The Revelation of Difference
Week of Sunday April 28 - Easter 5
Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
I was called to the hospital at dawn, and said The Blessings and made the Sign of the Cross over Xen’s body after he died; there was no Orthodox priest within a hundred miles. Xen’s wife asked that I come to the funeral which was, of course, in Greek. She and I were among the few English speakers present.
Because of my study of New Testament Greek, and because I officiate at funerals, I recognised enough of the liturgy to be able to follow, roughly, what was going on. I was enthralled. In something absolutely different from my own tradition, I found a glorious similarity. Xen’s funeral was a blessing to me. It brought me the gospel; the Good News that gives us Life, in a new and fresh way.
Difference can be enormously revealing of God’s love for us. It is God’s gift to us!
Another story comes from a colleague who told of a delightful shared meal between the Korean and Anglo congregations who share the same church property. After a wonderful lunch, it began to come unstuck over the dishes. The relationship, as I heard the story, was lucky to survive!
Think about the way we aging Anglos wash dishes in water-short Australia. From a Korean perspective, we slurry the dishes around in a weak, tepid soup. Then we wipe the contamination into all the cracks in the crockery with wet, unhygienic tea towels which we often don’t even take home and wash!—well, not for a week or two, anyway.
The Koreans in that church kitchen were revolted, disgusted, and unsurprisingly, outraged and deeply insulted, to realise they had been eating off this filthy crockery and cutlery for months.
It’s a big kitchen, apparently. There are two washing up points.
At the other sink, the Koreans were washing the dishes properly. Burning hot running water—no plug in the sink, dishes draining, and tea towels retired as soon as they were moderately damp.
The Anglos were outraged and furious at the waste of water and electricity. Who did these newcomers think they were?
We know that Jesus said, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.' (John 13:31-35) And we Australians know that proper love—the true love from God—does not waste water, and that if the water is even three degrees hotter than air temperature, it’s good enough for washing dishes. Just scrub harder.
Difference can be a disaster. Difference can destroy the community of love.
One of the great hopes of Israel was that at the end of times, one of the wonderful things God would do is bring the whole world together. It’s in the Revelation to John. At the end, says John, "I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Rev 7:9-10)
So when Peter has his vision from God in Acts Chapter 10, it's a major step in the saving of all the nations. He goes to visit a Roman man Cornelius, who is different—unlcean—and preaches the gospel. He is astounded when they not only listen, but are overwhelmed with the same signs of God's spirit falling upon them as were the disciples in Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost!
This is so important, and such exciting news, that Luke tells us the story twice; in Chapter 10, and then in our reading in Chapter 11. Here is the Good News straight from Peter's mouth: You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
No one is different.
We all belong to God. God loves us all, even those of us who use mucky washing up water!
This was big news. "The apostles and the believers who were in Judea [soon] heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God." (1:1) I reckon it took about as long as it takes to walk from Caesarea to Jerusalem for the church in Jerusalem to hear about it!
But when Peter comes up later in the month, are they all excited to hear what’s been going on—let’s get it from the horse’s mouth?
"When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'" (Acts 11:2-3)
These people are different.
They are not like us.
They are unclean.
Why are you mixing with them?
Eating, you see, is the final fellowship. It is saying, "You are my friend. You are like me. We are not different—what appears to be difference is God's gift of us to each other."
Now we like to think we are not like those Jerusalem Christians, but you just have to get Anglo Aussies and Korean Aussies washing the dishes together, and you can see that we have our own unwritten Law about what’s clean and good, and what’s different and bad.
You just have to have a bomb go off in Boston, and people start picking on other people who look different, or who might not be Christians, and blaming them for the bomb. Poisonous people begin to spew their bile like Alan Jones, and we lap it up and pass it on: different is bad. Who can I blame? Keep the different people out of Australia.
This is the way of the world.
And, instead of loving each other, we bring the way of the world into the church.
We’ve got a Law for washing up, a Law for putting the hymn books back properly, and a Law for picking up paper.
And there is one more Law of the church, sadly: if something is wrong, it is, by definition, the fault of the people who are different. This has been true, some of the time at least, for every congregation I have experienced in my whole life. And I have been a part of it.
So Peter—how many times did he have to tell this story—tells the circumcised believers in Jerusalem the story of what happened.
5‘I was in … Joppa praying… and in a trance I saw a vision… something like a large sheet coming down from heaven … and it came close to me. … I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air—[The sheet was full of things that are different and unclean...] 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
10This happened three times, then … at that very moment, three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived …2The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us…
… six brothers … accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”
15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning!16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
17If 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!?’
18When they heard this, [his critics] were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
And so rather than being destroyed by difference, Christians began to destroy difference. They loved each other, instead of walling each other off by difference, or by assuming they were superior to others.
And Jesus said: (John 13:31-35) By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
This stuff is not easy. Actually, Luke has tidied the story up for us. Listen to what really happened, long before Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
This is Paul, maybe thirty years earlier:
But when [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (Galatians 2:11-14)
It is so hard to love.
We evolved from animals who survived by being different and being better. Our tribes and our nations evolved by being different, and being superior, and being right, and by putting down, and discounting, and riding roughshod over the peoples’ around us. The world from which we have come is truly dog eat dog.
But Jesus calls us to transcend difference. We are part of the great plan of God. God has not made sacred and profane. It is all made by God; we are all made by God; we are to love one another. The world is being transformed when we love.
And like Peter, when we fall far short of the insights God has given us, God still loves us, and lets us begin again.
Beloved let us love one another, for love is of God. (1 John 4:7)