Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv
We often hear at Epiphany that, “In the kingdom of heaven, relationship is primary; all else is secondary.” Relationship is primary. It’s an extraordinary statement, placing relationship above right thinking and right acting. It seems to suggest in fact that when we make relationship primary, that is how we know we are thinking and acting in a way that is congruent with the heart of God and the kingdom of heaven.
But where do we get that conviction about relationship and its nature as the central, driving force of the kingdom? We see this certainly in the words of Jesus that we heard this morning in the gospel of John:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
These words seem to suggest that how we treat one another demonstrates to others that we are a people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
This new commandment is not necessarily an easy one, and today’s story from Acts provides a good example of a predicament faced by the early church as it tried to be faithful to God, to scripture, and to this new commandment.
The story opens with these words: “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Why did you eat with them? That question is code for so much more than one’s choice of dining companions. They do not ask, “Why did you share the Gospel with the Gentiles?” That would have been very direct and to the point. They do not ask, “How is it possible that people who do not share our heritage and scripture, should find Jesus compelling and want to follow him?” That would have been something worth exploring. Instead, they name the others as “uncircumcised” – it’s a label, frought with meaning: outsiders, those not chosen by God, unholy, unclean, dangerous. Those people. And they ask why he ate with those people – because there is something sacred about eating and with whom you eat. Unclean people would defile you, corrupt you, and require deliberate measures to return to holiness. Eating with them wasn’t done.
And eating was so central to the early, emerging church. There were important Jewish dietary laws to be followed, but more than that, in the emerging community of believers eating together was one of their central acts of worship and part of their group identity. The earliest gatherings where they could talk openly about their faith in Jesus happened over meals – in each others homes. It’s where they remembered Jesus and searched together for understanding about his teachings.
So this question, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” is such a great example of the kind of loaded questions that can be spoken within faith communities when there is great internal distress over what is permitted, what is right, who we should include, and whose presence might jeopardize our sense of identity. Our sense of who we are, and whose we are.
Lest we be tempted to judge those who questioned Peter, it might help to reflect more on some of the challenges this early church faced around their identity. For one thing, these believers did not see themselves as creating a new religion – or in fact, a new church. After Jesus left, his followers continued to go to temple to pray at regular hours and participate in the faith tradition they had always known. They just also happened to believe that the Messianic prophecies were being fulfilled through Jesus. They didn’t call themselves Christians; they knew themselves to be Jews.
Some of the apostles would go to temple and try to help others understand the connection between the scriptures and Jesus. They wanted to share the gospel with Jews in Jerusalem, and Judea, and in other surrounding regions. We’ve been waiting for the Messiah all these centuries, and he has come!
But before long they ran into animosity and over time persecution became very strong in Jerusalem, with angry accusers storming into people’s homes and hauling them off to prison. Most Jewish believers fled Jerusalem to find safety elsewhere. However, God redeems difficult circumstances, and so as the believers fled to other regions, they encountered Jews who had been dispersed long before them, and they told them about the gospel. Their new Jewish community responded and so those who believed in Jesus multiplied significantly in number.
Back in Jerusalem, those who remained worked hard to prove to the temple authorities and others who were skeptical, that Jesus was not a threat to their faith, that he was in fact the one they had longed for – the one who would usher in a new kingdom and a new earth. These bold apologists faced scorn, persecution, and perhaps most painful of all, lost relationships as friends, family, and fellow members of their faith, turned away from them.
It is in the midst of these circumstances that Peter receives a vision. In parallel to his three denials of Jesus and the three cries of the rooster, three times Peter saw a vision of forbidden food. Three times he told the voice that urged him to kill and eat, that no, he would not as nothing profane had ever entered his mouth. Three times the voice proclaimed “Whatever God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
He awakens from the vision to have strangers at the door asking him to go to the home of an Italian centurion. He also hears instruction from the Holy Spirit to go meet the centurion’s family and not make a distinction between himself and them. Relationship would have to be primary. He obeys these words and is amazed at the response of this Gentile family – he sees that they have truly received the Holy Spirit, just as he and the other believers had.
Reflecting upon what he saw, he tells his Jewish community back home, “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?”
I am familiar with these stories, so I have come to anticipate Peter’s response to his encounter with this Gentile household. However, when I reflect on the uncertain times that Peter lived during, and how important it would have been to demonstrate that Jesus was a furthering of the Jewish faith, and not a break with that faith, I find it remarkable that he is present and faithful to a radical new way of understanding what Jesus was about. The kingdom would be open to all. The same gift would be available to all.
It is little wonder that the believers back in Jerusalem were troubled. How do a people who are trying to convince their friends and neighbors that this faith in Jesus is not a threat to their identity as a people of God, now become open to the idea that Jesus came and fulfilled their scriptures not only for their sake, but also for those they had always regarded as outside the promises of God?
It was a huge paradigm shift, and therefore they raised the question, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Perhaps it is a testimony to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives that they were able to listen to Peter’s story and to be silenced, and then to praise God and to say, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Over the centuries since Jesus died and rose from the dead, the church has had to wrestle time and again over how expansive the kingdom of heaven really is. Who is inside, who isn’t? Who can God forgive? Who do we let in our midst and who is a danger to our sense of identity? During our own lifetime we have seen the church wrestle with race, gender, and sexuality. The church has struggled with whether relationship truly is primary or whether some dividing line is necessary.
I have found myself wondering in recent months whether the evangelical church might relate to the early community of Jewish believers – trying so hard to be faithful, as they best understand how to be faithful – but in their anxiety about their own identity, struggling to see the new thing that Jesus is doing in their midst. Struggling to see that perhaps their faith isn’t being threatened, so much as being stretched and deepened as the kingdom of heaven becomes more fully defined by relationship. Struggling to recognize the radical invitation to truly see every person as beloved, exquisitely unique, eternal, in other words, included. And struggling to recognize what good news that truly is for them.
Who, I wonder, will be the Peters of our day and age? Who will choose to engage with the anxiety of the conservative Christian? Who will straightforwardly and compassionately testify to a radical new way (or is it an old way) of understanding what Jesus and the kingdom of heaven is about?
Is it possible that we could allow ourselves to be so transformed by relationship that we would share the glory of the kingdom…with our fellow Christians?
It is in our love for one another that we will be known by others as disciples of Jesus.