Easter 5-c April 28, 2013
Years ago, I joined a tennis club. I did not then, and do not now, know how to play tennis, and I’m not quite sure why I joined. No one at the club was mean to me, but no one was really interested in me, either. I suppose we’ve all tried out membership in all sorts of clubs, or we’ve been in clubs when we knew that some of the people who walked through the doors just weren’t supposed to be there. What do clubs do when someone doesn’t have the right coat, or doesn’t know how to use the right fork, or, in the case of the apostles, doesn’t eat the right meat?
From the point of view of the rest of the apostles, Peter should not be eating with THOSE kinds of people. These apostles are followers of Jesus, yes, but they do not see why they should break with their Jewish past. They know well that Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” But perhaps they hear more continuity than drastic change in what Jesus says. This commandment comes from God, like Jesus comes from God – and not some new, innovative God. John – and Jesus, and Peter, and all the rest of the apostles are talking about the same God they have known from childhood – and the same God their parents, and their parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents before them knew, the God who taught them about love, and who expected them to love each other. This is the same God who gave them rules to live by – rules about food – but also rules about caring for strangers, about mercy and forgiveness, about justice and compassion. God has always been about pushing the boundaries of the community out, out out, into the whole known world. God pushed and pulled us together as a people so we could be lights of God’s goodness for the whole world. When God saw the people of Israel getting too inward, too narrow, God pushed them, gave them a new challenge, something new that forced them to re-think what it meant to be the people – not only of Israel, but of God.
One of the ways God gets to people in the Bible is through dreams and visions, and God caused Peter to have quite a vision. In that vision, God caused a complete up-ending of everything Peter thought was “the way we do things in our club”, the place where the rules said you could only eat certain kinds of meat. Make no mistake: God had handed down those rules about what to eat, and Peter knew those rules. “We” ate a certain way, and “they” ate a different way. But now Peter heard God say, “Do not make a distinction between them and us,” and Peter was shocked. He had to hear this three times before he realized that it meant he had to go into that house and eat that food with those people.
And then the miracle happened: “they” became “us.” No doubt Peter was just as odd to them as they were to him. They, too, took a risk with their hospitality, but look what happened: A whole bunch more people became Christians, got the light, learned the story, and started to believe that they were in “the club”, too. This is how Peter explained what happened to his equally shocked co-apostles: “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?"
Indeed: Who was I that I could hinder God?
Note that the word used there is not “should” but “could.” It’s not, who am I, that I should hinder God. It’s, who am I that I COULD hinder God? God’s spirit pushes and pulls us, loving us along the way, always insisting that we can do more, love more, open more, be more. We can invite oddballs like Peter into our house, invite him to sit at our table, and amazingly, there will still be enough to go around – amazingly, some amazing things can happen. The world can look like a new place. A new heaven. A new earth. A new church.
You might guess where I’m going with this. I had the strangest vision when I was praying over these texts, when I was trying to figure out what they might mean to us, here, St. David’s, DeWitt, today. I saw a medical clinic in South Sudan, and Bol Garang meeting his mother at Kennedy Airport. I saw meal after meal served at the Samaritan Center. I saw day old baked goods loaded into a van and taken to Temple Concord. I saw total strangers, grieving and sad, being welcomed here and given food and drink and comfort.
And I saw people who had not paid even their $25 Patrons membership fee drinking champagne at the opening of the Celebration of the Arts. I saw all of us – or a lot of us, any of us who want to come – whether we’ve paid our $25 or not -- wearing our name tags and welcoming people, and shaking their hands, and giving them a drink -- all those people, who came through our doors, thinking they were here just to see some art and listen to some music – people who aren’t Christians, who don’t want to be Christians, who go to other churches, people who eat all kinds of meat or no meat at all – people who came here thinking this was just some ordinary place – some ordinary church -- but what they saw, what they really saw, was a new heaven, and a new earth.