Texts for the Fifth Sunday after Easter: Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21: 1-6, John 13: 31-35
Two days ago, on Friday evening, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated the start of Passover. They met for prayers and food, the seder supper. This year, for some Jewish families from what is called the Conservative tradition will have different food on the table. Rabbis from this tradition have agreed to end a ban on eating legumes during Passover. Traditionally, Jews descended from the Middle East and Eastern European (the Ashkenazi) banned legumes along with grains from the house and from the table during Passover. This was to honour the custom that only unleavened bread be eaten during Passover, to represent the Jews hurried flight from Egypt on their way to freedom and the promised land.
This year a council of American Conservative rabbis have decided that the legume ban no longer fits the times. I’m not sure if they have decided that God is doing a new thing, or they have just agreed that you can eat legumes at Passover and still be a faithful Jew, but by a vote of 19 to 1, the rabbis ended the legume ban. So for the first time in centuries, since long before Columbus discovered the New World, foods like lentils, rice and chickpeas will now be allowed on the table during Passover. This may seem like a small change, but in Judaism the decision to change a custom that has been in place for eight hundred years is a big deal and not all are in agreement. Jews from the stricter Orthodox tradition do not agree with the change, and will keep the Legume Ban in place. These Jews feel that a custom is a custom and shouldn’t be changed, because it is the keeping of customs and laws that they are who they are, faithful Jews.
This argument about changes in dietary laws and identity is interesting in light of our first reading from the Book of Acts. The same questions are in play: what are our religious traditions for, can they be changed, and what is really important to God?
As a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces, I am sometimes asked to explain religious customs to others, and I am sometimes asked to talk about why food is important to religion. Of course, there are many things that distinguish different religions, including items of dress, ways of wearing hair, and days and hours of worship, and, of course, food. Judaism, Islam and Hinduism have rules about what the faithful can and can’t eat. The same is true of some members of the Christian family, such as Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, and many Christians practice fasting on certain days, like Roman Catholic “fish Fridays”.
Most Christians, however, don’t have such rules. Anglicans, as far as I know, merely like to eat together, as often as possible. Our fondness for communal meals, which are at the heart of our worship in the Eucharist, may reflect the importance of Jesus’ miracles of food and drink told in all four gospels, which are a sign of God’s abundance and generosity which is at the heart of the Christian message.
Like Christians, other faiths have practices around food that help them to understand their relationship to God. For Muslims, keeping the fast of Ramadan is a sign of obedience to God that is at the heart of Islam. For Hindus, the cows is sacred (and beef forbidden) because it represents the goodness of creation. Gandhi said that the cow’s patience and nurturing represent our mother earth. For Jews, food laws represent their special identity as God’s chosen people. The four questions asked by the child on the night of Passover, questions which basically ask, “Why do we eat this way?”, are to remind all Jews of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and made them his people. The questions are asked by a child because they are central to Jewish teaching and identity.
Sometimes religious food laws look arbitrary and foolish to outsides, who are tempted to ask, “Why do you guys act this why?” Sometimes outsiders resent the fact they are outsiders, just like it is surprising, and possibly offensive to some, when an Orthodox Jew refuses to shake your hand or sit beside you on a plane. We need to remember in such moments that for Jews and for the faithful of other religions, keeping their laws is keeping faith with God. Keeping faith is especially important for minorities who are surrounded by non-believers, as Jews have lived for much of their history.
Religious identity is at the heart of our reading from Acts. To understand the reading, we have to remember that Peter has gotten in trouble with the church in Judea, followers of Jesus who still thought of themselves as Jews, because he had gone to the house of “the uncircumcised”, or gentiles. In Acts 10, we are told of how a Roman army officer, Cornelius, whose worships God and is faithful in his own way. God rewards Cornelius by sending an angel to him, because “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). The angel instructs Cornelius to send men to the town of Joppa to fetch Peter.
Imagine what Peter must have felt when some Roman soldiers showed up on his doorstep and said he must come with them. These men symbolized Rome’s iron fist. Soldiers like these ones had crucified Jesus. Now imagine Peter’s surprise when they told Peter to come with them and visit Cornelius, in his house. Faithful Jews were forbidden to associate with non-believers or gentiles, which is why in John’s gospel the Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilate’s palace to ask for the death of Jesus (John 18: 28). But God sends the Spirit to Peter, telling him to “go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them” (Acts 10:19) and so Peter goes. He meets with Cornelius, his family and friends, and teaches them who Jesus is, how God raised him from the dead, and forgives the sins of all who believe in Jesus. The Spirit comes again, Cornelius and his family speak in tongues and praise God, and Peter is amazed that God has given these gifts even to Gentiles. Seeing God’s decision, Peter concludes that he has no choice but to welcome these gentiles into God’s family. He says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he baptizes them, and for that he gets into trouble.
