LED BY THE SPIRIT
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 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. 13 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; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 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.’ 17 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?” 18 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.”
This account, told previously in Acts 10 marks a critical turning point in the history of the church. Was it necessary for converts to Christianity to adhere to the Jewish rules of purity? Did all Christian males have to circumscribed? Did all new Christians need to obey the Jewish dietary laws. Such people had always been viewed as unclean by the Jews and it was inconceivable that Peter would share a meal with them, much less invite them into the community. So when Peter went to the church in Jerusalem, “the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
The decision of the early church to include the unclean—the gentiles, (also known as Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics etc.) allowed the church to become a worldwide religion. Though it took multiple attempts, Peter finally accepted God’s word for him: ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ The divisions and judgments that determine who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, are man made. They are not God’s criteria. Peter’s vision is about a lot more than permission to eat pork. It is a direct challenge to long held truths about who God loves. The spirit of God is for everyone. “ The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us”. And thus began the proclamation of the good news to people like you and me.
Unfortunately, this concept preaches better than it is lived. It is a terrible irony that religiously, we, as gentiles, are a people who needed inclusion, as often as not, use religion to divide. Likewise, though we are a nation founded by immigrants—a large portion of us fear immigrants. We often find it difficult to offer to others the gifts we have received.
When in doubt, the human reaction to differences is to see danger. Across a very broad range of relationships—from spouses to the global anxiety about immigration—we are just as likely to see a threat as we are to see a child of God. And before we get too indignant about the failure of others to be inclusive, pay attention to your reaction to people who support barriers and walls. If you believe in inclusion, it is nearly impossible not to feel a bit self righteous about people who oppose inclusion. Often our greatest prejudice is against prejudiced people. It is hard to look for, much less find, common humanity with such people. But when we don’t, we become what we oppose.
The conundrum of reconciling our human inclinations with the call of the Spirit depresses me. It has led me to reflect both upon ‘what is it about us that we hold so tenaciously to differences?’ and then ‘What makes it possible for us to see beyond our differences to our common humanity”.
So, first, what is it about us that has us clinging to our differences? At a very basic level. our identities are tied to our differences. Whatever adjectives we use to define ourselves—age, gender, education, skin color, religious preferences all add up to our unique ‘I AM’. How can any of us be special if we can not be set apart. Our differences make us individuals. The problem emerges when we confuse our uniqueness with our value. Our descriptive adjectives can define us as individuals but none of them add to or detract from our value in the sight of God. To use the first century language, the clean can be part of the unclean and vice versa. God determines what is acceptable—not us. That leaves us as vulnerable creatures who have no control about how we are loved. That is a frightening place to be—and a place we resist.
Second, even if we are willing to use God’s criteria rather than our own, that in no way means we will be valued in return. Regard for others does mean you will be regarded. In fact you may well be betrayed and injured. There is a real risk to being inclusive. We can easily invite people into our circle that will harm us. People can get hurt that way. So listening to the Spirit both challenges what we ‘know’ and exposes us to rejection and harm. Even when we know what we ‘should’ do, the risks of following the Spirit are daunting.
Without the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure it would ever have been possible for either Peter or the Gentiles to see a world in which they could eat at a common table. The Spirit connects and reconciles. It allows the human and divine to share one flesh. It allows seeming opposites to find points of commonality. Humans create categories in order to describe our world but unless we have the humility to know that our way of seeing is not necessarily God’s way, we will reject the spirit and reject God.
Peter’s first reaction was horror—‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ Only after being told three times, does Peter start to get it. His devotion was misplaced. Though his devotion had the approval of the highest authorities, his devotion lead to division rather than connection. In real life, learning such world altering truths usually takes a lot more than three repetitions. The concept of God’s inclusive care is difficult enough to truly grasp, living it is much harder.
Whenever we fail to see the person behind the stereotype, our ability to connect is compromised. This is true when we talk about loving our enemies, living in our church family and it is true when we talk about loving our spouses. In real life however, such good will is often hard to sustain. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the global issues but these struggles are part of daily living.
In ordinary life, couples in conflict often have a pattern in which one person will engage in testing behaviors (‘If you really loved me, you would…be home on time, have more sex with me, would help me more etc.etc.) and the other will respond with resentful compliance. But compliance without love is not a gift, it becomes a source of indignation and entitlement. Each will have ways to describe themselves as a victim—one of an unreasonable selfish partner and the other as a victim of a manipulative martyr. But what they do not see is the person behind the labels. It is no different that Peter struggling to imagine the person behind the label ‘unclean’.
Almost always these destructive patterns emerge from a common human hunger—both want and need to be loved and both are trying to manage love. But until their hunger is recognized and shared, one or both will continue to insist on their own way. They will label one another. Listening and care for the predicament of the other is not possible. We must have a way to expand our limited view in order to create new possibilities. Otherwise, we are stuck in our own divisions.
Notice that before Peter ever met the gentiles, the spirit had already spoken to them. Connection is a two way street. We can only stretch ourselves to see beyond ourselves. We can proactively seek our common humanity but then we must wait and pray that the Spirit is present where we do not see. Neither Peter nor the gentiles had any idea what their encounter would mean. They were simply told to go meet.
Such meetings, whether in our homes, our church or on the street, require faith and the courage to follow Jesus. He loves us and leads us to love. That Spirit changed Peter’s whole concept of what it meant to belong to God. That Spirit creates room for us to find peace where we would only find conflict. That Spirit enabled the church to embrace the world.
We have often done it poorly. We have been self righteous, we have excluded, and have even killed in the name of love. We are constantly confronted with our limitations. And ironically we often refuse to recognize what we cannot do. Our best intentions leave us short. But no matter how inadequate or incompetent we are, the Spirit points the way to love. We can only move in that direction, trusting God’s care for us and trusting that the Spirit lives in places we could not imagine. “And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The Spirit will always challenge who we see ourselves to be. The Spirit will always call us to connections we thought unimaginable. That is God’s way. Let it be so.
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