Acts 10:1-24, 34-36, 44-48
Over the past five years, I’ve often cited the motto of The Church of the Pilgrims in Washington DC as a model for our congregation’s spirituality – “where all are pilgrims and none are strangers.”
The question of defining friends and strangers is at the heart of human relationships. It’s the question of who belongs and who doesn’t in our circle of companions. Who’s welcome and who’s not? Who gets the best seats and who gets left out in the cold? Who is honored and who is disparaged? Who receives our compassion and empathy and who doesn’t?
In American history, people of color often were – and still are – placed at the margins. Even after the Civil War, “separate but equal” was the norm in the South for education, and election laws and poll taxes made voting a challenge especially for persons of color, who had, because of centuries of servitude, modest education and income. Even today, in many states, there are fewer polling places per capita in urban neighborhoods than in suburbs.
Now, in today’s polarized social setting, everybody is an outsider. We ramp up the dialogue, name call, and marginalize persons with whom we disagree. I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m a patriot and you aren’t. I love my country and you don’t. I can go into the restroom and you can’t. We’ve even given up listening to people with different opinions than our own. We no longer call members of the other political party, “the loyal opposition,” we simply call then “the opposition.”
The first century was no different. Although Pentecost inspired the dream of a universal faith, for the most part Christianity was a Jewish phenomenon, and good self-respecting Jews could not eat or drink, marry, or spend time with non-Jews. Their diets were different and any consort with people outside the faith was seen as an affront to God.
It was long day and Peter was weary. Sometimes a sea breeze begs for an afternoon nap. Peter goes up to the roof top to rest. As he’s resting, he has a vision. A smorgasbord is set before him, with all sorts of food. There are dishes he loves – dates, fish, good bread, olives – but then there are forbidden foods – scallops, lobster, oysters, and ham. Peter is rightly scandalized when God says “it’s for you,” “grab your knife,” “dig in.”
Peter protests: even God can’t break God’s rules. But, three times God commands Peter, “Eat what I’ve provided for you. Don’t call my gifts to you unclean.”
Now, there is a spiritual synchronicity in life. Sometimes our prayers join the prayers of others and flood the conscious as well as unconscious mind with new possibilities. As Peter ponders the meaning of the dream, messengers from Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, a believer in the One God, arrive at the door and though against custom, Peter invites them in and then travels back with them, breaking other religious rules, by coming to the house of Cornelius.
Sometimes, certain places are said to be off-limits for people of faith. I experienced this as a ten year old. My friend, Richard Puzzi, whose Dad owned Puzzi’s Stampede a bar next to the Reel Joy theatre in my hometown, and I were walking home after little league practice. I invited him into the Baptist Church that my dad pastored, but he excused himself saying, “Catholics can’t go into Protestant churches.” Things have changed since the fifties, but in those days, Christians were banned from worshipping with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Well, Peter and Cornelius break down barriers. Peter enters Cornelius’ world and his eyes are opened and so is his theology and ethics – “God is not partial, God wants to save everyone, every nation is loved by God, and receives God’s grace.”
As he’s preaching, Pentecost falls on his Gentile listeners, they speak in tongues, and experience divine revelations. There is nothing to do now but baptize them.
Christianity became a global faith, spreading even to Cape Cod and people like us, because once upon a time, Jesus’ followers discovered that God’s love has no boundaries of race, religion, culture, and ethnicity.
The story of Peter and Cornelius challenges us to consider who’s off-limits for us. We all have our “others” – people we don’t respect, would like to avoid, and see as somehow very different from ourselves. The good news, though, is that our eyes can be opened and we can discover that no one is “unclean.” We can expand our circle of concern to include people we don’t yet understand and whose lifestyle is foreign to us, recognizing that beneath appearance and behavior they are God’s beloved children. They are Christ in all of his distressing disguises, as Mother Teresa asserted.
As we ponder our church’s vision, we are going to stretch our muscles, near and far. We may choose to become fully open and affirming not just in practice but in name, welcoming all God’s beloved children, across the wide diversity of sexual identity. We may choose to heed the call of a ministry with persons experiencing homelessness and addiction and have serious conversations with people whose presence may make us feel uncomfortable at times. We may need to welcome persons of other faiths into our spiritual homes, sharing bread with other children of Abraham, our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters. When the dust settles, we may even have to let down our guard and see Christ in those who currently take a dim view of our congregation’s cell antennas.
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” God wants us to enlarge our circles – to get out of our comfort zones, prudently and carefully – and to call nothing “unclean,” but look for and act to bring forth God’s presence in everyone we meet and bring about a world where all are pilgrims and none are strangers.