1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then 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. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The 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. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If 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?” 18When 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.” (NRSV)
|Roko naktys by Zoi Koraki. Creative commons image on flickr|
I’m hardly brave when it comes to trying new foods… But when an Ethiopian family invited us to their home for a traditional Ethiopian meal, I could not say no.
I don’t remember exactly what I ate that evening, except to say that it didn’t demand that much bravery—and it was delicious.
They don't have silverware in Ethiopia, so every meal is served with a large, spongy pancake called “injera.” To eat your meal, you tear off a piece of the injera and use it to pinch a portion of your food.
Our friends also served coffee, fresh from the trees—literally roasting the beans before brewing it.
Yet what was most memorable was their love and friendship.
But this edible adventure pales in comparison to what Peter experienced in today’s first reading… While he is praying, he falls into a trance—and God commands him to eat “profane and unclean” foods. We’re talking the very foods strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses. At first, Peter objects—but God insists. The rules have changed: “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter testifies to this dream when he returns to Jerusalem—because he’s in hot water with “the circumcised believers” for ministering to and fellowshipping with uncircumcised Gentiles. In Scripture, “Gentile” is an umbrella term applying to anyone and everyone who was not Jewish in ethnicity, lifestyle, or religion. After all, Old Testament Israel was constantly under threatened, harassed, and attacked by Gentiles. Their sinful, pagan ways often corrupted the Israelites and led many astray. Naturally, the best way to remove the threat was to avoid those people—and maintain strict, impermeable boundaries between the holy and profane.
But Peter transgressed these boundaries… Jesus did, too…
You could say Peter ignited the first major controversy of the early church: must you be a child of Israel—or become as one—to belong to the community of Christ?
The controversy here is not unlike those we see today. What does it mean to live as a Christian? What does it mean to live as an American?
We live in a culture ruled by fear, anger, and desperation. Anxiety and paranoia can quickly take us over:
· As we struggle to make ends meet
· When we fall victim to crime and violence
· When our deeply-held values and beliefs are under attack
· As evil seems to be having its way
What happens is that the people who sin against us become the faces of evil. But we don't stop there… There’s “me” and “us”—but there’s “those people.” They’ve done nothing to us, but we count them as enemies. “Those people” act differently; believe differently; live differently; look differently. If those people get too close and get their way, we’re in danger. Our society is in danger.
But now, Jesus is making a dangerous commandment: to love one another… “One another” includes “those people.” The reason why is simple: God loves “those people” too.
God uses Peter to bring Gentiles into the Church—and no, they will not be circumcised. They will not become Jewish. However, they will be baptized. They will belong. The challenge for the circumcised believers is that Jesus is building a Church that will be profoundly different from Old Testament Judaism.
It is not built of walls that protect us from "those people," whoever they may be... The Church is built on relationships.
The Church exists to love the world that Jesus loves—which means that we’re not finding fault; we’re not discriminating between worthy and unworthy people. We’re not fighting to prove ourselves as right, everyone else as wrong, and remake our society so that everyone either becomes like us or goes away. We’re loving people—which goes far beyond just being nice. We’re going out and meeting “those people” where they are. We’re hearing their stories; we’re sharing their burdens; we’re meeting their needs. We are the faces, the hands, and the voices of Jesus.
I can’t tell you what the Church of tomorrow will be, except that it will be different—far different than anything it has ever been in the past, or even anything that we could imagine. But we won’t be a part of it if we love our doctrines, our commitments, our traditions, and our buildings more than God’s people. We won’t be a part of it if we expect others to come to us and then expect them to become like us before they can be one of us.
The future of the church is love. We are commanded to love one another because we are loved. Love begins by seeing beyond ourselves. Love embraces others as more precious to us than anything else. Love welcomes diversity and even celebrates it. Love binds us together when conflict and controversy inevitably arise. Love chooses “those people” instead of doing our own thing and resisting change.
When you love, you can see more easily the love that surrounds you. And as difficult as it can be to love “those people,” “those people” may show you God’s love like we’ve never known it before. If they don’t, you are blessed because Jesus loves you. And best of all, we become more like the people God created us to be—and we know Jesus like never before.
We’re all children of God. Life is better as we’re loving, together.