Rev. Teri Peterson
us and them
PADS celebration day
28 April 2013, Easter 5C
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.”
There are two kinds of people in the world: rule followers and rule breakers.
Now of course there are some rules that need to be broken, and some that need to be followed. I’m not suggesting that all rule breakers drive faster than the speed limit on the wrong side of the road while not wearing a seat belt. Nor am I suggestion that all rule followers blindly do whatever they’re told.
So maybe there’s more of a spectrum, and some days we lean more toward one side or the other.
Peter was pretty much a rule follower. Throughout his years with Jesus he was always looking for just the right thing to say, reminding Jesus to pay taxes, and even trying to stay within the letter of the law when it came to whether he knew Jesus or not. And now we find him trying to follow the rules even in the midst of prayer.
In the book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of rules for life, including personal hygiene, how we live our private lives, how we live our public lives, who we can be friends with, politics, and, of course, food. We know about the prohibition on bacon and lobster, but we probably forget about the prohibition on alligator, ostrich, scallops, and rabbit. It’s a pretty extensive list to memorize if you’re going to follow all the rules. But even in the midst of a prayer-vision, Peter knows that the things the Holy Spirit tells him to eat are an abomination—it says so in Leviticus! And worse: he has to choose which disgusting thing to eat, then catch it from the blanket petting zoo and kill it, presumably prepare it, and then eat it—breaking every possible purity code on the books. He must have thought this was a temptation story like the one of Jesus in the wilderness, so naturally, he resists.
Then comes the surprise. “What God has called clean you must not call profane.” Three times—the holy number—and then it’s over. And just as Peter is congratulating himself on a temptation well survived, the unclean people start to show up. Not just any unclean people, either—Gentiles. I mean, they can’t help being abhorrent and impure, but we still shouldn’t be talking to them. Those are the rules.
This time, though, when the Spirit says “go,” Peter goes, having learned that there is no distinction between “them” and “us.”
Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem hear it, they’re outraged. How could he go eat with unclean, uncircumcised gentiles? He knows the rules. They know the rules. So when he gets home, they summon him for public criticism and questioning. Everyone clearly knows what’s right and what’s wrong—and who’s right and who’s wrong—in this situation.
The trouble is, as Buffy the vampire slayer will remind you anytime you ask her, is that “it’s not about right, not about wrong—it’s about power.” Who has it, who wants it, and how you use it. Peter had an experience that showed him who had the power, and it wasn’t him. When he told the story, the church leaders in Jerusalem heard who had the power, and it wasn’t them. This is a huge change, a turning of the world. It turns out that the institutions—the Jewish Temple, the Roman Empire, even the Church, don’t have the power. They don’t have the power to determine what’s right and wrong, who’s in and who’s out, or to control the Spirit. Only God has the power. The Spirit blows where she will. Peter and the church leaders were moved to silence by this realization—because what can you say? Only the words of Peter seem to work: “who was I that I could hinder God?”
There’s something comforting about being the “us”—it allows us to feel like the heroes who provide for “them,” it allows us to subtly pass judgment, it offers us a constant reminder of how lucky we are, and it gives us a sense of power.
But the Spirit says not to make a distinction between “us” and “them”—and when we do, we hinder God’s work.
Now, those rules in Leviticus were designed to distinguish God’s people from everyone else—to create an us and a them. But there’s a new calling emerging with Jesus and those who follow him. Paul’s letters teach that “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female” and that Christ breaks down every wall that divides us. Jesus spent his time with “them” and it made the “us” of his day very angry. And nowhere—in the old or the new testament—is there any endorsement of our superiority over others. Even in the holiness code of Leviticus, the epitome of the us-and-them rules, there’s still a constant refrain of welcoming the outsider, treating foreigners equally, and ensuring enough for everyone. Even in the middle of the document that sets the Jews apart from everyone else, there’s pointed concern for inclusion. Now we find God on the rooftop, expanding and morphing that call to hospitality until it erases the us-and-them, changing the tune from one of separation to one of oneness in Christ.
This is our rooftop moment—the moment when we look at the world around us, the world inside our doors, the world that sleeps in our basement, the world that cries out for justice and peace and hope and love, and acknowledge our calling to live with “no distinction between them and us.” There is no longer American and foreigner, there is no longer homeless and housed, there is no longer gay and straight, for all are one in Christ Jesus, who breaks down the walls that divide us.
Those walls are breaking down right here in our building, every Wednesday night. People come together and are treated with dignity and compassion. People eat together and talk together and help each other with whatever they need. I’d like to think we offer this space and time not because “we” want to feel good about helping “them,” not because we pity those “less fortunate,” but because we see a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where people come from north and south, east and west, to sit at a table where there is no us and them, only children of God. To sit at a table that has nothing to do with our power and everything to do with God’s power.
Let’s hear a little from Jay, the PADS ministry team leader, about what God has done this season.
God’s power is at work in this place. So often humans like to think we can do all things, but scripture reminds us that we can do all things “through Christ.” Our job is to create a welcoming space where all can see the love of God at work, where all can know they are one of us, children of God. Our job is to be a conduit for grace and peace and hope to flow into the lives of those God brings through our doors. Our job is to offer both a safe place and a sacred place—and it takes all of us praying and participating to make the love of God visible every week. It takes all of us leaning on God’s love rather than on our own walls of rules, in order that God can turn our sandwich meat and blankets and hours of wakefulness into the kingdom of God on earth.
So let’s take a minute to look at what God has done and how God has used us this year.
• If you have brought, cooked, or served food this PADS season, please stand. You have been bearers of manna in the wilderness.
• If you have donated for new pads, supplies, or to replace our linen, please stand. You have been comfort in hard places.
• If you have created art, set tables, made cards, or otherwise helped beautify the space downstairs, please stand. You have been secret agents of God’s amazing hospitality, creating a place where people feel their value as children of God.
• If you have worked a shift on a Wednesday night here or any night somewhere else, please stand. You have been the face of God, the breath of the Spirit, the love of Christ that moves in the dark and offers rest to the weary, hope to the hopeless, compassion to the downtrodden, grace to the despairing.
• If you have prayed for those in our shelter and those still on the street, or if you have prayed for the volunteers, please stand. You have been the foundation of this ministry, holding us up, filling us with God’s power. This could not be done without you.
• Lastly, we could not do this without our building. This house of the church is a literal shelter for people. If you have ever given time or resources to take care of this building, or if you have pledged or put money in the offering, you have supported this ministry in a real and tangible way. If you’re not already standing, please do. You have been the living stones that create a welcoming home for all God’s people.
Look around and notice: this is a ministry of all God’s people—not us and them, but the whole body together. God is doing amazing things in and through us. May we continue to lean on God’s power, in order that the kingdom may come.