I’m working on this Sunday’s sermon on Acts 11:1-18. Peter has some explaining to do. The apostles learn that he’s been baptizing Gentiles and eating at their table. This was forbidden in Jewish practice at the time. Gentiles were thought to be unclean. Peter receives what pastors fear after doing what they thought was right: criticism! “Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?” the leadership asks.
Peter turns into a defense lawyer as he lays out a ‘step by step’ account. Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts, likes giving an orderly account. If Luke were in a church today, he’d want everything that happened in worship to be in the bulletin. He likes order even with the accounts of the fiery movement of the Holy Spirit. Peter explains a vision he had in the city of Joppa. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven filled with foods that were considered unclean by Jewish dietary law. There were four-footed animals, beasts, reptiles, birds. The Lord said to Peter, “Kill and eat.” Peter protest. That’s part of who Peter is. He has the tendency to rebuke the Lord’s words. He’s the same Peter who protested to Jesus at the last supper that he would never deny him.
Peter had good reason to question the Lord’s instructions. He did not want to defy the teaching he had been taught his whole life. A critical moment occurs when God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:9). The Lord says these words three times to Peter. That may seem like a casual detail, but remember Peter denied Jesus three times in his most trying hour. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. With a strong-willed, often close-minded but faithful apostle like Peter, it takes some repetition for the Lord to drive home the point.
One of the first lessons of this story is that God changes minds about traditions and customs of what is clean. Today, it seems that when challenged, people grasp tighter to their beliefs than in opening their minds to change. Conversion is about the changing of one’s heart and mind. We Christians are in the change business. Oftentimes that change occurs through our proclamation to others about the good news of Jesus and his message of repentance. People change and follow Christ. At others times, God is trying to change our understanding of our religious traditions. To be Biblical means to be open to change. For Peter, it began with the changing of his mind about food. Look where it would lead him.
After this vision, three Gentile men arrive. The Spirit tells Peter to go with them and not to make a distinction between ‘them and us’. When I read that phrase, I felt a bit of gut punch. The world in which we live is carved up in the use of ‘them and us.’ We build our lines of demarcation: conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, evangelical and missional. In some ways it’s inevitable to categorize people by labels because they are descriptive of beliefs and behaviors.
For instance, consider the word inclusion. It’s an important word to me. I like for people to feel included. As a pastor, I like for people of all walks of life and faith perspectives to feel welcomed in our sanctuary. I’m also keenly aware that attempting to include and embrace all people will lead to conflict that must be sorted out. There is a meme passing around the internet attributed to playwright James Baldwin. I cannot verify he actually wrote this, but the sentiment seems right. The meme is:
We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.
The quote begs the question about how far one’s embrace of the other can extend. It seems to me that God is committed to erasing out of our vocabulary the phrase ‘us and them’ but it will take honest, respectful and dignifying work.
I have a church member who fought in Vietnam. Over the years, he has tried to explain why our country went to war. He considered the explanation that we fought against communism. He considered the possibility we fought over bad intel. Eventually though, he came to believe the reason we went to war was something more primal. The reason we went to war is because we like war. As a youth, he found war to be adventuresome and exciting. War makes heroes out of people, gives purpose and action. After witnessing the horrific outcomes of Vietnam he became more and more convicted of our need for faith to root out that sinful nature that seems to enjoy conflict and division.
In Peter’s case, Jews and Gentiles lived in conflict and couldn’t imagine a life without it. Division was deeply woven into the fabric of their existence together. To overcome that conflict required an intervention from God. In a world deeply divided, we will need the same. We will need the miraculous work of God and of a savior in Jesus who sought through his life, death and resurrection to end the divisions of God’s people. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that Christ died that he “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:16).
If we trust our sinful nature, we will find ourselves in a place where we further divide people while sickly enjoying the conflict. We need an intervention. We need to be open to God’s vision to change our minds, even about past traditions. This passage from Acts 11 has helped liberate hearts and minds. It has helped free slaves, give rights to women and envision a more hopeful and inclusive world. I would add that a scripture like this would be one to consider in our current conversation about human sexuality and how God can change long-standing views. My hope is that people would at least consider it.
I have been reading a book by Bishop Robert Schnase called, the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. It’s an updated version. And in it, he provides a definition for hospitality. First, he says that the Biblical word for hospitality in Greek is “philoexnia” the “love of the stranger”. That’ll preach! But he also says the goal of hospitality is to overcome the estrangement. This definition hits home for me on so many levels.
There are many reasons people feel estranged. Some feel estranged from God. Others feel estranged from people who hold different opinions and beliefs. Others feel estranged from loved ones because they are addicted to their screens and are unsure how to love and accept love.
Hospitality may be one of the most important words for our day. I have a feeling we don’t like the division. Sure, the lower, human side of us digs into conflict, but our experience teaches us that conflict leaves us empty and hurt. The divine side of us wants to find connection and love with God and others. To find such a love requires an intervention from God. Maybe one of the ways we find it is the way Peter did.
After this vision he baptizes and then eats with people with whom he had been estranged his whole life. In fact, that’s the Apostles’ first criticism of Peter. They criticized him because he sat down and ate with Gentiles. But mercy of mercies, after Peter explains himself to this church committee, they “praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18). If only every church meeting ended that way!
We can overcome the estrangement when we sit down at the table together. It’s a place to share our lives. This past Mother’s Day, our family met in Madison, Georgia for dinner with my saint of a mom. We have a happy family. Like most families, we have our disagreements, varying political views and family dynamics here and there. Over dinner, I was sitting with my mother, brothers, sister, their families and my family. It was there we shared stories and laughed. My 6 year old daughter Katie said to me, “Daddy, tell them the story about me. I want them to hear it. Tell it like you always do.”
I did. I said, “We were out outside one day near the driveway. Katie was 2 or so. She picked up this big stick. She started to whack me with it. It hurt! Finally Blair comes over and says to Katie, ‘now Katie, remember we don’t hit daddy with sticks.’ Katie looks at her curiously and says…’Well, mommy, then what do we hit him with?'”
The family laughed. Katie seemed pleased with my telling. Warmth abided at the table. I found my heart at home and at peace. Hospitality can help us overcome the estrangement. We are created to be part of God’s divine family that shares love at the table. In times of conflict, what if we put down the sticks and instead sat at the table?