Tonight we have a great story about food: and it makes me wonder: Who do you eat with? But first, the story. As a Jewish man, Peter will not eat certain foods; but in a vision God shows him all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds, and tells him to kill and eat. And as prawn-cracker-crunching pork-chop-eating Gentile followers of Jesus, it’s easy for us to roll our eyes and say, Well, duh!! But we can only say “duh!” because we are beneficiaries of Peter’s response to this vision. For while he is still pondering what he has seen, he is invited to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. On the basis of the vision, Peter the Jew accepts.
In the company of other Jewish disciples, then, Peter travels to Caesarea, and visits Cornelius and his gathered family and friends. “I am learning that God shows no favouritism,” says Peter, “and that in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Even while he is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius & Co. Seeing this, Peter asks his fellow Jews, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In the shocked silence which follows, he orders these Gentiles to be baptized, then he stays for a few days, necessarily eating and drinking with his Gentile hosts. The rest is history. For the early church concluded that God was doing a new thing, and that those Gentiles who manifested the fruits of the Spirit were fully acceptable to God—as Gentiles. They did not have to become Jewish or follow Jewish dietary laws to follow Jesus; and therefore nor do we.
Despite this revelation, however, by the end of the first century, and in every time and place since, we Gentile followers of Jesus have developed our own purity laws and have used them to build fences. We might be relaxed about eating prawns and pork, but we’re not so relaxed about who we eat with, whether at the communion table or any other table.
Sometimes this is a matter of church doctrine. Many churches refuse communion to those who have not been baptised into their own denomination: and this is a great big boundary wall. Many churches refuse communion to anyone who publicly identifies as gay or genderqueer: and this is another big boundary wall. In some places, divorcees are refused communion, as are children, agnostics, atheists, and people of other faiths, even when they seek it.
Moving away from formal communion, these social boundaries persist for many Christians.* For example, Christians who can’t accept particular expressions of faith, or who come out, or who separate and divorce, risk not only exclusion from the Lord’s Table, but from many other tables: often, from the tables of the people they were once closest to. On the flip side, lots of Christians don’t actually have many friends who aren’t Christian, and many churches are sharply delineated by class and culture. What this all means is that too few Christians regularly sit over meals with people who do not share their faith, social values, culture and class.
It’s strange, because fencing off communion and limiting whom we eat with don’t look much like the way Jesus ate, nor the early church. Jesus ate with all sorts of people: sinners, tax collectors and sex workers; rich men and fishermen; women and children; heretical and hated Samaritans; the beloved and the traitor; and, of course, he ate with the poor: and there were no boundaries. Likewise, Peter’s vision showed him that nothing prevented Jews from eating with Gentiles, which opened up the table to all comers. For those early disciples understood that they were living in a new creation, most radically and tangibly when they shared food and drink across human boundaries.
So then for us: for we continue to be called to eat with all sorts of people. Atheists and agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews: eat with them. English, Indigenous, Chinese, Sudanese, Lebanese: eat with them. Sinners and saints, rich and poor: eat with them. Eat with them all, and in doing so look not for human markers, but only for the marks of God.
And why? Well, the Jewish believers who had come with Peter to Cornelius’ house were “astounded” that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “even on the Gentiles.” It exploded their idea of God, and led them to a radically inclusive way of life: a way of life which includes us. So in gratitude, if nothing else, let us, too, eat with the Gentiles of this age—anyone who does not identify as Christian—and let us pray for eyes to see how the Holy Spirit is already at work in their lives.
And let us also pray that, as astounded as we might feel when we see it, we might have the humility and the grace to recognise, name, and celebrate the Spirit’s work: that our experience of God might keep expanding beyond our limited horizons, and that our lives might become radically hospitable, too. For we are called to conform to the image of God made known in Jesus Christ: the one with whom we Gentiles will eat in just a few minutes: the one who seeks to eat with everyone. Amen. Ω
*Actually, I suspect that communion boundaries and social boundaries are deeply linked, with an open communion table favoured by those who eat with lots of different people, and vice versa. What do you think?
A reflection on Acts 10 and John 15:9-17 given to Sanctuary on 6 May 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows Vision at Joppa by Malcolm Powers, found here.