The book of Acts is a history of the early Church and offers some of the Bible’s most vivid stories. In Acts, Peter’s vision of a four-cornered sheet coming down from heaven (filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air”) is the among the most fascinating. We might wonder what overly spicy meal Peter dined on prior to his dream.
While we may view this story as a tad bizarre, within it is the Gospel’s essential core message: A heavenly voice tells Peter to eat what he sees on the sheet. The revelation is so profound for Peter that it causes a radical paradigm shift in the theology of the early Church proclaiming God’s love – a love that Jesus proclaimed through his words and actions during his earthly ministry.
Peter was at Simon the Tanner’s home in the city of Joppa, just south of modern day Tel Aviv, when he had his vision. “ ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat,’” the voice told Peter. Peter calls the voice “Lord,” indicating that it is Jesus speaking.
“But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”
As we read about this exchange, remember that the early Church was comprised almost exclusively of Jews who recognized that Jesus as Messiah was a fulfillment to their Judaism. These Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses, which included kosher laws about food, and male circumcision, an outward symbol of the Abrahamic Covenant. Early Church leaders felt that it was also necessary for Gentile converts to adhere to the Mosaic Law. The early Church essentially considered itself a Jewish sect. Keeping kosher law that was not a terribly difficult task. Sure, no more pork roast or cheeseburgers, but hey, the brisket and the noodle kugel were nice compensation. But when it came to adult males being circumcised, that posed a significantly more challenging obstacle.
We know this was a significant obstacle because of a group of people called God-fearers who are frequently mentioned in the Christian Testament. God-fearers were Gentiles who honored the monotheistic God of the Hebrews, attended synagogue services, and even financially supported Jewish life. Ultimately, they couldn’t bring themselves to fully convert to Judaism because of the circumcision requirement.
It is the home of the God-fearer and Roman Centurion named Cornelius that the Spirit compels Peter to go to after his vision of the critter-filled sheet. In Acts (chapter 10, verse 22), Cornelius is “an up-right and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” So while he was a Gentile and Roman solider, he was also seen as a mensch – a person of integrity and honor - in the Jewish community.
Peter goes to Cornelius’ house to baptize the Roman and have a meal with his family. This is big news, as it doesn’t say Cornelius was also to be circumcised. By dining with and baptizing Cornelius, Peter has violated the two major tenants of the early Jewish Christian church:
- He eats with unclean Gentiles – those who do not adhere to the kosher laws.
- He admits someone into the faith without the pre-requirement of circumcision.
Peter is roundly criticized for these behaviors by “the circumcised.” These are the core members of the Church, who by their circumcision are Jews before being Christian. Under fire, Peter uses his vision of the descending, critter-filled sheet to explain the circumcision-less baptism of Cornelius and to justify his table sharing with Gentiles.
Does baptism erase those distinctions between Jew and Gentile? Does it replace the adherence to the Law? The answer is clearly no.
In the vision, God annuls those distinctions prior to baptism. Even though the Lord/Jesus told Peter to eat the food before him, Peter responded that he could not since the Law prohibited such cuisine. Based on God’s original creative authority and acts, God trumps tradition and Torah instruction: The voice reminds Peter that we cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean. This refers to the Genesis Creation story where at the end of each day we are told, “And God saw that it was good.” Therefore, it was all good before the law and institutional religion made it bad.
Peter understands God’s disruption of his sleep and his biased thinking as the Spirit teaching him not to make distinctions “between us and them.” As he explains to those infuriated by his behaviors at Cornelius’ home, “The Spirit told me to go . . . and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
With this phrase, we understand this vision goes beyond dietary laws; it is about human relationships. In this vision, God is correcting our faulty theological anthropology; our pernicious human tendency of putting our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric above God and His will for Creation.
This is why this story contains the core message of the Gospel. It distills the message of Jesus in John’s Gospel “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
As we sing in that wonderful hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no north or south” there is also no more “them and us.” In him there is just us, all together. We are children created in the image of a loving God and bound together into one body; the body of One God sent into the world so that we might live and live abundantly.
Of course there is reality. When it comes to our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric today. I think Charles Dickens captures our era well:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
We have made significant progress in our efforts to eradicate “them and us” in our society: an African-American president, marriage equality, women justices on the Supreme Court. But we also find that with each step we take toward erasing those distinctions, the more others in opposition rise to resist and reinforce those distinctions. That is why it is the best and the worst of times. Evil is so bewildered and terrified by the message of the Gospel coming to fruition that it is fighting back with all it has in its power – and it’s pretty ugly stuff.
Witness the current controversy over transgendered access to public restrooms in North Carolina. Legislators who passed this pernicious law requiring people to use restrooms based on their birth gender are people who see the “thems” of the world as “unclean” based on perceived differences. It also signifies a belief in their own superiority. They are passionate that if the “us” and “them” get too close, live too close, or interact too much, they risk becoming contaminated and “unclean.” Their belief is constructed upon differentiating themselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God.
Witness a fear of “them” so insidious in segments of our society that Southwest Airlines saw fit to eject a man from a flight a few weeks ago because he was speaking Arabic!
These are only two examples in a society rife with them. Notice the tenor of our current political campaign and the racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia and homophobia oozing from many segments. Sisters and brothers, the Gospel calls us to a different standard.
An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we want to experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to always be on alert to check our biases and stereotypes. God says it is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves at a deeper level. This will not happen when “us” compels we keep our distance from “them.”
The only way we end making distinctions between “them” and “us” is by learning to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, white privilege and other biased behaviors and thinking are not Godly; they are motivated by fear of the other – not love. God shows no favoritism for one human being other another.
Let us never forget: We are all good in God’s eyes despite the fact that laws and institutional religion have made so many of us in “thems” who are unclean, and therefore bad.
Hearing the Spirit’s voice, let us passionately “make no distinction between them and us” and recognize the goodness of every person from every family, language, race and nation.