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In her 1983 commencement address at Vassar College, award winning actress Meryl Streep spoke to the new graduates about the real life that they were about to enter, one beyond their often idealized experience of college life where ideas and solutions are the product of finding the right source or method and doing the necessary work. Real life isn’t always like that, she cautioned. Real life isn’t like college. No, she observed, “real life is more like high school.” Or as a friend of mine is known to say, “We never really make it too far past the junior high lunchroom.” You know what he means; that first day at the new school with the older kids- boys who shave, girls who dress and act far older than they look. The building is bigger, the hallways longer, the teachers and the classes more demanding. The whole experience is an invitation to an identity crisis. Suddenly you’re thrown into a whole new mix, struggling to figure out just where you belong and how you’re going to fit in. And nowhere is that struggle more evident than in the school’s cafeteria, as you stand there with your tray or lunchbag in hand, nervously scanning the landscape of tables wondering where to go. Like everything else in this new free state of existence, the old rules no longer apply. Lunch is no longer one more stop in your day, sitting at the same table, eating alongside the same kids you’ve been in class with every day for the past several years. Now you get to choose where you want to sit, and who you want to sit with. In truth, there is nowhere more perilous in the whole school- not gym class, not algebra- but here in the lunch room; because where you sit and who you eat with suddenly determines everything that seems to matter. Where you sit and who you eat with establishes your place in the order of things in that strange new world. Where you sit and who you eat with announces your rank in the pubescent pecking order.
If that sounds a bit overly dramatic, then I would suggest that it has been far too long since you spent time with anyone going through this more difficult of life transitions. Or maybe you’ve just successfully blocked out those painful memories. But if we are to begin to understand what is at stake this morning for Peter and the church in this passage from the book of Acts, we might want to reconsider just what goes on in the junior high lunchroom. Because like it or not, I’m afraid that Ms. Streep and my friend aren’t all too far off the mark on this. In the lunchrooms, and sometimes fellowship halls of this world, many of the same castes and classifications still exist: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the geeks, and the burnouts. To borrow from the title of Rosalind Wiseman’s book there are queen bees and there are wannabees. Unfortunately, the prevailing distinctions between insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, clean and unclean don’t magically disappear just because we’ve crossed over the threshold of a church building. In fact, many of them appear to be woven into the very fabric of our faith.
That was certainly the case for Peter and the rest of the apostles. These are the devoted, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, who, as we read earlier in the book of Acts, were willing to put their lives on the line in order to proclaim the good news about the power of God’s active, forgiving love to remake the world in Jesus Christ. They knew their scriptures and believed what was written there. They had read the words of Leviticus and Deuteronomy concerning which animals they could eat and which they couldn’t, the ones that were clean and the ones that were not. The bible said it, they believed it, and that settled it. So it had to have been to their considerable shock and dismay to hear that Peter of all people- Peter who had been so close to Jesus, Peter who had been the first to confess him as Messiah, Peter who- yes- had denied him during his time of trial, but who nevertheless ran to the tomb at the first word of his resurrection, Peter who had been the first to stand among the Jerusalem crowds to declare to them who Jesus was and what he had done- it had to be more than a little surprising to hear that Peter was eating with gentiles. Everyone knew that you weren’t supposed to eat with those people. They were unclean. The bible was crystal clear about that much. You can almost hear his Jerusalem compatriots sayng, “Peter, you’ve got some explaining to do.” It was as if the captain of the debate team had begun hanging out and eating lunch with the burnouts, the ones even the teachers didn’t bother trying to reach, the ones unlikely to make it to the end of the school day, much less to graduation, the ones parents tried to shield their kids from because of their bad influence. That is ultimately what Gentiles were thought to be in the devout circles of the nascent Christian church.
It was Roman Gentiles after all who imposed their taxes and kept the peace by occupying their land with the force of arms; Roman Gentiles who had nailed their Lord Jesus to a cross to make an example of what happens to trouble-makers who would be king. Once you start hanging out at that lunch table it isn’t long before you begin sliding down the slippery slope of faithlessness. As Wil Willimon points out, the thinking went something like this, “a little pork here, a little pinch of incense to Caesar there, and it [won’t] be long before the faith community [is] politely obliterated.” Didn’t Peter realize what was at stake here; nothing less than their survival as God’s royal priesthood? The answer is, of course Peter knew.
That day in Joppa by the sea, when Peter fell into his trance and saw this bizarre vision of a sheet lowered down with all manner of animals, he was instructed three times, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And three times Peter refused. Three times Peter stuck to his guns and kept the faith he’d been taught, in defiance of this word from the heavens. Maybe he thought it was a test. Maybe he questioned the source of a voice that would tell him to do something that directly contradicted scripture. Or maybe he was afraid. Afraid of doing something he had never even considered to be an option. Afraid of how such a word might call into question all of his other religious beliefs that he was so sure of. Afraid that he might be wrong. Friends, there is perhaps no greater barrier to faith than that of a hardened religious certainty that has been forged in the fires of our fear. But you see, there is something far more dangerous than eating with the wrong people. It is far more destructive to insist that we know beyond any doubt who “those” people are- who belongs and who doesn’t. It is far more destructive to let our fear of what is different, or unknown to us, dictate who may or may not be welcome at the tables where we sit.
University of Chicago emeritus professor Martin Marty recounts this lesson from history. “After the Civil War the question rose whether free black and whites of the same denomination and creed would make up congregations. Oh yes, said many of the white congregations: you can keep coming with us to the Lord’s house, as you did in slave days. Yes, we’ll reserve choice seats for you in the balcony. But commune with us at the Lord’s Table? And stay to eat with us at the tables in the church annex or on the church lawn, for a picnic? Never.” Eventually, many African-Americans chose to self-exclude themselves from such churches and form congregations of their own. As Marty observes, “There knew where they were not wanted.” And even today, as Dr. King observed over fifty years ago, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.
Never. That’s what Peter told God. We know all about Peter’s stunning act of unfaithfulness in the name of self-preservation during Jesus’ trial, so it’s interesting that Peter would try to take the spiritual high ground with God. “Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth,” he declares. Funny how we tend to pick and choose our own spiritual strengths and shortcomings before God. But God will have none of this, none of our frantic, pious, self-justification. “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” At this point we know that this trance of Peter’s is about more than animals. A Roman Gentile down the coast has been waiting to hear from Peter. He had been told to send for him. This trance is Peter’s divine summons, and it is here- before he leaves, before he has said word one to Cornelius the Gentile and his household about Jesus, before they have had the chance to repent and be baptized- here on this roof in Joppa Peter is told, “what God has made clean you must not call profane.” Not what God might make clean, or what God will make clean if they say the magic words, but what God has ALREADY made clean.
“The Spirit told me,” recounts Peter, in his testimony before the church in Jerusalem, “not to make a distinction between us and them.” It’s good advice. More than that, it’s God advice. In a world filled with distinctions that are becoming dangerously deep divisions, in a world brimming with all kinds of tables for different categories of people, in a world not unlike the junior high lunch room that is filled with table after table after table of us and them: blue state/red state, liberal/conservative, capitalist /socialist, men/women, citizen/immigrant, documented/undocumented, anglo/latino/indigenous/African/ Asian, Israeli/Palestinian, straight/gay, God says, “what I have made clean, you must not call profane. Do not make a distinction between us and them that puts us on the inside and them on the outside.” We never know who God has already been talking to. We never know who God has already invited into the family. This the closing statement of Peter’s defense, “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 are any of us? Praise be to God, who so freely and without exception gives the gift that leads to a life that belongs entirely to and with God.