When you travel overseas it is often necessary to take special precautions about the food and water that you consume because they might make you sick. A friend’s recent trip to Sri Lanka created a constant anxiety for her about the water – but also about how well the food might have been cooked.
In our medicalised view of the world we have accepted as true the idea that what goes into you can indeed do you a great deal of harm.
This is not unlike the world in which Jesus lived where they had a religious tradition we call a “purity code”. According to the rules associated with this if you ate certain things you would be ritually unclean. If you touched certain things you would become ritually unclean. And if you associated with certain kinds of people you would be regarded as ritually unclean.
And if you were ritually unclean it meant that you could not fulfill your religious obligations at temple or synagogue. Depending on the gravity of the transgression the uncleanness would last a certain number of days – a day, a week, a month or even longer. Generally a form of ritual washing completed the period of days and sometimes a sacrifice was required.
It is in this context that we have to begin to understand the story that was read from Acts 11. On one level it is a story of the Holy Spirit of God trying to break through the thick skulls of the Apostles that the Gospel was a message for all humanity, not just the Jews – but as history bears out, Peter was not the great apostle to the Gentiles. That commission was given to Paul. Peter was the leader of the apostolic mission to the Jews.
But in using the metaphor of unclean foods to get this message across the voice in the vision says to Peter “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.” It is these words that struck me most as I read through the selected texts for today. So what are we to make of it as God’s word to us for today?
On another level I think this story could also be an attempt by the Holy Spirit of God to get through the thick skulls of the Apostles that this new Way of Jesus means an end to the Purity Code that had for so long controlled so many aspects of their daily lives.
This should not have been a new idea to the Apostles if they had been listening to the stories of Jesus as we have them recorded in the Gospels. Jesus frequently challenged the purity code:-
- He ate with tax collectors and sinners (code for Gentiles).
- He did not mind the company of women – noting the haemorrhaging woman who was clearly “unclean” according to the code.
- He had no qualms reaching out to touch lepers.
- He touched the coffin of the dead son of the widow of Nain.
So, here in this story, Peter is being reminded again that the Way of Jesus establishes a new way to God that is not about purity – “If God says something is clean, then don’t go on saying it is unclean.” - it is about Inclusion. Everyone is welcome!
So the question I then have to ask myself is do we still have remnants of a purity code in the church today and if so, what does it look like?
One example of it that I see in some places is a clear reluctance to mix with certain kinds of people. This might be because their theology is perceived to be in error; or it might be because they live morally questionable lifestyles; or it might even be nothing more than that they are obviously much poorer than us. In some of my ecumenical work I have come across good people who refused to join in the work of a committee because there were Catholics on it. It was almost as if being close to them might contaminate their own reputation as Christian people.
In an earlier time in many churches people who smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol were regarded as something like social pariahs – people not to be associated with if you wanted to be really Christian. And you might add to that women who wore makeup or had their ears pierced and etc. etc. etc.
But I think there are some more subtle ways in which we use attitudes and gesture to try and keep our little part of the Community of Christ rather bland and homogenous. People who are not like us are subtly excluded from circles. People who hold different political or theological views than our group are also shut out – very subtly.
Jesus is calling us into a very different kind of community than those that humans generally try to create in which we are all alike. He does this by challenging us to recognise the mark of God in every other human being – we call this “the image of God” – and then to love that person who is bearing the mark of God.
This kind of radical inclusion stands in contrast to what we see in most of society and that is why John reminds of the words of Jesus that we have been given a new commandment (I actually think it is really an old one restated) to love one another. When we do this, he says, people will really know that you are his disciples.
This should mark us apart from the rest of society. We should be a place that is welcoming and inclusive. It makes me really sad to see the enormous amount of material on social media in which Christian people are excluding themselves from people whose sexuality or morality is troublesome to them. Or people who want to reject others because of their theology or some other aspect of difference.
It is only when we welcome others and sit down at meals with them that we can ever begin to share our journey of faith with them as Jesus did and has called us to do.