Sermon 5/2/10, Acts 11:1-18
At the Table
During Lent, I asked participants in our midweek communion study to help me brainstorm about food imagery in the bible. There’s lots of it – if you go from beginning to end, the books of the Bible mention food perhaps a surprising number of times. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. Eating and drinking are necessary to our survival. If we don’t eat, we don’t live. It’s that simple. And so not only is food and drink mentioned frequently in the Bible because we eat and drink every day, it also shows up in our faith stories because what better way for us to understand how God wants to be in our lives than to connect it to food? We need God like we need food – we need God to live – to have real, abundant life. God is necessary for abundant life. Communion is served with simple foods – bread and juice – basics – because communing with God and with each other in the Body of Christ is a basic. Foundational.
My first congregation had the connection between food and faith down pat. I had heard that one time, years ago, there was some church event here where the congregation actually ran out of food. This was such a disturbing event in the history of St. Paul’s that they have never ever come close to running out of food at an event again. I would tease members of our Evangelism Committee about this – when we had a breakfast for new members, I would try to encourage them to keep it simple – doughnuts and juice. But inevitably, doughnuts and juice would turn into milk and muffins and bagels and cream cheese and fruits and Danishes and so on. We ate well at St. Paul’s.
And, truthfully, food isn’t just food in the life of congregations, is it? Think of the meals we share together – be it working on Spaghetti Dinners together, or having cake to celebrate a baptism or confirmation, food that we put together for baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, or cookies and recipes passed around at our Cookie Walk, or Philathea prayer group dinners, or meals together at Panera, or even the meal we share when we join in Holy Communion together – these meals are holy and spiritual events. At least I see them that way – seriously. Sharing food with one another symbolizes a close relationship with those with whom you eat. Sharing food means sharing a bit of yourselves. It binds us together, makes us feel like family. Think of all the ways you interact with people each day. You might see hundreds of people in a day who are so different from you. But who do you share meals with? Who is at the table with you? Usually, we don’t share our meals, our table, as freely as we share our time, our energy, and so on. Sharing food is really something special.
Most of you know that not only am I a vegetarian, but I’m also just a picky eater, and have been since I was a child. This makes for tough situations sometimes when I am being served food by someone. I never felt this more acutely than when I visited Ghana, West Africa during seminary. While we traveled just with our group, I could manage just fine and make due and refuse foods I didn’t want without consequence. But we spent an entire week of our stay living with host families. In most cultures around the world (including our own, to an extent), it is considered pretty rude for a guest to refuse food that is served, with, of course, exceptions for allergies and special diets and the like. I had communicated with my host family before my arrival that I was a vegetarian, which they graciously accommodated. But beyond that, I knew I would have to be ready to eat whatever was served to me. The food was served in huge quantities which I tried hard, but usually failed, to finish. Even the breakfast meal was huge, and I usually don’t eat breakfast, and even more rarely a hot breakfast. But, in Ghana, part of my daily huge breakfast consisted of some kind of cooked white beans. I don’t especially think of beans as a breakfast food. But I tried very hard to eat my beans. It took a lot of effort. One day I worked extra hard and managed to eat all of the beans that I was served. And the next day, I was served twice as many beans as usual! As I said, food is important in so many ways – we communicate using food, build relationships through sharing meals, and show how we feel about others using food.
It should come as no surprise, then, that food and how food was shared was a critical issue for the early church, for the disciples trying to figure out how to live and work together. And in fact, for the early church, food became a point of great conflict. Jesus and his disciples constantly were often at odds with the religious leaders of the day over appropriate rules about who to eat with, but the apostles were actually at odds with each other over rules about sharing meals. Let’s go back and take a look at this text for today, which gives us insight into this ongoing conflict.
