Last Monday, in case you missed it, was Earth Day; so it’s great and wonderful that our garden project is getting underway, taking advantage of the bounty of creation that God gave into our hands. According to the stories of Genesis, Adam was a gardener, appointed to that task by his Maker, to tend and nurture the good green earth.
I heard a sermon a few years ago, a sermon for Earth Day, and although I could never do justice to the preacher’s words, I remember especially his emotion when he challenged us never, never ever, to despise as unnatural something, someone, somebody made by God. I suspect that we may have been reading the story from Acts that day, the story in which Peter reminds his friends, his church, about affirming the goodness of all of God’s creation, about accepting and seeking the image of God in all of humanity, about refraining from despising as unnatural anything, anyone, anybody in the natural world that God has made.
Just to recap, Peter is back in Jerusalem after hanging out in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner, where we left him last week. Whilst at Simon’s house, Peter had the vision that he described; and while Peter was having his vision, a man called Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Cohort, was receiving his own message from God, telling him to send for Peter because Peter had news for him that would be to his advantage. While Peter was telling Cornelius about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard it, and Peter was persuaded to seal the action by baptizing them. Now, Peter has to explain himself to those who felt that it might have been unseemly to visit with, preach among, much less to baptize, those of the Gentile persuasion. Perhaps they had all forgotten Jesus’ reputation for talking to just about anyone, and for seeking out especially those who were otherwise lost.
The challenge that Peter faced in his vision may be one which we struggle to find sympathy with; we may think that it is well outside of our experience. To understand what it means for a Jew to break kosher, to eat something understood through centuries as ritually unclean, unsavoury, that we were taught by our great-grandparents to leave well alone, because to eat it would be an offence against God – we don’t generally have that experience, and the depth of Peter’s anguish at his vision may be difficult to understand; although if any of you has been a vegan for twenty years, and you can imagine suddenly being offered a cheese-steak by an angel of the Lord, an offer you could hardly refuse, then you might come close.
Because while I could be wrong, it is my understanding that in some ways, it was also a bereavement, to be told to eat the unclean animals; the Jewish people received the Law, their ritual rules as a gift from God, a sign of the covenant between the Almighty and the Chosen People, chosen to pray on behalf of the world, to live on behalf of the world a life dedicated to God. The Law was a sign and a symbol of this life lived with God, this mutual relationship of the Jews with their Maker, with the Maker of us all, and to give it up, to turn his back on it, to let go of the Law was not freedom to Peter, but a heavy burden, the burden of stepping beyond the bounds of his carefully wrought religion, practiced on behalf of the world, into the great unknown, the world itself.
But Peter’s vision was not the end of kosher observance for the Jewish Christians. Peter’s vision was not a preparation for a life of lobster bisque, but for the knock that would shortly come to Simon the tanner’s front door, from a Gentile looking for the Gospel, for guidance from a disciple of the living Christ; and, what is more, Peter’s commandment was not to become like Cornelius in order that Cornelius could become like Peter. Peter would always be a Jewish Christian, and the evidence from the rest of the Book of Acts and from the letters of Paul is that the Jewish Christians continued to keep kosher, to eat as adherents of the Jewish faith. Cornelius didn’t have to be circumcised:
Peter’s point to his fellows back in Jerusalem was precisely that Cornelius could become a Christian without becoming a Jew: each man’s faith was equally acceptable to God, mediated as it was through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The one name that they held in common was far stronger than any of the differences, the names, labels and actions that set them apart from one another: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The pressing point of the story, I think, is not that all differences between the individuals and groups that made up the new Christians churches must be subsumed or papered over or blended or liquidated in order for them to worship together; but that even in their difference, their unique backgrounds and cultures, their God-given histories, they were all equally important to God, beloved of God, welcome in the kingdom of God.
It may feel like a subtle semantic point to make, but for the people living through the decisions about whether or not and who had to be circumcised, or even who could eat shrimp cocktail, it was clearly a huge deal. Each person was permitted to bring to the table (pun intended) their own, true, God-given selves, without apology or apostasy. Peter’s temporary suspension of his own obligations to discretion, to dietary discipline, was a parable, a prophetic action to make this very point; that while it was his joy to keep kosher, it must not be a barrier to bearing witness to the Holy Spirit’s baptism of Cornelius and his household.
The language that is used for the unclean animals, which Peter applies to the persons of Cornelius and his household when he visits them, is rendered in English common, or profane; secular, or mundane. On the contrary, says the vision, says God, all that God has made is sacred, is holy. All that God has made is sacred, is holy.
There was a great letter in the Plain Dealer this past week, wherein the letter-writer posited that the problem with the young men who planted the Boston bombs was not that they were not like the rest of America, but that they considered the difference to be a bad thing, diversity to be something evil. He wrote,
“ It’s those who hate the differences between us, such as the Tsarnaev brothers, who personify the problem.” – Hank Drake South Euclid
We like to think that we are so sophisticated, tolerant, accepting and laid back these days, and yet while we might throw up our hands in horror at the idea of being thought racist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic, or xenophobic – wasn’t there just the tiniest ripple of relief that ran through the news cycle when it was determined that the two young men suspected of bombing Boston were, well, not from around these parts? That they were able to be described, somehow or another, as “other”? We still like to define in and out, clean and unclean, friend and foe. Of course we do. It’s only natural. But a friend defines herself by her friendly actions, and a foe by different acts. It is not their God-given selves that are faulty, but the way that they have used or abused them.
We must not be led astray by our recognition of our differences. We must never be tempted to declare that one who is different from us is made in the image of a lesser God than ours.
Ours should not be the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men, and took pride in his separation from his fellows.
Watching Dr Who yesterday afternoon (it was a rerun, but still great), I was reminded that some of the most terrifying monsters in science fiction are those who would remove our differences, our individuality, our personal responses to one another and to God. This is what the Cybermen said in that Dr Who episode,
‘Cybermen now occupy every land mass on this planet. But you need not fear. Cybermen will remove fear. Cybermen will remove sex and class and colour and creed. You will become identical, you will become like us.”
And if you are not a fan of the Doctor, how about the Borg from Star Trek:
“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
We value our own differences, our own versions of the kosher requirements, what sets us apart, what makes us unique, and that is good, because God has made each of us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is good to value our differences, just so long as we can give equal value to the differences of one another.
Paul wrote to the Galatians that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there neither slave nor free, their neither male nor female,” but it would be difficult to argue that he meant it literally; I think that he still understood himself, for example to be demonstrably male. What he meant, I think, is what Peter learned: that our differences do not need to come between us, but that we are equal in value and stature before God; that we need never be separated or divided, much less differentially valued by our difference.
In the end, it comes back to Genesis. After making each thing, each category of thing, “each after its own kind”, not the same as the next or the one that came before; after making humanity in its own simple diversity, “male and female God made them”, then God saw everything that had been made, and it was very good.
Let nothing and no one that God has made be called common, or profane. What God has made has been made holy by the holiness of the Creator, and all of it belongs in all of its diversity, all of its promise, all of its difference, to God. Even every one of us.
 See Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006), especially pp.25-26, 126-7
 BBC Doctor Who, Series 2, Episode 13, “Doomsday”, first broadcast 8 July 2006