Different Yet The Same
New Revised Standard Version
11 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters 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.”
A brother and sister had a large tree house in a big tree in their backyard. Their parents had helped them build it since they weren’t big enough to lift the wood up into the tree. They enjoyed spending time there whenever they could. One day they had what they thought was a significant dispute that required them to separate from each other for eternity. So, they built a wall with crates that served as furniture to separate her part of the tree house from his.
It was all well and good until they got the call that dinner was ready. Then one realized they were on the window side while the other was on the ladder side. Only one could climb down the ladder for dinner while the other would have to starve.
Sometimes when we make borders or boundaries we don’t think about the consequences – like how do we both get out of the treehouse.
This story in Acts is about crossing borders – physical and metaphorical borders. Borders have purposes. For instance, keeping things inside of them stay safe such as fences to keep little ones from wandering into the street. There are fences that separate flocks or herds from the ones at the next farm.
Borders can keep things out such as dangerous animals or animals that eat your garden. They can also keep people out, sometimes for real danger and sometimes because we can or want to.
Crossing borders isn’t an easy thing to do for many of us. The challenge of crossing borders is the crux of this story of Peter as he meets with the church leaders in Jerusalem.
When Peter goes to the house of Cornelius, he crosses a boundary. He knows he has to go because the Spirit has called him. After all, Peter had this unusual vision of all the unclean animals being lowered down on a sheet with God telling him to eat. God’s message is to not judge anything that I call clean as unclean. It was certainly a message to Peter that he needed to rethink how he was classifying other people.
Peter wasn’t exactly sure what this meant. Then the men appeared who had been sent to him by Cornelius. We learn that Cornelius also received a message from God to find the man named Simon Peter who is in Joppa.
Imagine Peter’s surprise when the men showed up and asked for him specifically by name because our leader in Caesarea has sent for him. After closing his gaping mouth, he realized that God was doing something he didn’t quite understand. So, he went with the men.
When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ home, he was invited to sit down at the table to share a meal. That was when Peter crossed the boundary. It wasn’t when he shared the good news about Jesus or baptized Cornelius and his family. Rather, it was that he sat down at the table and are the food of a Gentile.
At that time, the Jewish Christians kept the time around the table sacred. The sacred table was a source of their identity. It reminded them of all that God had provided for them throughout the history of their people including the law and the rules for life as a community that governed how they were to act and deal with various situations, and what they were to eat.
Sharing around the table was a sign of acceptance, of belonging to the group. Being part of the table community was also a sign of power. The group had control of who was in and who was not. Who was welcome at the table and who was not.
We may experience a similar phenomenon at large family dinners. Time around the table may be really good or not so great. Seating arrangements can reflect who is in and who is out.
An important piece of this passage about Peter reporting back to the church leaders is that he tells the story of a person. A person he has met. A real person he has interacted with and built a relationship with. One who has a story of his own to tell. One who, with his family, was eager to listen to the message Peter brought.
This experience changed Peter’s perspective. No longer were the Gentiles an amorphous group that he had always been told were an unclean people to stay away from. He had now met a person who belonged to that group who was not what he expected Gentiles to be like.
When Peter went back to the church leaders, they weren’t upset about him sharing about Jesus or, probably, about baptizing Cornelius and his family. What really irked them was that Peter crossed a boundary by sitting down at that table and ate a meal with Gentiles. They believed he had let go of, they thought, his identity as a Jew because he sat down at that table.
We may not think that Peter’s action was such a big deal. He ate dinner with people others thought he shouldn’t eat with. But it was a bigger deal than we might recognize.
We often talk about the importance of opening up our table to let others in, but what does that mean for us? To give others a place at the table.
As a somewhat concrete thinker, my mind immediately jumps to the practical matters. That would need to be an exceptionally large table. Even so, there would still be a limited number of seats that would fit around it. You could only invite a certain number of people, or it would become too crowded, and you would need to find other places in the house or outside for people to sit. It doesn’t make sense!
Of course, we are talking about a metaphorical table. The table isn’t a physical table. It represents opening up space to allow others into our group that we may have thought didn’t belong.
