You may have noticed – from friends, neighbors, relatives, when you are in the grocery store – that the Jewish festival of Passover began Friday night. It is, of course, the central and guiding narrative of Judaism: that God liberated his people who were enslaved in Egypt. Moses led the people through the Red Sea and into forty years of pilgrimage in the Sinai wilderness before they finally were allowed by God to cross over into Canaan, the Promised Land.
Passover is the time when the kosher dietary laws – a spiritual practice – are most adhered to. You’ve probably seen the labels on different food packages, “Kosher for Passover”, and you probably know that one category of forbidden foods is pork. But shellfish and some other types of fish, birds of prey or scavengers, and any land animal that does not have a split hoof and chew its cud, are all outside the kosher regulations.
Throughout Jewish history keeping kosher has been one way that Jewish people have set themselves apart from the wider cultures in which they have lived. It has been a marker of identity, a boundary drawn around their community that says “We belong together, we are the Lord’s People.” And so in the ancient world – at least by Jesus’ time - faithful Jews were not allowed to share a meal with Gentiles, or even have much to do with them. Sharing a meal, table fellowship with Gentiles, was a huge barrier.
And as we are reminded in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, the first followers of Jesus, the first disciples, were all Jewish, they all kept kosher, they all worshiped in synagogues - and the Temple when they could - they all recited the daily prayers of Judaism and read the Hebrew Scriptures. All the while they met together as followers of Jesus, to practice his Way, the One they knew to be God’s Messiah, who had finally inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s purposes for his people and for his creation. Christ had come to fulfill the Law for God’s people, to bring it to fruition – not to start a new religion. And so the first disciples’ expectation was that if a Gentile person wanted to follow Jesus, then he or she would first have to go through the Jewish rituals of conversion: circumcision – the mark of the Covenant - for men, a ritual immersion bath for women.
Just to set the scene from the Acts passage…. The Apostle Peter was an out-of-town guest at Simon the tanner’s. He had gone up on the roof – a flat roof – to pray. He had a vision of a large sheet appearing in front of him, filled with forbidden, non-kosher animals, and he heard a voice commanding him to butcher the animals and eat them. Peter was horrified, and refused, claiming his faithful kosher practices. He had this vision three different times, and finally the voice said – God’s voice, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane or unclean.” Just then messengers arrived from Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a Gentile who was faithful to the Lord God, although he had not made a formal conversion. Cornelius had had a vision, also, telling him to send for Peter to come so that Cornelius could here whatever it was Peter was going to tell him. When they met, Peter told him about Jesus, and how Jesus was the Messiah who offered hope and freedom and joy and the fulfillment of God’s purposes. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Cornelius and his household – even before they had been baptized, even without having gone through any formal conversion process to Judaism – which for Cornelius would have meant circumcision. Peter’s response to all this was to recognize that God was at work there, and who was he to hinder God? So Peter and those other disciples who had gone with him – brothers in the faith - accepted Cornelius’ hospitality and stayed with him a few days, teaching him more about Jesus, sharing his own experiences, and eating the food that was set before him in that Gentile household. That was all in chapter ten; and our reading picks up immediately after it in chapter eleven.
This is where the story stats to get tricky. Word of Cornelius’ commitment to Christ made it back to Jerusalem: an important Roman army commander now a follower of Jesus; hooray! But he is a Gentile with whom Peter – a faithful Jewish Christian – had shared non-kosher meals; boo. And so when Peter went to Jerusalem and met with the Council – you might say the Vestry of the early Church – the called him on the carpet: what was he thinking?? So Peter told them what had happened; he shared the way he had seen and experienced God at work in both himself and in Cornelius’ household; how could he possibly hinder and contradict what God was doing right in front of him? And the other leaders of Jesus’ Way then also saw that God’s plan included Gentiles as well – without the need to first become Jews. God was opening up a new frontier, and the rules were changing.
How often has that happened to us? We thought we understood the rules of life or society or religion, only to find that all around us the game was changing? It can be a scary, unsettling thing, and when we feel anxious we start to pull in our identity more closely – our spiritual identity, our personal identity, our political or cultural identity – and our identity becomes a wall.
Walls can be good things – in times of danger they can keep us safe. With appropriate doors and windows they make a good house for us to live in. They can provide structure. But when we erect walls, we can’t see the people who are on the other side of them – we cut off any knowledge of them or true communication with them; the walls block our view.
And if those walls continue to exist in our minds and hearts and behavior – whether they are made of fear or prejudice or ignorance or even good intentions – those walls will only get thicker and taller and more difficult to dismantle.
Eventually the walls we have built for ourselves will begin to isolate us, perhaps even imprison us, and our connection and relationship to others will deteriorate; we’ll be cut off from them, perhaps even from ourselves, from image and life that God wants to nourish in us. And finally, our walls prevent us from seeing Jesus – the One who encompasses both Jew and Gentile, the One who surprises us by pouring out his grace upon those we least expect, on those whom we fear. We may even be found to be hindering God with the walls we build.
So what do we do? We take our courage in both hands, we ask for God’s wisdom and guidance and love. We allow (or challenge ourselves) to be curious about the other person – to see in them a fallible human being, just like us; to see a person made in the image of God, just like us; to see a person beloved of God and for whom Christ died, just like us.
And yet not like us, for God made us in all our diversity and difference – as well as in all our similarity and solidarity with one another. To embrace the difference in others is to be open to trusting what God might be doing in their lives and hearts – without needing our permission, and even most times without our knowledge. And the wall will come down a bit.
When we can lay aside fear and suspicion, and look for the presence of Christ in one another, the wall will come down a little more. When we can trust God’s goodness and God’s providential care and his gift of grace, the wall will come down a little more.
This is not an overnight project. Putting aside our fears and anxieties can even be the work of a lifetime – for a person and for a society. But the Risen Christ who knows no bounds, for whom locked doors are no obstacle, asks us to see the world with our eyes open, face-to-face, knowing that the power of his resurrection is precisely so that we may be free from fear, anxiety, hatred, rigidity, prejudice; and may be free to live in God’s kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven – with joy, feasting, and delight in God and in our fellow human beings. The reign of God has begun even in our midst, in which all who seek the glory of God are welcome and received.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, you tell us that the world will know we are your people by the way we love one another. Help to step outside of fear, confusion, anxiety, and selfishness and give us the strength and grace to love others with the same love you have for us. We ask this in your name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 24, 2016