Year C Easter 5: “Make no distinction between them and us”

Acts 11: 12 “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” – Peter has a vision of eating foreign food, and is called thereby to recognise the grace of God to all kinds and conditions of people.

When we lived in SE Asia, my husband would travel all over the region for work, often eating out with business partners in restaurants whose menus he could not read, surrounded by languages he did not understand. One piece of advice helped him navigate those meals, which were not social occasions, of course, but like so many other things in life, a continuing negotiation.

The advice given him was never ask what it is that you are eating until after you have finished eating it. The advice is, of partly, to protect one’s own appetite, but also to avoid a gut reaction of disgust or dismay that might offend of provoke contempt in one’s host. Such dynamics are not good for business.

Peter is not seeking a trade deal with the Gentiles, but he has just learned that he is about to enjoy closer fellowship with them than he had ever imagined possible, this fisherman from the backwaters of Galilee.

Now that they are becoming disciples of Jesus, baptized in the self-same Holy Spirit as the apostles themselves, they are to be received as Peter’s own sisters and brothers. And that is not going to go well if every time they sit down to eat together he is visibly wrinkling up his nose and holding his breath.

Peter may assume some privilege, as the Rock upon whom Jesu promised to found his church; but Jesus’ last commandment to him was to feed, not to lead, his sheep.

It’s fitting that this reading should come upon a Community Meal Sunday, not, I hasten to add, because there is anything to fear cooking in the kitchen below. No, but it is a fitting reminder that if it were not for the grace extended to us Gentiles by the vision of God, then we would never have been invited to the table of Jesus, and we would not have a prayer of finding Christ at our table.

You see, we each tend to think of ourselves as the normal ones, the kosher, pukka ones; the ones who do it right, eat right, serve right. Everyone else is the foreigner. But if it were not for the gracious vision of God and its graceful transmission by Peter, we would forever have remained the other, the Gentiles, the eaters of foreign muck.

But Peter heard the Spirit say, “Make no distinction between them and us.”

“Make no distinction between them and us.” You can’t hear it much more clearly than that.

There are a few different ways that this gets worked out.

As our Jewish cousins, Peter’s descendants celebrate Passover, we can celebrate the invitation, the generous invitation that we have been given to share in the Exodus, the flight to freedom, the salvation of the people of God. We can give thanks that no distinction has been made between them and us; that we too have been set free not only by the crossing of the Red Sea, but by the passing over of Jesus from death to life, by the marking of the lintels of our lives with the blessing of baptism.

So there is no distinction between them and us.

There are challenges to our complacency. Did you hear yesterday about the “pro-White” rally that was taking place in Georgia ahead of Confederate Memorial Day? Nine counter-protesters were arrested. After everyone left, the pro-White group planned a cross burning. “Make no distinction between them and us,” the Spirit says, which might lead us to judge a movement designed deliberately to reinforce distinctions and divisions.

Or we may say, “Make no distinction between them and us.” We may own our complicity in systems that allow and promote and perpetuate such ill-willed demonstrations of deliberate offence and contempt. We may admit to small demonstrations of difference in our daily lives, mostly hidden, secret signs of the distinctions we make between them and us.

There is no small danger that the call of the Spirit will lead us to self-examination and repentance.

When our Vestry met at the beginning of Lent or thereabouts, we talked about why the church was founded, and why this parish worships together, and why it matters. When we get back to the basics of the gospel, of the love of God for all that God has made, our distinctions and divisions get put into some perspective. From the perspective of eternity, from the perspective of the heavens, we are indistinguishable from one another. All the more miracle that God loves each of us so dearly.

One of the themes that emerged from that Vestry meeting was the breaking down of physical barriers that create an us on the inside, and a them on the other side. Every conversation that we had included some call to get beyond our own doors and walls – physically, literally – to hang out more closely with our neighbours.

We talked about doing more worship outside, on the lawn, where there are no barriers between us and the sidewalk and the street, blurring the boundaries between the church and the city, the gospel and the everyday lives that live it and need it and bleed it.

The Growth Task Force that met this week went a step further. Growth, by the way, can mean many things in the life of a church. We might be talking about numbers of bodies in the pews. We might be talking about programming. We might even be talking about growing our own discipleship, stretching ourselves, as Peter was stretched by his vision, to new insights, new challenges, new gospel growth.

Anyway, the Growth Task Force proposed breaking down the barriers not only between inside and out, but between our worship and our fellowship, our service and our song; between this Table and our own dinner tables. We talked about taking the Pentecost picnic outside, and taking the worship service with it, and inviting all and sundry to join us, not only for worship but also for lunch, and not only for a free meal but also to join in our praise and our prayers and the falling of the Spirit upon all of God’s people, because, as Peter found out, she makes no distinction between them and us.

So in three weeks’ time, weather permitting, we will celebrate outside around our tables and the Table of Jesus Christ together, mingling our worship and our fellowship and our food with the bread of heaven, making no distinction between the movements of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of our neighbours. And we will see, we will see how we may grow.

And we will remember that we would not even know Jesus if we had not first been embraced as strangers, foreigners, with uncouth ways and un-kosher kitchens. If we had not been extended grace.

The new heavens and the new earth will not look like anything we can imagine. It will not be what we expect, or what we know, or what we dream. It will be beyond our imaginations. It is worth, then, holding our imaginations open in the here and now, as we make our own world as new and as close to heaven as we can: open to the possibilities of God’s grace, and the most unexpected appetites and variety of God’s banqueting table.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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