john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Acts 11: On Peter's Picnic

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 2/5/2010

    Acts 11.1-18 , John 13.31-35

    Would you go on a picnic with Peter?

    Look at the food he he laid out on his picnic blanket: four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.....

    What out of those would you eat? [Discuss briefly]

    Peter was having problems with the picnic too. Because none of these were foods which he'd chosen. It was a voice which came to him in a dream which selected the picnic menu for him.

    Peter was having problems with the food selection because all of these foods he considered profane; unclean; 'foreign muck' - 'nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth', he protested.

    At this point in sermons on this passage preachers might go off on a long explanation of the very strict food laws which Peter's people the Jews had, in their day and continuing into the present day.

    I won't, because you've probably heard this before, but also because it might help us more in understanding this passage to consider this - it's not just the Jewish people who have strict food laws, it's us too. It's not just the Jewish people who have very clear ideas about what food is clean and what food is unclean, what food is 'ours' and what food is 'foreign muck' which we wouldn't touch even if our life depended on it because we'd feel contaminated by it.

    [Discussion on foods you'd eat and foods you'd not eat - and why: frog's legs, monkey's brains etc etc.....]

    Three years ago I preached on the same subject [1] and revealed what many of you knew already: that the two most popular meals in Britain today both originated from foreign lands: fish and chips - which arrived in Britain at the end of the 19th century - is believed to have been brought over here by the French and the Jews; and curry, now the UK's most popular meal, as we know has Indian origins.

    Now when when these foods first started to appear over here a lot of people would have avoided them, would have said they were bad, dirty, offensive... not English, not Christian...

    But we live in more enlightened times today and we know that 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.

    No longer seen as smelly, dirty, nasty 'foreign muck'. No longer regarded as sacrilegious, because it was the food of people of other religions than 'ours'. Gradually people came to accept these exotic foods, and now, most of us love them.

    So you begin to understand that like people of all cultures we here in the UK have strict food 'laws' - unwritten laws, mostly, instinctive, intuitive but very firm ideas about what is clean and what is profane. Laws which can change as society changes, over time, but strict laws nonetheless.

    We get another angle on this idea of our laws about food cleanliness when we think about our attitude towards waste. We now know that that in the UK each year we throw away 8.3 million tonnes of household food, most of which could have been eaten. The website tells us that 'Some of the waste is made up of things like peelings, cores and bones, but the majority is, or once was, perfectly good food.' [2]

    Sell by dates have something to do with this. We consider something unclean now, and feel unable to eat it, if it's past its sell by or use by date. In fairly recent times now past, before all our food was packaged and sell by dates invented, we would make our own decisions about whether a food was edible or not, and we probably kept a lot of things longer than we keep them today, and ate them later than we would do today. Our modern-day obsession with purity, with cleanliness, tied in with health and safety, is just as strict and just as restrictive as the food laws of Peter's day.

    If Peter was around today and his picnic menu included some bread and butter and some ham which were each just over their use-by date, and some very strong smelling cheese well past its sell-by date, would you eat a butty with him?

    Some of us would, but others - more bound by the mental restrictions forced on us by our modern-day food laws - would turn up our noses, say politely, 'no thanks', go home and gossip or make jokes about Peter's horrible picnic food. And gossip or make jokes about the people who had said yes and eaten with him.

    For a couple of years some time ago I worked in a hostel for homeless people and we fed these folks on sandwiches which were each day donated from a large supermarket... sandwiches which had just passed their sell-by date. Interesting to think about the values of that supermarket: they wouldn't let their customers eat that food (to them, it would be unclean), but they would pass it on to homeless people (who, maybe, they thought of as being unclean anyway so it didn't matter that they ate it).

    What you eat is sometimes used as a form of insult towards you. For example some people call Asian people 'Bug-Eaters' as many Asians eat bugs such as locusts and grasshoppers. Germans call Italians 'cat eaters'. Canadians insult American tourists with their large appetite for junk food, calling them 'Hot Dog Eaters'. [3]

    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 Gentile food.

    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. And in many ways even more challenging - they had to learn to eat with them. They had to learn to eat their food.

    So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him, saying, 'Why 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 monkey's brains. Or eat a picnic from food all past its use-by date.

    "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. As James Alison says:
    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 people who have grown used to being called 'disgusting' to start to disbelieve that.

    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.

    Loving people who are different means embracing everything about them, accepting who they are and what they do and what they eat. We've done it in this country, for instance embracing what the Indians and Chinese and Italians have brought to our plates and our lives. We can do it as Christians all the time.

    Such love - is a joyful thing. We are blessed to be members of this sort of kingdom. So 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.


    [1] Sermon based on my previous outing on this subject, On eating rats and loving one another, 6/5/2007. For references not noted below please see that page.
    [2] website.
    [3] Racial slurs taken from The Racial Slur Database. Handle with care.