"Sweeping away the Unclean," Acts 10:28

“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Acts 10:28 (NRSV)

I have a tattoo.  There, I said it.  It is discreet and something very important to me.  I didn’t get it in haste, I thought carefully about it, and fully considered whether I’d regret it once my skin gets saggy.[1] Soon after I had it inked on my leg (it is only visible when I’m wearing running shorts) I went to a Christian youth camp to lead some sessions on outreach.  As is my habit, one afternoon I left the camp to go for a run.  I went out the western entrance, made a big, rather boring loop, and came back through the main entrance on the eastern side of the camp.  An old woman lived every summer in a cabin at the entrance of the camp.  She took it as her responsibility to guard the camp with her constant prayer for the hundreds of youth who would spend a week there during the summer.  As I ran by she happened to be on the porch, sweeping it off.  She saw me coming, caught a glimpse of my tattoo and launched into a full run at me, broom in hand, screaming, “Get you and your impure skin out of here!!!”  She even took a swing (sweep) at me.  

 I was shocked and moved to cheetah-like swiftness.  This was the first time I had ever been on the harsh end of the Church’s crass excluding hand. Sure, there were times I felt left out or got my feelings hurt, but I had never felt unwelcome.  Up until this point I had fit all the external characteristics of a good Christian kid – adequate manner of speech, adequate appearance, adequate gifts, adequate bible reading, etc.  Now I had broken an Evangelical Christian norm and I was ousted without trial.  Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but we do much worse things than chase me with a broom.  We name people as profane or unclean because of external attributes.  Holiness, cleanness, however, is a matter of the heart.  That’s not easy for us to get.  We love what we can see.  In Peter’s case, God had to give him a vision, and even then Peter tried to argue his way out of God’s command.[2]  What we can’t see is out of our control.  It drives us crazy to think that someone else’s holiness—status before God—is not a matter that we can control.  For centuries the people of Israel had relished in a relative holiness: we’re better than the Canaanites, so we’re holy; we’re better than the Assyrians, so we’re holy; we’re better than the Babylonians, so we’re holy; we’re better than the Persians, so we’re holy; we’re better than the Greeks, so we’re holy; we’re better than the Romans, so we’re holy.  I think if you look at the OT closely you can see that there were voices all along who thought this perspective was flawed.[3]

Jesus insisted that holiness and righteousness could not come from polishing one’s outside appearance.[4]  Instead, he lifts up faith again and again as the sign of a right relationship with God.  And he highlights inward attitudes as signs of God’s fruit in one’s life (compassion, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, etc.).[5]  This begs the question of why the Church always seems to be looking for outward markers of an inward reality.  We say things like, “so and so is such a strong Christian,” by which we mean what?  That they read their Bible?  Don’t lie or cheat or have tattoos?  Or some other external attribute?  When we say that enough times we start to raise up entire generations of people who really believe that those attributes are what makes a strong Christian.  We get a polished Church with no idea how to deal with the gunk in its heart, because the gunk doesn’t go away no matter how many times we dress it up, keep it away from movies, read the Bible to it, rotate between hymns and choruses, or give a meal to someone who needs it.[6]  

When we focus on the externals we sweep our pain, brokenness, and sin under a rug.  We live in a fictitious world of external holiness.  When people in my generation talk about “authenticity,” this is what we’re reacting against.  We are so tired of preachers who act like they’ve got it all figured out.  We’re tired of gatekeepers, eager to exclude, “impure skin.” We’re tired of churches that name certain people as clean and others as unclean.  We (at least I do) want a church of the heart.  We want a church who will leave the cleaning to Jesus.  We want a church ready to acknowledge that there is no difference between the beggar who must wear his sins on his sleeves and the church lady who hides her dastardly attitude under the perfect church outfit. We want a church minus Jew and Gentile. We want a church without brooms.[7]

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7 (NRSV)


[1] I also pondered this passage, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28). Then I discovered that tattoos in those days functioned as religious identity markers.  People never got tattoos as a form of expression.  They got tattoos to proclaim their allegiance to pagan deities.  I finally came to the conclusion that my tattoo would help me honor God, not lift up a competitor against him.  
[2] “Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean’” (Acts 10:13-14).
[3] Most specifically consider the content of Jonah and about the first 40 chapters of Isaiah J.
[4] For this, consider the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-8).  A lot of what’s there indicates that following the letter of the law is worthless unless there is a much deeper heart commitment.  For example, spouses might believe they’re faithful if they never romantically associate with anyone else, but Jesus says that if we lust in our hearts for someone then we’ve already committed adultery.  To be sure, the action of adultery is bad, but it derives from a wounded and bent heart. 
[5] You might retort, but those things mean nothing without outward action.  I would agree with you, but the outward action alone is not evidence that the attitude is there.  Most clearly, you can say that you’ve forgiven someone, but what does that mean if you haven’t truly forgiven in your soul?
[6] I don’t have space to detail how exactly we ought to deal with the gunk here, but I think the solution is situated in a trusting, persistent, submissive relationship with Jesus and an authentic, interdependent relationship with a community of fellow followers.
[7] I think you all know me well enough to know this, but I’m going to clarify it anyway – I absolutely believe in the transformative, life cleansing power of Jesus’s Spirit.  I also believe that the Church ought to partner with that movement, but the Spirit cleanses the heart, thereby transforming a person’s life.  Since we cannot control nor observe a person’s heart we must approach this work with a great sense of humility.


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