So now that we know what happened before today’s lesson started, notice what the faithful believers in Judea have to say. We are told that they know that Cornelius and his family have “accepted the word of God” (11:1). You’d think they would be excited. Souls have been saved! The Church is growing! But no, they’re not happy at all. All they want to know is, why did you visit these people? Why did you eat with them? You know that’s not allowed! These people are not us! They’re unclean! “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (11:3).
So Peter tells them about his vision at the Simon the Tanner’s place, just before the Roman soldiers showed up to get him. He tells the faithful about how God showed him all the animals that were forbidden to Jews since the writing of the book of Leviticus. Peter tells them how he, as a good Jew, did not want to violate the food laws and dishonor himself or God. But Peter is given a new teaching. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (11:9). In other words, Peter is told that God is doing something new, and changing the rules. If God is showing Peter that it’s now ok to eat what was previously considered forbidden, then God is also saying that it’s ok to associate with people, the Gentiles, who were previously considered unclean.
This story from Acts shows us that God thinks big, and God cares big. If Jesus is God’s gift, then Jesus is God’s gift to everybody. Paul recognizes this essential truth, and many of his writings, especially Romans, circle around this new thing, that God’s chosen people are now all those who believe in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike. For me, this realization is what makes the book of Acts so exciting, because it is really a book about how God starts unfolding all of the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we find that it is even more generous and more wonderful than anyone could have imagined.
In his commentary on Acts, Will Willimon suggests that the focus on the book is not on the acts of the apostles, what they do, but rather it should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Acts, he argues, is about what the Spirit keeps doing as ripples from the resurrection of Jesus keep expanding into the world. The number of God’s chosen people is expanded as new members, like Cornelius and the Gentiles, get added to the family, and people have to start reconsidering their relationships to God and to one another.
Willimon suggests that Acts challenges our thinking about conversion as a one-time process. Usually we think in terms of: I was a non-believer, now I’m a believer. I was lost, now I’m saved. Instead, conversion in Acts keeps happening, as God keeps touching people and deepening their knowledge of God. Think of how it works in this story. Peter believes in Jesus, but then the Spirit comes to him and challenges his understanding of what Jesus means and who can be a follower of Jesus. Cornelius is a good man who believes in God, prayers, and is kind to others, but the Spirit comes on him and his family and they want a deeper relationship with Jesus. The faithful in Judea start today’s lesson thinking that Gentiles are unclean, but Peter’s story pushes them to recognize other followers of Jesus, even Gentiles. The circles keep growing, faith gets deeper, and generosity and community expands as the Body of Christ grows.
As I said at the beginning, we as Anglicans and Christians don’t have food laws that mark us as God’s people. Thanks in part to today’s reading from Acts, what we have instead, at the heart of our belief, is a relationship with a God whose power and willingness to love is more generous than we can imagine. Just when we think there might be limits to what God can or will do, there is God, saying, as he said to Peter, ‘What I call clean, you cannot call unclean.” That means we have to keep challenging ourselves, asking ourselves, am I as generous as God is? We may not have food laws, but we may take comfort, even pride, in our faith and our traditions, and may be tempted to judge or look down on those who are not like us. There may be some that even find unclean, unlovable, or beyond the pale. Before we judge others unfit to be loved, we need to remember that God may have other ideas.
Acts also teaches us that we must always be prepared for the fact that God will change the rules, and do a new thing. This summer, our General Synod will meet in Toronto to discuss changing the marriage canons of the church to allow same-sex marriage. There will be some who will doubtless quote this passage from Acts to say that if God can change the rules on clean and unclean once, he may be doing it again. We need to be prepared to listen carefully to those arguments, to think hard about passages like this one, and to ask ourselves if we need to be ready, like Peter, to follow where the Spirit leads us?
As a military chaplain, I try to be deeply respectful of the religious practices and beliefs of others. I understand why things like food can be so important to their religious identity and their sense of faithfulness to God. After all, food, like faith, keeps us alive. However, as a Christian, my tradition holds that God, in his love and mercy through Jesus, has opened doors to me, a gentile and a sinner, that were previously closed. We need to take faith, and hope, that God can do new and powerful things, and that he is determined to grow his family, the Body of Christ. That is good news for us, as sinners and gentiles, and it is good news for Trinity as we seek to ask, what new thing will God do to us, and where will God lead us?