Room at the Table: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
My older brother Jim is six years older than me, and when I was little, I idolized him, and wanted to be around him constantly. I wanted to dress like him, play with the toys he played with, and do what he did. But naturally, a 12 year old boy does not always want his 6 year old sister following him around everywhere, and sometimes there would be a bit of conflict between me and Jim. Sometimes, I might do something, like follow Jim around when I was instructed to leave him alone for a while, that would result in Jim taking the dreaded action: he would tell on me. “I’m telling!” Powerful words between siblings, aren’t they? Apparently, I started trying my own version of a preemptive strike, by running to my parents and saying, “Jim is gonna tell on me!” I guess I figured Jim would get in trouble if I could somehow tell on him first. But I couldn’t foresee the logical conclusion of my action, which would be for my parents to ask, “And why is Jim going to tell on you?” “Um…”
My nephew Sam is an only child, so maybe you would think he would be exempt from this whole “telling on” phenomenon. No such luck. I remember when Sam was maybe three at the most, and my mom was babysitting him, somehow, she broke one of the blinds on the front window. Sam asked her, “What do you think Mom’s gonna say to you when she gets home?” And no sooner had my sister-in-law Jen arrived at home than Sam ratted out my mom: “Grandma broke the blinds!” When Sam started pre-K last fall, he started telling on his classmates rather a lot. His teachers cleverly instructed Sam that when he felt like he needed to tell on a classmate, he had to go speak to the giant toy frog in their classroom, and tell on his peers to the frog. That way, his teachers didn’t have to hear Sam’s complaints anymore. Jim and Jen tell me Sam spent a lot of time talking to that frog.
Of course, you can get a pretty bad reputation for telling on people all the time. Tattle-tale is a name my brothers and I would call each other, in an effort to not get in trouble, hoping the bad name would make the tattler think twice before turning us in to our parents. We’d like to think that we’ve all grown up since our days of telling on one another, but I suspect we all find ourselves engaging in the time-honored tradition of tattle-taleing now and then. Sometimes I joke with friends and family that if everyone would just do what I told them to, their lives would be so much better. I like to tease with these words, wishing they would follow my good advice for them. But I also realize there is some truth to my words, in that they express a feeling I think many of us have at one time or another. We can look at other people’s lives and it is so clear to us what they should be doing that they aren’t, or what they shouldn’t be doing that they are. It is so easy to know what would be best for someone else, isn’t it? Hold that thought for a bit.
Today, we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that recounts the actions of the disciples and other followers of Jesus when Jesus returned to God’s home after the resurrection. For those of you in Pastor Aaron’s Bible Study on Acts, you get a little sneak peak today of Chapter 11. As I’ve mentioned before, Jesus and his disciples were often at odds with the religious leaders of the day over appropriate rules about who to eat with, but in the early church, the apostles were actually at odds with each other over rules about sharing meals. Our text for today is part of this ongoing conflict.
The whole passage is sort of a flashback, and you can read about the events Peter describes here in the previous chapter, chapter 10. Peter, apparently, has eaten with some Gentiles – and the food the Gentiles ate was forbidden to Peter by Jewish law, laws that had very detailed dietary restrictions, 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, which tells us and Peter’s audience that there was no mistake – he heard God in the vision correctly.
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, eats 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 radically 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.
Last week, we talked about the kingdom of God being God’s party, and we reminded ourselves that it is God, not us, who creates the guest list. I think this scripture passage in Acts builds on those themes. Somewhere, Peter crossed the line from trying to be faithful to the laws of Judaism that had guided is whole life, to actually withholding the good news about Jesus – the very news that had changed his whole life – withholding that from others so that he didn’t have to break rules about who to eat with. And suddenly, Peter is acting in the same way as the Pharisees Jesus was always criticizing. Peter was deciding who should and shouldn’t get to hear the good news, and deciding that only people who agreed to follow the rules he followed would be able to hear about Jesus. How quickly Peter messed up one of the main things Jesus taught and lived – God’s love is for everyone – and how quickly he started behaving in ways that added qualifiers to who got to hear the good news.
And how quickly do we do the same thing as Peter! We started today by talking about telling on each other, being tattle-tales. Sometimes I think that our favorite person to tattle-tale to is God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, how much time do we spend tattling to God in our minds and hearts about what others are doing? What rules of ours we think they are breaking or ignoring altogether? Now we can dress up our tattling to God in fancy packages. We can pretend we are only looking out for one another, making sure someone isn’t going “astray.” But just like my parents almost always knew what was happening with us kids without the aid of any tattling on our parts, so our God certainly knows the hearts of each precious person made in God’s very image. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, sending his disciples out in mission and ministry, he didn’t say, “Go out and make sure everyone is behaving in the right way.” No, Jesus sent us out to share good news – God is with us always, and loves us always, so come, and follow.
The rest, friends, just isn’t our responsibility. It just isn’t. Whether someone believes exactly the same thing as you do, or has the right understanding of a passage, or is acting in the right way: God does not ask us to monitor one another. We can help each other. We can work together to grow in faith, when we mutually try to live as disciples, certainly. But we can free ourselves of worrying about being the judge of right and wrong. God’s got it covered. It’s a task we can cross right off our list. Because when we, faulty as we are, try to decide what’s best for others, we end up building dividing walls, creating strife and hostility, and worse, like Peter almost did, holding back on sharing the good news of God because we never let ourselves build enough of a relationship with someone to do so.
Peter had a vision, one that God made sure Peter got, showing it to him again and again, that Peter was trying to be so right that he was actually getting in God’s way. And the last thing we want to do is become an obstacle between someone and God. Peter summed it up with a perfect line: “Who was I, that I could hinder God?” Who are we, to get in the way of God’s work, God’s mission, God’s love, God’s party? We’re God’s children. We’re beloved. And God is breaking down walls and boundaries left and right in our world, so that we will sit down together, all of us, at God’s table.
Your homework this week? Easy, and hard. Don’t hinder God. Serve God. Listen to God. Love like God loves. And praise God – for God has offered to all of us the way that leads to life. Amen.