9 May 2004
Eating With The Enemy
I do wish the people who compiled the lectionary wouldn’t start us off right in the middle of a story! You never know quite what is going on. I do see that they wish to take pity on those whose turn it is to read the Scriptures aloud, but even still!
And this story in Acts, that was our first reading today, starts off bang in the middle of things. What is Peter up to, and, more to the point, what has he been up to?
It seems a little odd to us, but, of course, in our day we don’t have rules about associating with unbelievers. But it was very different back then. If you were Jewish, you didn’t associate with unbelievers, end of. You certainly never went to their homes – you might speak to them in the street, if you absolutely had to, but going to their homes would have made you what was known as “unclean”, and you would have had to have had a ritual bath before you could associate with your friends and family again. That’s one of the reasons why the Priest and the Levite walked past the dying victim in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan – if the man was actually dead, they’d have made themselves unclean for no good reason. Far better to pass by on the other side of the road, and pretend you hadn’t noticed. And it’s why the Roman Centurion wouldn’t let Jesus visit his house when his servant was ill – he told Jesus there was absolutely no point in his getting unclean when he only needed to say the word and the servant would be healed. Which he did, and he was.
Jesus, I’ve noticed, didn’t seem to give two hoots about whether he was unclean or not, and whenever he was told off about his practices – which was basically whenever the Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day, whenever they noticed what he was doing, he would tell them that the rules were made for our convenience, not God’s. Once, when he was told off because he hadn’t washed his hands in the ritually-prescribed manner, he pointed out that outward things like that totally didn’t matter, and what you ate passed straight through you and ended up down the drain, anyway. It was what came from inside you that mattered.
The gospel writer commented “By saying this, he declared all foods clean”. Which basically brings us back to the story in Acts, because Jesus might have said it, but St Peter, for one, certainly hadn’t hauled it in.
So when Cornelius, a Roman official, wanted to learn more about God, God sent an angel to him saying, in effect, “The man you want is called Simon Peter, and he’s staying at the house of Simon the Tanner, here in Joppa – why not send for him?” Snag was, it was going to take more than an invitation to persuade Peter to go round to the Cornelius’ place. So Peter, too, gets a vision. Or, just possibly, a dream – he’s gone up to sit on the flat roof to pray for awhile before lunch, and he might easily have nodded off. Anyway, whatever, what he sees is a large sheet, full of the kind of animals he simply wouldn’t have dreamt of eating in a million years. The sort of animal he’d always considered unclean, and probably made his stomach churn to think of eating it – rather like we might feel about ants’ eggs or sheep’s eyeballs. But three times he was told to do this, and three times he was told not to call anything unclean that God has called clean.
When he woke up, or came to himself, or whatever, he was still inclined to wonder what God meant by it all. So you can imagine how surprised he was when he found Cornelius’ servants waiting downstairs, asking him to come along.
Now, Peter, since the Holy Spirit came, is a changed man. But at times there are still traces of the old Peter there, like now, because the first thing he said was "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile."
I wonder how that made Cornelius feel. Peter might just as well have said "You know, I have trouble telling any of you people apart from one another. And I realize that your kind of people are generally lazy and just come here to sponge off of social security. Your people all have lots of babies so you can get more money from the Government without having to work. I shouldn't be crossing the picket lines to talk to you scabs. I am fully aware that God does not approve of your life style and that you are an abomination to God. But hey, here I am. Aren't you impressed?"
But Peter has learnt to listen to God the Holy Spirit, and suddenly realises what his vision meant. He rightly concludes, "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." Peter is slowly realizing that he had been sent to this particular household for a reason.
Until then, the disciples had thought that they were only meant to be preaching to the Jews, and the Good News wasn’t for everybody. Jesus had tried to show that it was, but I have a feeling he wasn’t altogether too clear on that one while he was on earth, so it became an issue to be addressed primarily after the resurrection, like now. Peter suddenly sees the light: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."
