Welcome at the table
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The 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. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If 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?”
When 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.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I grew up in Hampton, New Brunswick in the sixties, and my diet was pretty uniform.
Every day we ate sandwiches for lunch; and for dinner we had meat and potatoes with two different coloured vegetables followed by dessert.
We didn’t eat out and we didn’t diverge from the tried and true meals much.
I think I had my first piece of pizza after Grade eleven. Spaghetti was something that came out of a can. I didn’t eat Chinese food, although I had heard of it. I don’t even remember Lasagna. I hadn’t heard of donairs, pyrogies, falafel, tacos, curry or many other foods and wouldn’t for some time.
In fact, if you had filled a table in front of me when I was about 11 years old, filled with tacos and curry and donairs and lasagna and Chinese food, and maybe even pizza, I think I would have thought the same thing that the apostle Peter thought… that it was all unclean. I don’t think I would have touched it unless I was about to starve to death. It was all too weird and different for me.
Hampton, New Brunswick was not the most cultural diverse place in the world. Most of the Hampton families’ roots went back many years in New Brunswick , a hundred or two hundred years. Saint John which was the city 20 miles away was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1609 and is the oldest incorporated city in Canada, incorporated in 1789, after the influx of Loyalists to New Brunswick.
As I recall there were no people of Asian ancestry at our school, and two boys of African-American ancestry.
When you grow up in a pretty homogenous community, you believe your community values are pretty much the only ones, and that they are right.
When you grow up in a homogenous community, you even think you are not that prejudiced, because you hardly run into scenarios where your prejudice shows, because there aren’t enough different people to be prejudiced about.
But in looking back to my life as teenager, we told all kind of racist and cultural inappropriate jokes and made homophobic slurs and put down French Canadians and people from Newfoundland, and yet I didn’t think I was prejudiced at all. After all two of my friends were black.
And so we get to today’s scripture from Acts where Peter tells his story about taking the gospel to the gentiles, and we into something that has been a problem in the world, in societies, in cultures, for thousands of years, and in the church since it began….
The problem of who is in and who is out. The problem of who is clean and who is unclean. The problem of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. The problem of how to deal with diversity.
These are big, huge, questions, that in some ways plague us, because they cause some much division and strife in the world, and at the same time these are big questions that we cannot simply ignore.
It may be that these sorts of questions are actually more difficult today that they were 45 years ago in homogenous Hampton, because today the world is so different.
Edmonton is very culturally diverse with people of all sorts of ethnicities from all parts of the world. There are over a hundred different languages spoken by people who live in Edmonton according to the city’s 2014 census.
Diversity is the order of the day. There are so many different cultures, religious faiths,denominations within those faiths, foods, traditions, ideas, philosophies…
…and with the advent of the internet and the proliferation of all kinds of media, we know and have access to even more diversity.
One way, people handle diversity, is to circle up in your own tradition, ethnic, cultural or religious…and try not only to maintain it, but to insulate your group from the supposed hostile effects of accommodating to or incorporating other traditions.
Another way is to completely lose whatever tradition you came from and try to be part of the mosaic which is Canada, and just take what you like from wherever you find it, and just be yourself or your own version of Canadian.
And there are critics who will criticize either of those positions.
Handling diversity is not easy. One way to handle diversity is to pronounce differences as unclean and unacceptable. Easy to do.
Yet at the same time, most of us have an idea that not everything is good, not everything is acceptable. In fact, are not boundaries something we need to put up and respect and delineate for identity and safety and mutual respect?
And so Peter today is before the council in Jerusalem. It is almost like being at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and he is telling his story…
The reason he is there, is that he is being called to account.
And you know why Peter is in trouble. He is in trouble not because he told foreigners, non-Jews, those who are different about Jesus. He is not in trouble primarily for baptizing them, or preaching to them, or healing those outsiders. He is in trouble because he ate with them.
It was clear from scripture that you didn’t eat unclean food or mix with unclean people.
So Peter tells them his story…that he had a vision of all kinds of unclean foods, pizza and pyrogies and Curry and Kung-Pao Chicken…and God saying that he is to eat.
And when Peter says he won’t because it is unclean, God says to him. Don’t call unclean what I have called clean.
And it is then that there is a knock at the door and he is invited to the home of a Gentile by the name of Cornelius. And he goes there and preaches and the Holy Spirit fills those gentiles, those people who are different. And Peter will say that he has learned that no person is too unclean for God.
One thing that really stands out for me, is that this is God’s doing. We humans did not come up with this kind of acceptance all on our own. We are more liable to go the route of exclusion.
God pushed the church beyond, ethnic and cultural and gender borders. God pushed the church to the point where we say that no person is too unclean for God.
And the second point I want to make is found in the gospel lesson. That the night before Jesus died, he washed his disciples’ feet, as an act of service and love, and almost his last word to them, or at least his last command was to love one another.
And this wasn’t something that was to be voluntary. It was basically the last command of Jesus: to love. It isn’t an option for us…
Now those who put the lectionary together put these two scriptures together.
On the one hand you have the lesson, that no one is too unclean for God, and the second is to love one another.
And so I wonder whether the criteria for the church about who is in and out should be less about correct theology and more about correct practice.
If you are willing to love your neighbour and love yourself and love God and love the stranger and love the enemy then you are welcome…
And initially I was thinking that therefore, if you do not love the neighbour, or God, or the stranger or yourself or your enemy, then you wouldn’t be welcome…
…except I wonder who we would actually have left in church. Which one of us has not thrown the first stone… We have all hurt people, and/or rejected people. We all have our own prejudices against certain people or groups, and sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously want nasty things to happen to those we consider bad or unworthy or our version of unclean.
