"New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth, They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth." So wrote James Russell Lowell in 1845--and although this sentiment is over 170 years old, it is advice that is still fresh, new, and often very applicable when we try to preserve something that we understand as unchangeable. And nobody came to starker realization of this than Jesus' disciples, as they carried on spreading his message of the Kingdom of God after Jesus left the earth. The new occasions they encountered were things they could never have imagined, and the "ancient good" of the faith that was the foundation of their lives itself was challenged.
In the passage from Acts 11, Peter tells the story of what has happened in chapter 10--and he tells it to the council in Jerusalem who are “calling him out” on betraying the faith. Peter has interacted with Cornelius, a Roman soldier who was a believer in Jesus, even though Cornelius didn't come from the same Jewish heritage as Peter--and as Jesus, for that matter. And Peter saw that the Holy Spirit was engaging with Cornelius and others of his friends and family, in the same way that the Holy Spirit had engaged with Peter, the other disciples, and others from the same Jewish heritage they were from, who became followers of Jesus and were baptized in the Holy Spirit. And so Peter has to figure this out.
Part of all of their identities as disciples was their faith heritage--which included guidelines about how they worshiped, what they ate--since some foods were unclean--and that being circumcised was a key practice of their faith. And yet, as they spread the word beyond their own limited geographical background, people NOT from that background, who eat the unclean things and who are not circumcised, are responding to the message of Jesus and seeking to be part of The Way (as it was then called). So do those practices of circumcision and what they ate matter? Should these people who are from a background where those practices DO NOT happen have to abide by them? If they are to believe in Jesus, do they have to practice these things that Jesus practiced, and that those from the background Jesus and the disciples were from practiced?
This was not a casual conversation. Circumcision was understood as a mark of God's promise--as a statement of faith in God. And those foods were not eaten not as a personal preference, but because God had declared them unclean. So is it even possible to be part of God's favor if those practices are not practiced? If being clean before God was important enough to be a key feature of their belief and practice, then how could someone who didn't GET that, and didn't practice that, and who therefore from the understanding of Peter and that heritage, was UNCLEAN, be a part of God's people? These practices are a part of the identity of those called by God to be God's people. And Jesus didn't reject these things--so it would seem that his followers should not either.
This would basically be the position of the council that challenged Peter for eating with someone uncircumcised, and obviously being made unclean by his involvement with this person. And by the "letter of the law" that would be absolutely true. And these are not flippant concerns, as the Law is not to be ignored. It is part of their faith. And yet, Peter has seen God move in the lives of these people who don't believe the same things about unclean food and being circumcised, has seen the sincerity of their desire to be a follower of Jesus, and has himself has a vision—including hearing God’s voice--that calls him to recognize that what God is doing is more important than these ancient practices that are still foundational to THEIR practice of their faith.
So even though it flies in the face of his understanding--even though it flies in the face of the Scriptures he knows, and the story of God's engagement with his heritage--Peter has to recognize what Lowell wrote in 1845: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth, They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth."
How about us? What new occasions are happening now that challenge our deeply held values about how we practice our faith? What do we need to see with new eyes, because we see God working and moving in the lives of those we wouldn't expect to be being moved by God? I submit to you that there are those occasions--that there are always those occasions. May we be open to the vision and voice of God as to how that plays out in our day and age.
NEW TESTAMENT Acts 11:1-18
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’