The Greek word used originally to express the idea that God show no partiality has a lot to do with the recognition of faces - that God does not accept anyone on just the appearance of his face. Some have transliterated it, "God is not an accepter-of-a-face." Others have said, "God is no face-receiver." It doesn't matter if the face is black, white, or brown. It doesn't matter if the person is Gentile or Jew, and the realization stuns him.
We can hardly imagine the shock that Peter must have felt. Every day, Peter prayed the prayer from the Talmud which said, "Oh God, I thank thee that I am not a Gentile, that I am not a slave, that I am not a woman." Peter had been steeped and trained in an exclusivist religion that thrived on making clear distinctions between those acceptable to God and those who were the outcasts. This statement of Peter's marks a dramatic and amazing shift. Now the Gospel can be proclaimed to the Gentiles.
And so Peter tells the believers in Jerusalem, when they send for him and ask what on earth he thinks he’s been doing. For Peter, this is a start of a whole new journey of discovery, of what God is doing among other people, people who aren’t Jewish. He does have his moments of backsliding – St Paul tells us, in the letter to the Galatians, that he had to remind Peter that he was perfectly able to eat with Gentiles and not to be so stupid about it. But, by and large, the early church had turned a huge corner.
The trouble is, it’s a lesson we didn’t learn once and for all, that day back in Joppa. It’s a lesson we’ve had to learn over and over and over again. It’s a lesson we’re still learning. Just look at the pictures that have been in the papers this week, of soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. Or the fuss the newspapers made about the ten new countries joining the EU last weekend, and expecting us to be quote, swamped, unquote by people coming here to take our jobs. They didn’t, of course, make a fuss about people from here going there to take advantage of cheap booze or unscrupulous employers here taking advantage of migrant workers.
But we are tribalists at heart. St Paul may have been able to write, all those years ago, that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But we don’t really believe it. Look at Rwanda, for instance, where it matters so dreadfully if you are Hutu or Tutsi, or whatever the tribes are called. The most recent massacres are only that – the most recent ones; they’ve been murdering each other for years. Look at Northern Ireland. I don’t see how they’ll ever be able to get a sensible internal government structure in place there, since the two tribes distrust each other to a degree that, unless you’ve actually seen it happening, you find impossible to believe. Look at Bosnia, Serbia, the Lebanon, India… the list goes on and on.
And even in our own personal lives, we are sometimes guilty of it. Especially in this country, where, as Bernard Shaw so rightly said, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
Of course, we are always going to associate mostly with people who are more like us – we have more in common with people who come from the same sort of background, went to the same sort of school, enjoy the same sort of hobbies. Christian folk may well prefer the company of other Christians. That’s okay. What is so not okay is despising those who are not like us. Thinking they are lesser people. Thinking that their views and opinions don’t matter in the same way that ours do. And, above all, thinking that they are not loved by God every bit as much as we are.
Listen, Peter had to learn this lesson the hard way. He had to have a direct lesson from God to learn that it was okay for him to visit Cornelius, and then he had to justify that decision to the other believers in Jerusalem, who were shocked.
Why does God still have to teach us the same lesson today, two thousand years later? Can we never learn that, to quote Peter, and Paul, “God shows no partiality”? If God does not, then why do we?
We need to pray, not only for forgiveness for ourselves when we are guilty of tribalism – and, let’s face it, we all are from time to time – but also for God’s enabling power to help us be free of it, and to help us to be part of eradicating this dreadful scourge from the world. If only these dreadful pictures in this week’s press could be the last of their kind. But unless we, unless you and I, get our acts together, they will not be.
Most people agree that torture is, of itself unacceptable. Those pictures have shocked the world. But the mental attitude that “They are only Iraqis” or “only Moslems” or, in other contexts, “only Catholics or only Hindus”, still dies hard. And it is this attitude of classifying people as only this, that or the other, that leads, eventually, to torture and abuse. Let’s not be part of that, but let’s try to learn to value each and every individual that we meet as a person for whom Christ died. Amen.