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?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 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?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Christian mission often leads us into uncharted territory. As we cross boundaries, how do we remain faithful to God? In this passage from Acts, Peter is being called to account by the Jerusalem church for eating with Gentiles. He had infringed the dietary laws (Lev. 20:24-26). Now these were important identity markers, they distinguished Jews from others and they were a symbol of their faithfulness to God. But a Christian community composed of Jews and Gentiles had to eat together, and Peter felt impelled by God to ignore some of the requirements of a kosher diet for the sake of fellowship. As an observant Jew, he was clearly horrified at the thought. But he realised that God was summoning him to cross the boundary between the Jewish and Gentile world in the interests of Christian mission. And his vision was sealed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon his Gentile converts.
We too are called to develop the tradition we have inherited in forms that are culturally sensitive and appropriate to its context, to enable Christians and those who become Christians to grasp the faith and to live it out creatively. But as we applaud the breaking down of walls of partition, we know from the letters of Paul that table-fellowship remained a bone of contention for the early church (eg. Gal.2:11-12). And there remain for us today some lingering questions. In the process of transformation, was something of value lost? What did repudiation of this key identity- marker by Christians mean for relations with Jews? Have boundaries been redrawn? If so, what are the consequences?
Living God, May your bright intoxicating energy fall upon your Church; that we may be filled with joy and boldness, faithfully to proclaim the gospel to a needy world, through Jesus Christ our Saviour, Amen.
The Rev’d Fleur Houston is a retired minister and member of Macclesfield & Bollington URC.