notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Acts 11, John 13 - On eating rats and loving one another
Good Shepherd Holy Communion 6/5/2007
Acts 11.1-18, John 13.31-35
What is the most popular food in Britain? A look at the food outlets on the row of shops beside the church should give us the answer. 
1. Fish and chips, traditionally. Fish and chip shops first made an appearance at the end of the 19th century and since then have been a firm favourite up and down the country. Fish and chips are served over the counter wrapped in paper, and traditionalists prefer to eat them straight out of the paper because they taste better that way!
2. Curry - a spicy dish with meat, fish or vegetables - is now the UK's most popular meal. The UK's diet has been enriched by the vast array of ethnic foods available in our shops and restaurants, from Indian and Italian to Chinese and Thai.
Did you know that Fish and chips is believed to have been brought over here by the French and the Jews? Because of that maybe when it first started to appear a lot of people would have avoided it, said it was bad, dirty, offensive... not English, not Christian...
That's certainly what many people said about curry when it first came here - smelly, dirty, nasty 'foreign muck' - it was called. Some even called it sacrilegious, because it was the food of people of other religions than 'ours'. Gradually people came to accept it, and now, to love it.
Food is a sign of the differences between people.
What do I mean by that?
Well, think of what we use to eat our food. Usually here in the UK we use a knife and fork. So if we see people using their fingers - to eat something like a curry - or using other food, like a naan bread, held between their fingers, to mop it all up, then we feel that there's something different about them.
Similar with people who use chopsticks ... what a fuss we make if we're invited to use chopsticks! Either we refuse altogether, or we spend time practising to get it right, either way it's an effort for us, because we sense that people who use chopsticks are different to us.
Usually we tolerate other cultures' eating customs. But sometimes we are horrified by them. The custom of eating monkeys and rats in Africa. The custom of eating cats and dogs in Asia, which is deplorable to we who consider them pets. 
So food is a sign of the differences between people. But sometimes food is used as an excuse to keep our distance from people who are not like us. Sometimes stories about other people's eating habits are exaggerated or just plain wrong.
Thankfully you don't hear it so much these days but there was a time when people would complain about 'Pakis' living next door because of the smell of the food they cooked. The smell wasn't the real issue. The real issue was the challenge of having people of a different culture living next door. When many Italians settled in parts of Britain in the war years of the last century people avoided them because they said they smelled of garlic. But that wasn't the real issue. The real issue was the challenge of being hospitable to newcomers.
If we're not careful then we think that people who are different from us are - this is the word the bible uses - profane. And people get labelled profane by the food they eat and their customs around it.
What's a balanced meal in Wigan? A pie in both hands!
Now, like the people of Wigan we might have felt victimised by this sort of thing ourselves. All the fancy food programmes on TV and the lifestyle magazines have created in our society a sort of 'food snobbery' - and people who prefer to eat chippie meals or who like McDonalds - or who eat pies - get looked down on.
Let's think about Val & Diane from Christ Church who are due to arrive today at the Betel Children's home in Brazil - after a four day journey - who, when they sit down for their first meal, will probably face the challenge of feeling different, even among their own Christian brothers and sisters, even though their Brazilian hosts will no doubt do all they can to make them welcome. The food they share will make them feel different.
All of this might help us to understand the struggle that Peter was having in his head and in his heart about whether or not he should be eating with Gentiles.
We have to remember that in the early years, Christianity was a Jewish faith. Jesus was a Jew, the disciples were all Jews. It took a good deal of teaching from Jesus to make them realise that his message - his resurrection - his kingdom - wasn't just for people like them. It was for everyone. Even non-Jews: Gentiles.
So when the leaders of the Jesus People, Jewish Christian leaders, began to see Gentiles come to faith, it was a tremendous challenge to them. They had to change so many of their ideas about these other people. They had to begin to learn what it might mean to share their faith with them. Even more challenging for this people who had such strict rules and customs about food - they had to learn to eat with them.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him, saying, ÔWhy did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'
Peter had to explain to them the dream that God had given him, in which God asked him to prepare a meal from food that he wouldn't normally touch. God asked Peter to prepare to eat a tasty selection of four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. It was, I guess, rather like you or me being asked to cook a rat.
"Get up, Peter; kill and eat." God said, but he 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."
Now Peter realised the significance of what God was saying. Because he knew that the food wasn't the real issue. The real issue was the challenge of having to accept that people of a different culture were clean, and pure, and good, and loved, in the heart of God, and that he was called to open his arms and share his faith - and his table - with them.
God revealed to Peter not to call anyone profane or impure. At that moment Peter realised something about the kingdom he was in, the subversive upside-down kingdom of heaven. Those who occupy the kingdom are learning not to call others profane or impure. James Alison:
The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure, so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane people, where not even disgusting people consider themselves disgusting, but rather where we have learnt to disbelieve, and to help them to disbelieve, in their own repugnancy. 
If we are living with a foot in both kingdoms - the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of heaven - then we are called to unlearn our habit of calling others profane or impure.
If we are living with a foot in both kingdoms - the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of heaven - then we are called to help those different sorts of people to see themselves as good and pure, receivers with us of the grace of God, inheritors with us of the Kingdom. We are called to help disgusting people to start to disbelieve in their own repugnancy.
It's a wonderful calling and it's a sign of God in the world. Before he left them Jesus told his disciples,
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
If that was the new commandment it makes you think, well what was the old one? Perhaps Jesus was meaning that the old commandments were to the people of Israel, it was the old commandments which cemented Israel's special and unique relationship with God. No-one else had this relationship. So no-one else had that sort of purity or goodness. In fact as far as Israel was concerned, everyone else was profane.
But here comes Jesus trying to help people step gingerly into the Kingdom of heaven, where things are done differently. Here comes Jesus with a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
That means unconditional love. Love, with no questions asked. Love, for people who may look differently, talk differently, pray differently, and even more noticeably, eat differently - than us.
Such love - is a joyful thing. We are blessed to be members of this sort of kingdom. I expect that Val and Diane will come back from Brazil and tell us their own stories of how they - as outsiders - were welcomed around the tables of the people there.
And we, today, whatever bad words anyone has ever said about us, however disgusting or repugnant we may have been made to feel about ourselves - Jesus once again invites us to the table in which we all share his bread and all drink from his cup. No longer profaned but loved. And learning how to no longer profane others but to love them - unconditionally - instead.
 Food information from www.i-uk.com
 More on cross-cultural food differences at http://interested-participant.blogspot.com
 James Alison Raising Abel, p.102