Summary: Prejudice deals only with groups, not with persons. Peter had to get beyond outworn principles, and both he and Cornelius had to learn to give and receive what was needed. All need Christ.
If you have to choose between principles and people, choose people! Do you agree?
If it comes down to deciding whether to adhere to certain principles and thereby injure people; if it comes down to violating your beliefs or violating another person, what will you choose? The principle or the person? The belief or the feelings of another person?
Some would say, if you have to choose between principles and people, choose people. Some would insist that nothing’ is more important than loving people, caring for people, giving people what they need. They would say that rules are meant to be broken, principles are meant to be bent, so that human needs can be met. If you are one of these folks, if you had answered the phone as I did this week, and heard someone on the other end asking for food money ... asking for it even though we had already given money and had given a Christmas basket, and even though I had explained on a previous occasion that our policy ... our policy, our principle … was to channel our assistance through another agency -- if you are one of the people over principle folks, you would have said, "Sure, I’ll find you some money." Some will say, if you have to choose between principles and people, choose people.
But others would argue that principles are more important than any individual. They would argue that no one person is above the law, no individual should expect to get whatever he or she wants. If you choose principles above people, you argue that everyone gets helped on an equal basis and that decisions are made rationally, carefully. If you argue this way, you say that everyone is subject to the law and that everyone is treated fairly if we stick to our principles.
If you have to choose between following principles and helping people, which will you choose?
One day the Apostle Peter found out that these two things ran smack into each other, and that he had to decide between them. Peter had been operating out of a set of rules; he had been following all the right regulations. But he found out one day that his heart told him to go beyond what his head thought was right. Peter found out that there are times when people do take precedence over the pronouncements and principles of the past.
Picture the scene: Peter is at prayer. He’s doing his daily devotions up on the roof. I guess that’s what they had to do to get messages before the invention of Dial-A-Prayer!
But Peter, like a lot of us, doesn’t keep his mind totally centered on prayer. While he is praying, he gets hungry, and asks the folks down in the kitchen to fix him something to eat. And then, while he continues to pray, he falls into a sleep, or a trance, and has a dream. In his dream, coming down from heaven, there is a large sheet. And in that sheet is some kind of a zoo. Animals and birds and snakes and all kinds of creepy-crawly things.
Now this is interesting, because this is the kind of dream most of us would have after we eat! But Peter has his before he eats! And in this dream, there is a voice, inviting him to take his fill from this menagerie that is floating down in a sheet. "Get up, Peter, kill and eat."
And immediately, instinctively, without thinking about it at all, old Peter, the same impulsive, quick-tongued Peter we got used to seeing all through the Gospels, Peter snaps, "By no means, lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." You will remember that certain classes of animals were considered unclean, off-limits, to the Jews. There were the kosher taws, the ritual laws, of the Old Covenant. And that’s what Peter is responding to. Never. Never have I eaten anything that was profane or unclean. Lord, I won’t. I can’t. No way. Not me.
But the voice persisted, and said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." And the text says this happened three times. Three times Peter was invited to satisfy his hunger; and three times Peter refused, out of principle. Out of the pronouncements of the past.
Little did Peter know that just downstairs, right at the door of the house where he was praying, messengers were arriving to ask him to come to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius. Little did Peter understand, during his trance, that he was about to be confronted with a person in need, not just a pronouncement from the past.
You see, there is a disease we call prejudice. The disease called prejudice exists because we human beings find it more comfortable, sometimes, to live out of unexamined feelings rather than out of compassion for people. Prejudice is an unexamined feeling with a misunderstood basis. Let me repeat that. Prejudice is an unexamined feeling with a misunderstood basis.