounter the elements of hospitality. Cornelius invites Peter into his house. Individuals once separated by nationality and religion break bread together. The dialogue is congenial. Amid the antagonisms of the debate over the propriety of homosexuality, a true Christian vocation can be to provide a "safe place" for discussion to occur.

The threat of AIDS is real. The denigration of the bearer of this disease--frequently a homosexual--is common. Fear is corrosive.

A word is spoken to us amid those fears: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. God has created us all--gay and straight. Each is to be valued as a child of God--created by God in love, for love. Living with this conviction we can join with Peter in declaring: I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

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