The whole passage is sort of a flashback. Peter, apparently, has eaten with some Gentiles – the food the Gentiles would be eating would be forbidden to Peter by Jewish law, laws that had very detailed dietary laws, laws that centered on purity and impurity, cleanliness and uncleanliness. So some of the circumcised believers, the ones who are following Jewish purity codes, want to know why Peter has eaten with these people. And so Peter must explain himself, “step by step,” we read, and that is where he flashes back to describe what has caused this strange behavior in him. He’s had a vision, he says. A large sheet, maybe like a giant tablecloth, was lowered from heaven by its corners. On the cloth were various kinds of animals, representing animals that Peter would not be allowed to eat according to Jewish laws, kosher laws. Surprising to him, he hears God’s voice telling him to get up and eat these forbidden foods. Peter refuses, insisting he would not eat anything unclean. But God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This sequence Peter saw repeated in his vision a total of three times.
Right after this happens, three men appear who are Gentiles, and Peter feels the Spirit telling him “not to make a distinction” between himself and these men. So he goes with them and fellowships with them. In his heart, Peter finally understands his vision. He tells the questioning apostles, “I remembered the word of God . . . ‘John baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in . . . Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And the apostles get it too, finally, after hearing Peter’s story: They praise God and say, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
What, you might be asking, is it that they all seem to understand now from Peter’s strange vision? Well, as we encounter in this text and other texts in Acts and the epistles of Paul, Peter and the rest of the ‘original’ disciples and Paul and Barnabbas and the apostles working with them approached their ministry very differently. Paul, certainly a devout Jew, spent most of his ministry reaching out to those who were not Jewish – reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul had a complete conversion on the road to Damascus, and he was ready and willing to let go of all the old things in his life – so he felt free to tell others becoming Christians that they didn’t need to adopt all the commandments of Jewish life – they were new creations in Christ. But Peter and company didn’t see things Paul’s way: Peter and the rest of the Twelve focused their outreach and evangelism primarily on those who were already Jews, viewing God’s message in Jesus as directed only or at least mostly for the chosen people of Israel. He thought that those who were not Jews who wanted to follow Christ should at least convert first to the Jewish faith, and then become Christians. The two sides spent a lot of time disagreeing over this topic, and ultimately agreed that each would focus on their own special area of ministry. But here, here is Peter’s own conversion experience. Peter has already converted his life to be a follower of Jesus Christ – here he has a conversion of a different nature, when his mind is opened and he sees the radical inclusive and all-reaching nature of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. In his vision, he’s told essentially that only God decides what is clean and unclean, and that what God has made clean, we humans have no right to reject.
To me, the verse that sticks out in this passage is where Peter tells the other apostles, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” For Peter’s day and time, this was a huge statement. The Jewish faith was all about being a distinct people – and the Jews weren’t alone. Cultural differences created huge barriers between people. The Romans who occupied the lands hated the Jews because of their distinctiveness. People from neighboring villages didn’t get along with each other because they felt the distinctions between them were too great. Distinctions, differences, were the causes of wars and controversies and divisions. But Peter was beginning to realize that because of the new life he experienced in Christ, because of this love of neighbor that Jesus talked about – this new commandment of love for one another – because of this, distinctions were irrelevant.
Do you think we’ve changed a lot? If we look around us, we’ll see many different kinds of Christians – United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists. But actually, today I think most people aren’t particularly worried about these distinctions between denominations. But even if these distinctions don’t matter to us anymore, focusing on our distinctions still seems to be a problem – perhaps in more serious ways. We make distinctions all the time – Democrat or Republican? Pro-life or pro-choice? Native or immigrant? Black or white? Rich or poor? Educated or uneducated? Conservative or liberal?
As people of faith, as children of God – a trait we share with everyone – we’re called, like Peter, to remember – the Spirit has told us not to make distinctions between them and us. When Jesus calls us to love one another, he calls us to love Lutherans and Catholics, rich and poor, native and immigrant, liberal and conservative with the same unconditional love of God. We can appreciate the differences between us, but we should never let the distinctions divide and separate us. Because the one distinction that Jesus does encourage us to have, the one thing that is most meant to set disciples apart is that they will be known by their generous and far-reaching love.
“And I remembered the word of the Lord . . . if then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believe in . . . Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Amen.