Acts 11:1-9; John 13:34-35
The Apostle Peter was not only a great disciple, he was a pretty good Jew. Both religiously and culturally, he was observant of Jewish Law. Peter was a perfect example of how religious and cultural beliefs are often homogenized to create dangerous habits which we bless as holy.
For some very good reasons, the cultures of the Middle East followed similar food laws. Even today, one would not offer a ham sandwich to a Jew or a Muslim. The reason for this was a dietary reality which evolved into a religious custom. Spoiled meat makes one sick. In ancient times, most folks in the Middle East had not developed the technique to preserve certain meats such as pork. Therefore it was believed if pork made you sick it must be sinful to eat it. The fact that the Greeks and Romans had learned to correctly cure pork had very little bearing on this ancient Jewish custom. They were gentiles. What could they possibly know anything about the mind of God?
Another curiosity concerning the Jews is all males were circumcised at birth. This was done to properly identify the child as a member of God’s community. There were no exceptions. In order to be a Jew, one must be circumcised. This action was understood to have been commanded by God but perhaps this “command” came with a great deal of cultural pressure. Unlike Christians, who are commanded by Christ to baptize the world, Jews have never aggressively involved themselves in evangelism. Courting gentiles was seen as a detriment to the purity of their culture. Besides, how many non-Jews would want to go through this initiation?
Peter, a circumcised, non-pork eating Jew, was struggling with both the commandment of Jesus to evangelize the world and his cultural upbringing which suggested such as action would be against the will of God. Members of the church in Jerusalem debated the nature of this new movement. Would they become an extension of their Jewish faith? Were they creating something altogether different? Could they be followers of Christ and still remain Jews? What about the uncircumcised who were joining their movement? The debates raged into the night. The new convert Paul seemed determined to take his story of conversion to Jews living in the Gentile world. What was to stop Greeks and Romans from desiring to hear Paul’s good news? Where on earth was the church headed?
In order to escape the debate, Peter made a trip to Joppa. There he had an amazing dream. He saw heaven being opened up and a feast being laid before him. Only the food offered was not lox and bagels. God offered a banquet of pork and all other kinds of unclean meats. Peter protested, only to hear God say, “What God made clean, you must not profane.”
Peter awoke greatly puzzled by the dream. The answer soon appeared before his eyes. Men appeared at his door claiming they had been sent to ask Peter if he would follow them to Caesarea and meet with a prominent Roman who wanted to know about Jesus. Ignoring his traditions, Peter followed the men, met with Cornelius, and testified to him about Christ. That day Cornelius asked that his whole family be baptized. Peter, remembering his dream, baptized the uncircumcised gentile along with the rest of his family.
Then Peter made a bee line to Jerusalem and found the council still engaged in debate over the mission to those who were not Jews. Peter quieted the crowd and told them his story. He ended it by saying, “Who was I to hinder God?”
A hush fell over the crowd and then they praised God saying, “God has given life even to the Gentiles.” (stop)
I believe, more often than not, stories, not arguments, change lives. Every culture has the habit of forming their beliefs out of their traditions. That is why conversion is so hard. To be converted to God’s new way of thinking, we have to struggle mightily with what we have been told God believes. We have all the facts and sometimes even the bible verses to support our cultural conclusions. And then we have a dream or hear a story that makes us reconsider is what holy.
Some of you are old enough to remember when only men could be ordained as ministers in the Presbyterian Church. In 1965, the old Hanover Presbytery of the Southern Presbyterian Church ordained Rachel Henderlite as a minister of Word and Sacrament. I remember being a bit outraged over the fact that a woman could be a preacher. I asked my father what qualified her to be a minister. He started out with her the qualifications. “She is a graduate of Agnus Scott. She received a Masters from New York Theological Seminary. She has a Ph.D from Yale. She teaches Applied Christianity at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and has written five books.”
I interrupted him, “But she is still a woman!”
“And so is your Aunt Evelyn.”
My dad did not need to repeat the story of my aunt becoming the first woman elder in her Presbytery. He did not have to remind me of the difficulties she encountered once she was awarded this distinction. I knew my aunt well. I knew her as an intelligent, faith filled woman who was a blessing to her church. In my eyes no one was more qualified to be an elder than my Aunt Evelyn. I stepped back from my previous position, convinced it was OK for Rachel Henderlite to follow in the footsteps of my aunt.
That might have been my first conversion, but it was not my last. Being a proud white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I am not ashamed of my heritage. I am not a racist. None of us are, at least in our own eyes, but when I was a kid I did go so far as to proudly hang my Stars and Bars out my bedroom window on the high holy days of the South. Logically I knew all men and women were created equal. But deep down I knew God had created me a cut above anyone else. The proof of my ignorance came at church where everyone looked just like me.
In college I developed a relationship with a fellow student named Ballard Lee. Ballard had completed two years of college before being drafted. After two years in the Army, including a tour in Viet Nam, Ballard enrolled as a junior at King. Ballard was 6’7’’ and weighed around 240 pounds. He played power forward on King’s basketball team. Having become somewhat enlightened in my racial stereotyping, I was delighted when Ballard came to King because now we had two blacks starting on our team. I went to all the games, home and away, as the Tornadoes ran through its conference schedule. One day on our way to class I said to Ballard, “You are a man among boys on the basketball court.” He stopped, placed his huge black hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “I’ve always been a man, boy. I think you are the one who needs to grow up.”
Those words were not spoken out of anger or resentment. They were words of truth spoken in love by someone who understood God a whole lot better than I. Ballard knew if I was going to travel the road God had set before me, I needed to revisit some of my presumed truths.
Jesus said to the disciples, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Karen Armstrong in her book The Spiral Staircase notes that in most religious traditions faith is not about belief but about practices. There are so many things that we practice as Christians that might not have anything at all to do with Christ. Being a good Christian I once questioned the credibility of folks who didn’t happen to be male or white. I judged rather than loved, causing me to say and think some rather foolish things. I give thanks for stories that cleansed and corrected our souls.
I suspect we all have our cultural idiosyncrasies that keep us from fully embracing our neighbors with the love of God. While our denomination continues to be embroiled in arguments concerning sexual orientation, this congregation has a story that has helped to define you as the Church of Jesus Christ. Rather than being compromised by a shallow reading of a Levitical law, you embraced the command to love one another.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of identifying folks as “gentiles” we could encounter them as Christ has always encountered us? Imagine greeting each other without prejudgment, without cultural bias, without suspicions. Imagine simply greeting others with the peace of Christ.
I know we live in a dangerous world. There are a lot of crazy folks out there. But sometimes it is our preconceived godly practices that lights the fuse of anger and hate. Or in the words of my friend, “Sometimes we are the ones who need to grow up.”
For the life of me I can’t remember Jesus saying, “They will know you are Christians if you believe the right things.” I seem to remember what Jesus said was, “Love each other, as I have loved you, and everyone will know you are my disciples.”
To God be the glory. Amen.