A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his second-last one before retirement)
You’d think it would be a no-brainer. For Peter I mean. For, er, Pete’s sake, he had been there when Jesus laid into the Pharisees over ritual purity and dietary restrictions (Mark 7:14-23). They had noticed that the disciples weren’t washing their hands before eating. Nothing to do with hygiene, mind, as we moderns might think. No, the issue was ethnic and religious identity, the drawing of a symbolic boundary between the way Jews behaved and the way Gentiles behaved. That’s why the Pharisees were adamant not only about washing their hands before eating but also about not eating with people who didn’t wash their hands before eating – which is why they were so shocked about the company Jesus kept at mealtime. And now he tells them straight: he repudiates these culinary scruples.
Okay, the regulations about washing, even though they were a well-established tradition, they weren’t actually in the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, so you could say that Jesus wasn’t actually being unbiblical. But kosher food laws – not how you should eat but what you could eat – they are set out very clearly in the book of Leviticus. And Jesus rejects this teaching too. The modern New Testament translation called The Message graphically renders the words of Jesus: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit – that’s the real pollution” (Mark 7:15-16.) Heart-puke – greed, arrogance, unkindness – these, not soiled hands are what make a person dirty. And just in case the disciples don’t get the message, Mark adds: “That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are clean” (Mark 7:19b).
Again, Peter was an eye-witness – he saw what Jesus did, he heard what Jesus said. And it wasn’t like this was the only time that Jesus played the nothing-can-contaminate and no-one-is-contaminated card, insisting that the category “polluted people” is an empty set. Peter was there when Jesus touched lepers and healed them. Peter was there when Jesus touched dead people and raised them. Peter was there when a woman with chronic menstrual bleeding touched Jesus, which not only didn’t disgust him but indeed deeply impressed him. Here too Jesus subverted the clear teaching of the Bible: pus and periods – contaminating stuff, and if contact is made, there are very clear rules, biblical rules about what you do to decontaminate yourself. These are the laws of God – and you don’t break the laws of God. But Jesus did. And Peter was there, there when he did.
But, again, all this isn’t just about things – soap and food, skin and blood; ultimately these things are about people and about identity, about how I secure my sense of self by being different from you, and about how, in turn, your difference becomes a threat to my identity, which I must defend with fixed boundaries; which means I must be defensive, which makes me anxious, fearful, and finally hostile. Keeping clean and kosher is thus a symbolic practice that both embodies and sustains a world view that divides those who are God’s people from those who are not God’s people. So when Jesus rejected Jewish purity regulations, he wasn’t just breaking a rule, he was repudiating an entire system, destabilising a whole culture. No wonder the reaction was swift, concerted – and finally fatal.
I repeat: Peter was there, there when Jesus made it emphatically, repeatedly clear that there are no “polluted people”. But Peter didn’t get it. Mark is always saying how the disciples didn’t get Jesus. Now I hope you can see why, can see just how radical the teaching of Jesus was. So radical, in fact, that even after the resurrection, Peter still didn’t get it. Which brings us to the story of the conversion of Cornelius in the book of Acts, chapter 10. Only it isn’t the story of the conversion of Cornelius, it’s actually the story of the conversion of Peter himself, the story of how Peter finally does get it.
The story begins with a strange dream. In it Peter sees a blanket on which there are images of all sorts of animals, un-kosher animals. Then he hears a voice: “Kill, and eat.” “God forbid!” Peter replies. The voice says, “God doesn’t forbid anymore. And if God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” This troubling conversation takes place three times, the biblical number of “that’s a wrap”. That God now calls clean what he once called profane – this isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare. Peter is profoundly disturbed, and as he is trying to figure it all out, three men arrive (“three” again – this is clearly an important story). They tell Peter that their master, Cornelius, a captain in the Roman army – a Gentile – has had a vision in which he’s been told to invite Peter into his home to hear what Peter has to say. Peter thinks, “I don’t have anything to say.” Still he goes, and on the way the penny drops, thuds, as he interprets his weird dream: eat vile food means mix with vile people. Peter still can’t help but feel that what he is doing is highly improper, and he’s still not sure what he’s supposed to say, but Cornelius makes it easier for him, makes him feel welcome, introduces him to the wife and kids, easing the tension, the embarrassment, and loosening Peter’s tongue, such that the apostle begins to tell the story of Jesus.
But as he reaches what he thinks is the conclusion of the story, Peter is interrupted – by God himself, who pours out the Holy Spirit on this pagan household. The theologian James Alison calls this “the maximum moment of being disconcerted. That a holy story should be told to a group of the impure as something confrontational, something to make them feel bad about themselves so they might purify themselves … is perfectly comprehensible. Yet, as you watch the story being told you notice that, rather than being confronted and downcast, the listeners all find themselves overwhelmed from within with a sense of delight, seeing the story as good news for themselves.” The message is not “Change or God will not love you”, the message is “You’re okay, God loves you just as you are.”
This event and this message – it triggers a human earthquake of historic proportions. Peter finally gets what he hadn’t gotten in the ministry and teaching of Jesus himself – that there are no polluted people. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he sees with his own eyes, hears with his own ears, experiences at first hand that these Gentiles, whom he’s been taught since childhood are to be avoided and excluded – that God is actually delighted with them just as they are, and welcomes them into his family without having to go kosher, become circumcised, observe the Sabbath, or perform any other of the culturally and religiously distinctive practices that set Jew apart from Gentile. Now Jew and Gentle can join hands and walk into and work out the future – becoming a new humanity – together. As Paul, another strict Jew, a Pharisee, who, remember, had tried to destroy the church precisely because it was mixing the unmixable, but who finally got it too – as Paul would succinctly put it: “There is no longer Jew and Gentile, for all are now one in Christ.”
It seems to be part of human nature to secure identity by rivalry, building barriers, erecting implacable oppositions of “Us” and “Them”. In the ancient world the most fundamental opposition was “Jew” and “Gentile”. During the age of colonialism it was “the British” and “the Oriental”. The biggest and most dangerous contemporary opposition is probably “the Christian” and “the Muslim”, particularly as Islamophobia is infected with another virulent strain of the “othering” of people, namely racism. But there are other forms of “othering” about – there is always a “Them” to label, libel, and liquidate. We know, of course, that there is no respectable theological justification for maintaining these oppositions, but argument itself, no matter how irrefutable – and never underestimate the power of stupidity – you’ll never convince people by reason alone. Because our sense of identity is at stake, the rational alone cannot shift our visceral, gut feelings of fear and loathing. As with Peter, it takes a very personal experience of one of “Them”, an encounter that is not menacing but ministering, where the Holy Spirit can work her magic and shift the boundaries of our being, making them permeable, and re-define holiness as radical inclusiveness.
Hassidic Jews tell a story. Rabbi Pinchas asked his students how one recognises the moment when the night ends and the day begins. One student asked, “Is it the moment when there is light enough to tell a dog from a sheep?” “No,” said the rabbi. Another student asked, “Is it the moment when one can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “So when, then, does the morning come?” the students asked. “It is the moment,” said Rabbi Pinchas, “when we look into the face of any person and recognise them as our brother or sister. Until then, it is still night.”
Yes, it was a long night’s journey into day for Peter, but the dawn came, the sun rose, and he finally got it. I pray that we may finally get it too: that the Other is my Sister, my Brother. Welcome!