We read in Acts chapter 10 that Peter baptized Cornelius and his family. Baptism is an action that may be considered as an admission ticket into God’s family. In our tradition, baptism is a recognition and affirmation that one is already a member of God’s family. However, in the early church baptism was the sign that the process to become a member of the group, of God’s family, was complete. Baptism clearly said, “now you belong.”
The admission ticket as understood by the church leaders had strings attached. The invitation wasn’t a wide open one, come as you are invitation. Rather, it was a ticket that allowed admission as long as you conform to us and our ways. You can come in as long as you are willing to follow our rules, our laws, and be circumcised. You can come in if you do things our way.
In a sense, that admission ticket made any Gentiles who came in second class citizens. Even agreeing to follow the rules didn’t make them Jews by birth. They were assimilated Jews, proselytes, who would never be completely accepted.
The Jews, of course, would never go to the table of a Gentile in those days which is the reason the church leaders were so upset with Peter. He went to the other table rather than asking them to his own table with all its conditions attached.
We are challenged in a comparable way. We are challenged to see people for who they are and allow them to be who they are as they come into our midst.
Let me tell you the story of a young man I’ll call Joe. Joe comes to church one morning. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a t-shirt. He had long, scraggy hair. Joe went to the college up the road. For some reason he decided to venture into the church on this particular Sunday.
You can imagine the reactions of the people in the pews. Those who were decently dressed, neatly cut hair, and clean. They whispered to one another, “who is that guy? Doesn’t he know that in church you have to at least wash your hair and wear clean clothes? And, come with shoes on. Even the stores require you to wear shoes.”
Joe came in and walked up the aisle – there weren’t any open seats in the back – and as he passed each row the people were thinking, “don’t sit in my pew next to me. There’s an empty seat over there.” Joe walked by all the pews and sat down on the floor in front. The people were aghast! They looked for one of the elders to deal with the situation. To escort the man out and explain the rules for attending church.
They waited. Finally, one of the elders walked down the aisle. With relief they thought the problem would be taken care of. The elder will make sure Joe leaves and only comes back if he is wearing the proper attire.
Do you know what happened? The elder didn’t make Joe leave. He sat down on the floor next to Joe. What a statement! What a way of crossing a boundary in a very visible manner. His action said, “you belong here. I want you to know that you are accepted.”
I imagine we would have some of the same struggles as that congregation if we were in a similar situation even if we don’t think we would. We may not find it as difficult to be accepting in the church as we do in the world outside. As we look at people, we can find ourselves judging them. We look askance at their clothes or their tattooed arms or the Harley Davidson jacket they are wearing. We might assume they are part of a motorcycle or street gang or are dangerous or unapproachable.
One of my challenges is with the bikers (riding the human powered bikes) that ride through my community regularly individually or in groups. They wear bike shorts, fancy riding shirts, and expensive helmets. I see them and tell myself that I’m not doing that. In fact, one of the reasons I haven’t gotten myself a new bike is because those bikers intimidate me, and I worry about what I would look like in my non-bike clothes. This is a challenge I need to face and a border I ought to cross.
Crossing borders is a challenge. Being willing to cross a boundary where we might or might not be accepted even if we know we would is not easy. Admitting to ourselves that we belong is hard. Yet, we all do belong.
For King and Country sings a song titled “Relate.” The refrain in the song goes like this:
I don’t know what it’s like to be you
You don’t know what it’s like to be me
What if we’re all the same in different ways
Can you relate?
Can you relate? We are all the same inside. We all belong to God. We are all God’s children. We all can relate to this. Even if we have different tastes or look different or belong to different groups, we really are the same in many more ways that are much more important than the outward appearances we see or the categories we place others in.
What God calls us to do is to give out admission tickets without strings attached. It’s free to enter. Here’s your ticket, come on in. Or you don’t need a ticket at all. If you don’t see a place for you, we’ll make a place. We’ll set up more tables and chairs. We’ll open our hearts to you, letting you know you belong.
We really are the same in different ways.