Peter is hungry and goes to pray. A vision of unclean food, arranged on a heavenly tablecloth, appears. He is invited to eat. Peter, the good Jew, refuses. He is told not to “call anything profane that God has made clean.” Peter is perplexed.
In the midst of Peter’s puzzlement, he hears a knock on the door. Some foreign-looking Gentiles, sent by Cornelius the Roman centurion, are waiting. They are unclean occupiers.
Peter is a product of his time and culture, as we all are. In Jewish circles, Gentiles are called dogs. Jews are God’s favored. Peter does the unthinkable. He breaks covenantal law. He invites in the Caesarean Gentiles. They eat together, enemies at the same table. God, who makes clean the unclean, is on the move.
Peter travels with the Caesarean delegation. He enters Cornelius’ house and eats with “those people.” According to rabbinical law, Peter is guilty of misconduct. Those in the Circumcision Faction believe Peter has gone too far, disregarding the written word and centuries of tradition. He is at variance.
Later, at the Jerusalem Conflict Resolution Gathering, Peter defends himself, testifying how Gentiles received the Holy Spirit. God makes no distinction between “us” and “them.” All are under the grace of Jesus.
What can this story teach us? Some of us want to jump from unclean food to Gentile inclusion to LGBTQ welcome. Others see things differently. As a denomination, we are divided.
Peter assumed God has favorites. We still like to think of ourselves as favored. Some of us think we are favored because we see the truth, unafraid to name sin. Some of us think we are favored because we are welcoming, better than those who will not move beyond narrow biases.
Are we more interested in being right than seeing God’s Spirit move among us?
We love our church, just as Peter must have loved his Jewish community. Are we willing to acknowledge that there is love for the church and Scripture on both sides?
In Peter’s story, the Spirit trumps tradition and Torah. Peter obeys what he perceives to be God’s voice rather than tradition and teachings. This can be scary for those of us who like things clearly defined.
However, Peter’s vision is compatible with Jesus, though it clashes with much of Jewish tradition. Jesus ignored Jewish social walls. He talked to the Samaritan woman. He gained insight from a Syrophoenician woman. He dined with the wrong people.
The church in Acts was inclusive before inclusive was trendy. There is the sexually altered Ethiopian eunuch, the foreign businesswoman, the Roman centurion. The church as a diverse body enables us to see beyond our biases.
It’s OK to be perplexed when challenging voices jar our thinking. It can be scary when categories shift, but we can’t let fear make decisions. It can be comforting to think God favors us over those who see things differently. But the church isn’t “us” and “them.” Together we show Jesus to the world.
As “good” Mennonites, we can’t let the smell of old hides control our vision to be God’s reconciling people in our divided world. When we start seeing heavenly tablecloths with fresh ideas, when we hear voices that mesh with the life of Jesus, let’s open the door and trust that the God who makes clean our misconceptions is moving among us.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.