As a good liberal inclusive Christian, I am painfully aware that at times I am just as intolerant as the intolerant, because I am intolerant of the intolerant.
Something akin to hate wells up in me against Neo-Nazis or people who spray paint synagogues or mosques, or religious extremists who use guns and bombs for their religious political agenda.
There was a Baptist Preacher in the United States by the name of William Campbell. He was a notable white supporter of civil rights in the Southern States. In 1957 he was one of four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools.
He was a champion for civil rights but also said and I quote: “Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well.”
He was criticized because he ministered to member of the Klu Klux Klan, and whereas he at one time got hate mail from the political right, he also ended up getting hate mail from the political left.
The point that I am trying to make is that loving one another is very difficult, but it is what Jesus calls us to do, and we may even disagree about how that looks.
While on study leave, I read a book by one of my favourite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara grew up in a non-Christian home and as teenager went to various churches. She became an academic and then was ordained into the Episcopal Priesthood, what we know in Canada as Anglican or Church of England.
She had written many books and her sermons are wonderful.
The book I read was about her teaching World Religions in a little Liberal Arts College in the Southern States, covering the major religions of the world.
She entitle the book, “HOLY ENVY” because as the interacted with people of other religious faiths, she was often impressed or sometimes even envious of their devotion and their conviction, or their spirituality or their love of neighbour, or something, even when what they believed might be incompatible with Christian teaching that she had been taught.
One of the many stories she related was of going to an uncle’s funeral, and the uncle was Roman Catholic.
They celebrated communion and the priest who probably had only been ordained a couple of years told her who had been ordained thirty years that she was not welcome to take communion because she wasn’t Roman Catholic.
I tell this story not because she or I have something against Roman Catholics, but mostly to say that while the different Religions of the world are profoundly different and at times incompatible with each other, that within the Christian church it is the same thing, there are versions of Christianity that are at complete odds with other versions of Christianity…and while we might profess that there is only one church, the reality is far from the profession.
She was not welcomed at the table.
So, how do we welcome to the table, those who are at complete odds with us?
Barbara tells another story in the book where she was at an interfaith event where. Jewish leader was doing a Shabbat service and then a Christian leader was following it with a Christian communion service.
One of the Jews before the Christian communion service said that he would not participate in the communion service, because he had too many family members who died in the Holocaust, and this would be just too painful for him. He would stay in the room, but not partake.
Barbara stood next to him and when communion was handed around he would not take it, and Barbara decided not to take it too. She refused the body and blood of Jesus.
She said she didn’t know if she passed or failed that night as a Christian, but at that moment it seemed to be more important to stand in solidarity with someone who had been wounded by Christianity. She had chosen to abstain with him rather than participate without him.
She stayed away from the table to be in solidarity with someone who found he could not participate at the table.
And I guess I share that story not because I have an answer to who is welcome and who is not welcome as much as I want to point out the difficulty and struggle of loving those who are not us…
Those who are not us theologically, or culturally, or ethnically or in their sexual identity or lifestyle, or even in their Christian identity.
How do we be Christ’s body to those who don’t seem to be part of the same body?
And I relate another story. There was a movie put out in 2007, entitled, Forgiving Dr. Mendele. It was a documentary about Eva Kor who along with her twin sister Miriam was experimented upon in Auschwitz when they were about 10 years old. In 1995, Eva went back to Auschwitz for the 50 years anniversary of liberation and at that time read at statement of her forgiveness for Dr. Mengel and the Nazis, believing that in order to be free she had to forgive. A statement that many Jews did not agree with.
One way to deal with those outside, or even opposed to, our body of love and understanding and community is to love them anyway.
Certainly, the test of our faith is love. It was Jesus dying wish that we love one another.
But he went on to say that this is how people will know Christian faith.
I quote from Debie Thomas from her article If you love from the from the webzine Journey with Jesus.
Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus. It’s through our love that we will embody Jesus, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.
But I suppose the opposite is true. If we don’t love one another, what does that tell the world about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit? Does it tell the world that God is not real, or that Jesus is not alive? Does it tell the world that God is mean or vindictive, angry and punishing? Does it tell the world that the Church is a sham, and not the body of Christ, but a self-serving human institution?
Such is the awesome power we hold, in how we carry out God’s command to love and to welcome….or not.
And that is why we need Jesus so badly. Because we need his power to fill us, so that we can love, and welcome, not just who are like us, but those who are unlike us, and at times very unlike us.
Frederick Buechner the Presbyterian minister and author in one of his books has one of his characters Preacher Leo Bebb say this:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great feast. That’s the way of it. The Kingdom of Heaven is a love feast where nobody’s a stranger…
Bebb said, “Eating. Feeding your face. Folks, I’ve eaten my way ’round the known world. I’ve eaten snails out of their own shells in Paris, France. I’ve eaten octopus in Spain and curry in India so hot it makes your eyes water and the skin on your head go cold as ice. I’ve eaten hamburgs pitiful and grey like the sole of your shoe in greasy spoons from here to Saint Joe. I’ve eaten the bread of affliction, all of us has. We got to eat or—-food, it’s life, but all the food in the world, all the turkey and fixings plus your ice cream the shape of hats, it’s not life enough to keep you alive without you eat it with love in the heart.
“Dear hearts,” Bebb said, “we got to love one another…”